Praise or Pretense for Catholic Schools?

It’s always nice to know the hard-earned reputation of Catholic schools—from the early struggles of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton to the 1950s, when our schools were bursting at the seams with record enrollments—still lingers today. But if we’re to attempt a serious analysis of contemporary Catholic education, it’s fruitless to pretend most Catholic schools are what they once were.

That’s the difficulty I had with the otherwise valuable keynote address delivered last year by David Coleman, president of The College Board, and one of the chief architects of the Common Core State Standards, at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) conference in San Diego.

Coleman intended to laud Catholic schools, and in fact he rightly extolled virtues of a traditional Catholic education. But today it’s what we call classical education—a traditional approach embraced by a minority of Catholic schools. In classical schools, perennial truths of the nature of man, and his relationship to others and the world, are investigated and championed. This is the sort of education that once elevated Catholic schools for centuries, and only recently are we seeing something of a return to this type of education in certain schools and dioceses throughout the country.

The prevailing model of education in Catholic and other schools today differs significantly from this classical model and focuses primarily on the acquisition of knowledge and skills to maneuver within contemporary society. Perhaps Mr. Coleman was drawing on his own classical background to create his perception of what Catholic education and educators are doing well. Or perhaps Catholic schools have not articulated well what their educational philosophy actually is today.

A model of education focusing on the acquisition of “skills and subjects in a carefully organized and sequenced curriculum” is what’s called an essentialist model of education.1 The skills and subjects are chosen purposefully to allow a student to function as a citizen in a democratic society. The subjects taught can change depending upon the needs of the times, and many schools incorporate modern-day courses—such as keyboarding and computer coding—as “essentials” in their curriculum. Many essentialist schools also utilize a constructivist learning theory (explained below), considered a “best practice” today.

Ironically, despite Coleman’s apparent fondness for elements of classical education, he helped write the Common Core standards which emphasize the essentialist approach. He has spearheaded changes to the College Board’s tests that seem to reinforce this approach. So there were strange conflicts in Coleman’s NCEA address that, in many ways, reflect the disconnect between Catholic schooling today and its traditional strengths.

In his address, titled “Reverence, Excellence, and Educating for Life,” Coleman gave five reasons why Catholic schoolteachers should be so “rightfully proud of the work that you do”:

  1. Productive solitude

He began by stating: “The first value you train your young people in, the students you care for, is productive solitude.” He did not describe the process nor how to accomplish productive solitude, which essentially is being alone. Nevertheless, he claimed that this approach is beneficial not only for faith, but for “learning of all kinds.”

Coleman said: “There is no reading, beautifully and carefully, without sometimes being alone.” The great work of mathematics, of invention and science, while it can rely upon and be stimulated by collaboration and working together, “has as an essential component, the art and practice of being alone.”

Moreover, a “study of world class performance in every field—whether chess or sports—shows the central distinguishing factor of people who perform at a very high level are people who can be alone and practice productively at a very high level.” Productive solitude, therefore, is not just being alone but engaging in an active process of stimulation and generation to create, excel and produce in all areas of human endeavor as an individual.

Today, I am not sure how Catholic schools train our students in “productive solitude” for the purpose of excelling in mathematics, invention, or science. Many Catholic schools—those that I would presume subscribe to an essentialist philosophy—embrace a constructivist approach to learning and the acquisition of 21st century skills. A constructivist approach to learning promotes the opposite of solitude, with an emphasis on social interaction through group work, and “authentic learning tasks” (the sort one might encounter in the workplace).2 Twenty-first century learning skills are those that support communication and collaboration3 and are among the accreditation standards for Catholic elementary and secondary schools.

If productive solitude means coming closer to God in opportunities for personal prayer, then perhaps we do that—or we should. Do most Catholic schools offer opportunities for students to visit the chapel outside of regularly scheduled class visits? Do they have time for reflection outside of religion class?

Productive solitude, as described by Coleman, seems more in line with the classical approach of initiating and facilitating wonder through questioning. Students learn concepts in mathematics and science that lead them to reflect on the miracles of God’s creation, which we joyfully uncover through inspiration and reflection.

With regard to these two aspects—silence in prayer to listen to God’s will, and experiencing joy and wonder at the interconnections of concepts illuminated through grace and inspiration—I can definitely agree with Coleman’s enthusiasm for productive solitude.

Yes, it’s a “blessing” as he says, that this is what we do. But we do it for more than temporal excellence of invention, production, and prestige. We do it for fullness of faith, and a filial relationship with God and His creation.

  1. Reverent reading of shared texts

Coleman’s second reason Catholic educators should be proud of what they do is the emphasis they place on “reverent reading of shared texts, books held in common.” He called this Catholic education’s second great gift.

Here is another case in point where it is important to distinguish between a classical approach and the more common essentialist approach to educating.

Those Catholic schools that use a classical approach fit Coleman’s perception of using shared texts. They have a set canon of literature to choose from, primarily the Great Books as identified by Mortimer Adler, and the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Good Books classified by John Senior. These selections, beginning with ancient Greek and Roman literature, provide a common heritage and patrimony for classical and Catholic students alike. Using these novels of Western tradition, students dwell in each text uncovering man’s tragedies and triumphs, his relationship to God and others, the nature of human dignity and the human spirit, and the transcendentals of life and love.

Coleman quoted C.S. Lewis, saying Lewis’s view of truly understanding a work of art involves “[s]urrender”: “Forget yourself [and] get out of the way.” Coleman believes “all great reading involves an act of reverence” and, “If you want to care deeply about a work of fiction, or the Bible itself, you must show a love and attention to that language almost as if you have inscribed it upon your hand and upon your heart.” He added, “It is the only way to begin to get close to the work of authorship,” and agreeing with Lewis, he said it’s a way of enlarging the soul.

When students read the Bible for deep meaning and moral intention, sometimes using the method of lectio divina, this would be an example of Coleman’s “shared texts.” But aside from the Bible—and the Great Books if one is referring to a classical school—what other shared texts do Catholic schools read reverently and in common?

More than 100 of the 176 Catholic dioceses with schools in the United States are using the Common Core State Standards.4 Perhaps it is the exemplars listed within the standards that are the shared texts inferred by Coleman in his speech. These standards demand that literature is divided by grade level into increasing percentages of informational texts relative to literary works. In order to maintain this percentage, some Catholic schools are using anthologies already broken down into these proportions, or they are sharing pre-designed materials with public schools and adding faith-based novels or other informational materials.

It’s awfully difficult to read this increased demand of non-fiction text with reverence, or to focus on enlarging the soul when using the approach called “close reading,” which is prescribed by Common Core, and taught to teachers across the country by Coleman himself. Schools using this approach are focused on the process of reading and re-reading to uncover evidence within the text, thus relegating to second place personal fulfillment.

Literature in Catholic schools is about so much more than citing evidence from the text. It’s also a vehicle for passing on a common culture, a common Catholic culture, that is lost when the same literature textbooks, as used in public schools, replete with political ideologies, are also used in Catholic schools. It’s not only about reading literature with reverence, but the kind of literature that is being read. One would not necessarily sit down and read, “The evolution of the grocery bag” or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation” (both recommended in the Common Core standards) with reverence and a goal of enlarging the soul. The increased percentages of informational texts demanded by the Common Core have significantly reduced the opportunities for students in schools using these standards and percentages to become “lost in an imaginative world,” as David Coleman believes so many of us are doing.

While I absolutely agree with C.S. Lewis’s perspective, and the point Coleman made about the loss of shared texts, it seems the only shared texts students are to have in common these days are an increased percentage of informational texts (facts, statistics, processes, and other useful content) by which information is to be gleaned from the text only, and not from personal experience, or outside sources.5

Continuing on this topic, Coleman professed his love for America’s founding documents, and how certain documents are a part of what he called the “Great Conversation.” He said these documents lend themselves to a deeper understanding of liberty and human dignity, and that certain things “like the Bible itself” one needs to know well, “or so much of the world is closed to you.” He concluded this section by adding that the Catholic community’s second great gift is not only reading these shared texts, but also knowing things by heart.

Again, this seems not to relate to much contemporary Catholic education. Aside from memorizing prayers, how often do we train our students to memorize much of anything else? In classical schools, this is part of the pedagogy, but today this is considered “old school.” The constructivist approach to learning places priority on uncovering the “why” and “how” of things, and memorization is an afterthought. How many of our students know the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” by heart?

  1. Restful excellence

Coleman praised restful excellence as the third practice of Catholic schools. What he calls restful excellence is our “practice … of admiring moments of rest, of seeing moments of rest as pregnant with possible labor, but also possible admiration for God’s work, for just being.”

Again, the distinction between the classical model and the essentialist model of education is needed here, because what Mr. Coleman is describing is the difference between the liberal arts, as used in classical schools, and the servile arts, as applied to essentialist ones.

In a classical education, the liberal arts are ordered to the end of knowing: knowing for the sake of fulfillment of the human person, and liberal in the sense of “freeing” and “in their not being disposable for purposes, that they do not need to be legitimated by a social function, by being “work.”6 An essentialist approach views knowledge as necessary for a purpose, for “servile” work, so that the individual possesses knowledge “to use,” not necessarily knowledge “to become.”

When schools incorporate a plethora of extra-curricular activities, field trips, and classes geared toward student success in college and career, and navigating 21st century living, they have all but lost the notion of learning for the sake of personal fulfillment as their primary goal. What Mr. Coleman attributes to Catholic education is, I believe, an ideal we should try to strive for, and not necessarily an attribute all our schools possess.

  1. Training in gratitude and grace

The fourth thing Catholic educators allegedly do well that is “another great source of power” is our training of young people in gratitude and grace. According to Mr. Coleman, students today lack modesty and humility, believing all good things come from their own activity and work. What distinguishes the best of students are those who exhibit gratitude and grace, and it is for those qualities, he says, that we train our young people.

To clarify this remark, one would need to look to the definition for grace as used in Catholic nomenclature. For Catholics, when we refer to “grace,” it generally means “a gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life” or a “free and undeserved help” from God.”7 But I believe Mr. Coleman is using “grace” in the sense of “elegance” and “politeness.”

Catholic educators cannot train students in grace in the first sense, except to teach that one should always be open to God’s gifts. We do offer opportunities and exercises for students to grow in the virtues of modesty and humility, magnanimity and charity, and all the other virtues in both actions and speech.

This is who we are in Catholic education. We consider this to be only one part of the integral formation of the student. We form the entire person—body, mind, and spirit. This includes moral and ethical formation, instilling a pursuit for truth, and opportunities to serve our brothers and sisters in our community, while offering up our works to God for reparation of sin, and merits for others and ourselves.

Mr. Coleman is quite right to recognize this aspect of our work, but there is so much more—and it’s not our “power.” It’s a gift we are all given. We only need to ask.

  1. The idea of dignity and pricelessness

The final idea Mr. Coleman identifies as aiding the success of religious education is one that he claims to have gleaned from Cardinal Dolan’s book, True Freedom: On Protecting Religious Freedom and Human Dignity (2012).

Saying Cardinal Dolan was concerned “about the forces of what he calls utilitarianism and pragmatism, and all the forces in the world, that we only do things for the sake of other things, for what it counts for,” Mr. Coleman perceives religious education as teaching that “things have dignity and pricelessness.” By this view, one understands “the things you encounter in school, many of them, including prayer, enable you to interact with things of infinite power, of infinite price, that go beyond what you gain in a work place or in your success in life, but give it color.”

He further stated:

I worry sometimes, frankly though, that when we talk about the beauty and value of religious education, in and of itself, to cultivate character in the soul, we sometimes forget that the best of worldly success is a highly soulful craft itself. People think of the world of business as kind of vulgar, a world absent of ideas sometimes, a place where we just work for money, but every great business, every great nonprofit, every great institution has behind it a set of ideas. At its finest, great business leaders have a vision, an idea that lasts against several disappointing quarters, against financial losses. Those ones that are great understand what it is to be animated by an idea, by something larger than themselves, and I think that sense of dignity aids their success.

While this section was slightly difficult to understand, I believe Mr. Coleman was trying to say that as Catholics we believe people have “dignity and pricelessness” in our being created as images of God; that each person has infinite value and worth; that events in life follow divine providence, and are for a reason; that true value of life lies outside worldly success; and those successful in life, including businessmen and women, understand that there is something beyond, bigger than they are, that is at work. For Catholics, that is God, the mystical body of Christ and the universal Church.

Cardinal Dolan’s short work of 37 pages is concerned about the loss of morals in a world where civil laws run contrary to God’s laws (both eternal and natural), where the ends are thought to justify the means, where the innate dignity of every human person from the moment of conception, to the instant of natural death, has been lost, and where unalienable rights given by God are as shifting and negotiable as “winds of utility, convenience, privacy, and self-interest.” He speaks to the dignity and pricelessness of the human person, but in a way more refined to a Catholic’s ear than Mr. Coleman’s explanation.

In all, what have we gleaned from this speech from Mr. Coleman? As an educator who has worked in both diocesan and private classical Catholic schools, I can see Mr. Coleman’s views of Catholic education as a whole are slightly skewed. But perhaps his optimism can have a good impact. Those educators working within a classical paradigm might more fully understand and appreciate Mr. Coleman’s perceptions, while others working outside of this approach will hopefully have their interest piqued by his remarks—piqued enough to compare what they are doing in the classroom with the things he says they are doing.

Having an “outsider” give us his impression of what we do as Catholic educators was a very interesting approach for the NCEA. I am not sure how much fruit will come from this presentation, aside from “notable quips” such as, “education is a soul-craft” (well, we already knew that) and “we don’t need more tests, we need opportunities” (a very servile viewpoint).

Perhaps from this conversation, Catholic educators can begin a new conversation on the real meaning of Catholic education. Is it primarily to prepare for college and career opportunities, or to fulfill God’s calling in this world to attain the kingdom for which we were created?

  1. Ornstein, A., Levine, D., Gutek, G., & Vocke, D. (2014). Foundations of Education. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
  2. Kauchak, D., & Eggen, P. (2012). Learning & teaching: Research –based methods. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  3. Framework for 21st Century Learning. Retrieved from The National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools. Benchmark 7.
  4. Donohue, D. (2015). Many diocesan and private Catholic schools find success outside of Common Core. Retrieved at %20Success%20Outside%20the%20Common%20Core_revised.pdf (updated:
  5. See Disconnect between Common Core’s Literary Approach and catholic Education’s Pursuit of Truth
  6. Pieper, J. (1948). Leisure: The basis of culture. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press
  7. CCC #1996, #1999
Denise L. Donohue, Ed.D. About Denise L. Donohue, Ed.D.

Denise L. Donohue, Ed.D., is Deputy Director of K-12 programs with The Cardinal Newman Society. She has worked in Catholic education since 1994 and serves as a board member of the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools (NAPCIS). Denise has worked as a founder, teacher, administrator, and full-time professor and interim department chair in the field of Catholic education. Denise holds a Masters of Catholic School Leadership (MCSL) from the University of Dallas and her doctorate in Educational Leadership with a minor in Curriculum Development from Nova Southeastern University. She is a certified catechist and holds both a teaching and administrator’s license from the State of Florida.


  1. Avatar Lucas Mosienko says:

    A recent article by Denise Donohue brought a new perspective elementary learning to light by applying it to David Coleman’s keynote address at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) conference in San Diego. In the original keynote there were five points, however I will only touch on the following: Productive solitude, reverent reading of shared texts, training in attitude and grace, and the idea of dignity and pricelessness. Donohue responded to each aspect using the idea of Classical education style which is a more traditional approach that is “embraced by the minority of catholics schools” and a more modern essential education style which focuses mainly on the fundamentals for succeeding in everyday society.

    Going to a private Catholic school has shaped me as an adolescent student today. Although it was not my choice in going there, I do believe that it has instilled positive characteristics in me that I will carry throughout my life.

    (1) In my school, they gave us lots of freedom to express our opinions and contemplate our faith. This freedom not only benefited our faith but also allowed us to contemplate and grow in other aspects of learning, such as science; by pondering possible questions of the natural world. Also, while in class, teachers would leave many assignments open-ended and invited us to think about it, and write our thoughts down. I think that freedom to think is an important part in finding out who you are as a person, and learning that solitude is an important part of learning and wondering. This practice is used among Catholic monks, to live a life of contemplation. Although, on a smaller scale, I believe that is what Coleman is attempting to get at. Although, I could be misunderstanding the essential model of learning, but are contemplation and curiosity not one of the most important aspects in learning? And for many of us, contemplation is best done alone, in solitude.

    (2) Donohue feels that reading traditional scripts in Catholic schools is a more traditional approach. However, are the traditional scripts not the fundamentals of our Catholic faith? In my school, we never read scholarly publications that would be incomprehensible to a middle school student. However, we did read the most important texts that would help us understand faith in a deeper way. I believe that when talking about the communal reading of traditional texts, the essential approach should be taken. Understanding these texts are extremely important in having a deep understanding of one’s faith, especially as children.

    (3) In Canada, Catholic schools have the reputation that many students graduate, and go on to be high achievers in their next high school, or in post secondary education. I, as well, believe that Coleman used the word “Grace” as a noun rather than a verb, meaning “Simple elegance or refinement of movement.” It should be taken into account that not all describing words used by Coleman were to be perceived from a religious perspective, but also interpreted using a practical sense as well, such as the above example.

    The final idea that Coleman addresses is the “Idea of dignity and pricelessness.” Donohue interprets it as ‘“in our being created as images of God; that each person has infinite value and worth; that events in life follow divine providence, and are for a reason; that true value of life lies outside worldly success; and those successful in life, including businessmen and women, understand that there is something beyond, and bigger than they are, that is at work.” Again, I think it is a matter of differentiating the meaning of his words from the definition in the Catholic context, but to a more practical context. The Catholic educators would have instilled these values in us as children to believe that God is guiding us in our work and, although we may be successful, we need to understand that this should not be taken for granted, as His guidance is a priceless gift. We also need to respond back to God with dignity and humility, by glorifying him, and again not taking this priceless gift for granted.

    In looking at the Catholic education system, it is important to not look at it with the “classical” and “essentialist” approach, but as an approach that values the traditional aspects of the Church, as well as the modern views of society.