About 10 years ago (ancient times) there was a song on the radio from a sensitive hipster band. One of the song’s plaintive rhymes described “Catholic schoooool, as vicious as Roman ruuule.” The singer described a lady in black, hitting his knuckles, asserting that “fear is the heart of love.” From the first I heard it, I was perplexed. This individual couldn't be much older than I; unless parochial schools vary in a radical fashion, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the lines sprang from some retro-minded muse, rather than life.
I’m not disputing that attending Catholic school could be a terrible experience; I viewed mine as something to be endured. It is just that there were few nuns, no rulers, nary a suggestion as far as doctrine, let alone fear or love. In fact, when I look back on my parochial school education and compare it to my public high school years, there are more similarities than differences.Sometimes it felt like we were shadowing the au courant theories that had taken hold in public schools. At other times it felt like we were drifting on an educational iceberg, poking sticks into whatever we happened to encounter.
I remember when my eighth grade homeroom teacher announced that we were going to study Black History month. She then read off a list of notable black people: Martin Luther King, Jr., Cleopatra, Oprah. I wrote a pretty decent essay about Richard Wright. My father informed me that Cleopatra was Greek. When I related this to my teacher, she grew angry (I should have guessed that teachers don’t like to be corrected, especially in front of other students). “It was in the newsletter,” she replied disdainfully, “and the newsletter isn’t wrong, Abi.”
How was this scenario any different from those dark, doctrinaire days of yore, when sister said it and you did it? And lest anyone think I am anti-Black History month, then let me say, go for it, study away! Whenever we introduce materials into the classroom, however, we should ask: what are the threads that tie students to what they are studying, and join those humans to the generations that have preceded them? What is the theory, and what is the point? If there is no unifying pedagogical or philosophical model for the curriculum and culture of a parochial school, then to what end is all of that tuition money?
It would appear that parents have been asking that very question in increasing numbers. Parochial schools are facing greater competition from other private schools, alternative schools, and charter schools. In addition, they are still located where American parishes have traditionally been established: in the hearts of cities, clustered around now-vanished ethnic neighborhoods. I volunteered to serve on the parish council of a church on the Upper East Side in New York. We inherited a school that was in financial, educational, and demographic ruin. In the space of one year the archdiocese closed the school and merged it with another. A friend, pastor of a parish six blocks away, fought the good fight for as long as he could; his school soon closed, as well. According to a recent article in USA Today, enrollment in Catholic schools fell 12 percent during the 2012-2013 school year. In that same article, school administrators outline their plan of attack: new stuff, iPads, Apple TV, Smart Boards! It makes me wince. Here we go on that iceberg, again.
At this point some might say that I, in the tired and imprecise jargon than characterizes much of our educational and business world, have chosen to “be part of the problem, and not part of the solution.” Yet I come, bearing just that. What if every struggling parochial school adopted an educational model that was discovered by a devout Catholic? What if they became innovators in education, following a method attuned to the developmental needs of children from birth, through high school? What if they became Montessori schools?
Over one hundred years have passed since Dr. Maria Montessori observed the child’s inner motivation to work and learn. While many think of preschool when they hear about Maria Montessori’s work, her educational syllabus extends far beyond. More Montessori schools are adding elementary classrooms and adolescent programs. There are even Montessori high schools forming now, with a notable example in the Montessori High School at University Circle in Cleveland.
These schools are changing education in every way. From the multi-age classroom, to their rejection of standardized testing, grades, and hours of homework per night, the Montessori school maintains that the development of the person is the goal of education. Montessori envisioned children growing up and entering the world with an intact love of learning, a desire to serve humanity and an appreciation for civilization. Additionally, in a time when current educational systems seem to meet the needs of students in an ever-decreasing capacity; when years of education can result in unemployment and debt; Montessori emphasized adaptability.
Maria Montessori lived and wrote during a time of economic and social upheaval. She noted how arrangements like apprenticeship, or sons taking over businesses from fathers, were rapidly disappearing from the developed world. She believed that education needed to prepare students to enter a world filled with uncertainties; they would have multiple careers over their lifetime, and must maintain an ability to solve any number of problems. As scientists complete more studies about how children learn and how brains develop, they find that the Montessori classroom, with its environment of self-directed learning, repetition for mastery, and engagement of multiple senses, is the optimal setting for fostering this mental adaptability. “School should be about building better brains,” states pediatric neuropsychologist Dr. Steven Hughes. “Those are the brains that can solve new problems, can address new situations that we haven’t even thought of yet.”
It might be hard to believe now, but the world responded to Dr. Montessori’s first students with great interest and even disbelief. Archbishops, diplomats, politicians, and writers all came to observe these children who worked spontaneously and with great joy. The Victorian world could hardly believe that children naturally desired good and would learn with no threats, rewards, or other compulsion. When I look back at my own school experience, and, to be fair, our wider educational system, we seem to be stuck in that same Victorian morass. We tell our children that they need to learn in order to be successful; then they will be happy. For a Catholic school, in particular, happiness should mean quite a different thing: cultivation of an inner life, love of God, love of humankind, love of creation, love of learning. Success can and should be redefined by Catholic schools that are willing to lead, in Montessori’s words, by following the child.