As we celebrated Catholic Schools Week an article I read at the beginning of the week keep spinning in my head. I couldn’t figure out why this article from Farnam Street was making my CD skip. If you have a minute, read this article about Chesterton’s fence. The quick summary–before we remove any fences that don’t seem to have practical value, let’s take a moment to understand why they were put there in the first place. I have driven past many closed Catholic schools, some in very small towns. Trying to understand why and how Catholic schools flourished in those environments are worth considering.
There seems to be no shortage of people ready to declare that the time has passed for Catholic schools. I think of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi when he declares that it’s time for the Jedi to die. Today’s Catholic schools critics usually center on the cost or lack of interest in the faith. But we first should take the time to understand why Catholic schools were here to begin with and explore whether those reasons might be fueling disappointment.
Catholic schools were originally formed as a response to the Protestant influence in public schooling as well as the unique immigrant cultural milieus. They were numerous, rigorous, and cheap when Catholic families were large and growing larger. At their enrollment height, they represented a muscular and militant Catholicism when the Church was declaring its position in the United States. That’s why the fence was built.
As the immigrant communities dispersed, families shrunk, vocations decreased, and buildings aged, the challenges began to mount for Catholic schools. More importantly, Catholic parishes serving as the center of family life through schools, activities, and Mass are now the exception, not the norm. So we no longer have numerous, excellent, cheap schools serving at the center of a parish’s mission. Thus the disappointment.
The value of Catholic schools must be found in something other than numerous and cheap. Let’s focus on excellence and see if we can’t attract families to this model of school. After all, people will pay for what they value. Consider that families never used to pay for television (and it only used to be three channels and only on during the day!) or Internet, they paid only a small fee for a land line, and the thought of paying $8 for a cup of coffee would have been inconceivable (yes, I’m using that word correctly) a couple of decades ago. How much money do our families (who we think cannot afford Catholic education) pay for television, cell phones, and coffee? Our family pays $250 per month and I can’t imagine we’re far from the norm. I’m not arguing that we should *guilt* our families for paying so much for these items, simply that we should be placing the values of our Catholic schools alongside those other items.
If you don’t think Catholic schools do enough to promote Catholic identity and belonging in the Church, read this testimony. It’s a great story of how Catholic schools can form our faith. Or read this story of the impact of Catholic schools on a first-generation immigrant.
Luke Skywalker didn’t mean that the Jedi should die permanently. He meant that our old paradigm of what the Jedi order was should pass. And we should consider a new approach. In the same way, we should acknowledge that the “fence” of Catholic schools has become disappointing and we should focus on new expectations for what Catholic schools be. Focus on excellence and argue for the value of your school’s tuition.