Catholic High Schools: Now and Forever

Catholic High Schools: Facing the New Realities
by James L Heft, S.M.
(Oxford University Press, 272 pp., $24.95)

Permit me to admit to a prejudice.  I have always admired Catholic high schools which, more likely than not, have been consistent bastions of high quality basic education for urban students regardless of their religious persuasion.  It seems I am not alone in this conviction. To quote from a famous interview given by James Coleman, cited in this book, “Catholic high schools educate students better than public schools do…students drop out four times more often than their Catholic school counterparts.”

Not that they are immune from institutional challenge.  They are being closed down left and right in many urban centers due to lack of funding.  Some of them have converted into charter schools.  Their teaching staffs are no longer drawn from the religious orders. They face an increasingly secular culture, described by James Heft as “consumerist and pluralistic.”  Given this litany of negative circumstances, what must they do to survive?

The author, after reviewing the history of Catholic Education in the United States, believes that their unique sense of mission transcends all these challenges:

– that lay faculty, properly trained, can be just as successful as their clerical forebears in their discharge of their professional functions;

– that by offering a viable alternative to the values of contemporary society, the Catholic high school has a unique niche in the educational scheme of things, especially given the lack of consensus about educational goals characteristic of so many public urban schools.

To quote from Fr, Heft’s concluding chapter, “A Catholic high school that offers the education that it should will provide not only spiritual development, it will also provide a superior education, precisely because it will integrate knowledge; attend to both the heads and hearts of their students; engage parents more intimately in the education of their children; deepen their understanding and strengthen the practice of their faith; and prepare their graduates to enter thoughtfully a culture that offers opportunities and has needs, not just for technical skills, but even more for wisdom and generosity.”

As may be inferred, this is a serious book about a serious subject.  Predictably perhaps, Fr. Heft’s approach is strictly conventional.  Much is said about the religious aspects of schooling, to the extent that I could not help wondering how conversant the author is with the real world of urban education.  In spite of some admirable recommendations relative to teacher recruitment, teacher pay and teacher accountability, what the author essentially envisages is the traditional model of Catholic education, updated to accommodate the needs of contemporary society.

Fortunately, there is little or no educational jargon in this book.  Rather, its momentum is conveyed by the earnestness of the author and the sense that as long as urban public schools continue to be mediocre, there will always be a place for the Catholic high school where administrative costs (and therefore, fees) are relatively modest. To reiterate, this is a conservative view of education, but one that deserves respect and support.

-A. Graham Down

More book reviews by Graham Down are available here.

For more on Catholic schools, please read “Can Catholic Schools be Saved?” by Peter Meyer, which appeared in Ed Next in 2007, and also “Catholic Ethos, Public Education,” also by Peter Meyer, which looked at two public schools run by a Catholic order in Chicago.

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