Sunday, June 17, 2007

Catholic Schools

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 50th year class reunion of St. Joseph High School in Grande Prairie where I live. I attended as a representative of the Catholic Education Foundation and gave a short speech about the work of the Foundation. The reunion was actually an impressive event. About 60 people attended some coming from far away. That so many people attended was impressive because fifty years ago it was common for people to only attend school to grade nine and so graduation classes were quite small. I should point out that besides the actual 50 year class (1957) there were also graduates from 1956, 58,59, and 1960.

From this group two things stood out for me. One was their memories of how much had changed in Grande Prairie since then. They talked of St. Joes as being basically a three room school (nothing like the new St Joes they toured during their weekend). They remembered Grande Prairie becoming a city, beginning to have paved streets (only some!), and getting actual sidewalks. The second thing that stood out for me about this group was the genuine affection and sense of familiarity that they still had for each other. Some of them, of course, being local remained in contact since their high school days but others who came from other areas seemed to readily fit right in with the crowd again. This reminded me of a speech that a dear friend used to give to graduating classes over 20 years ago and more. He used to speak of the "ghost of St. Joes" and of being in the building at night after everyone had left and hearing (remembering) the laughter and the tears and the learning and the prayers of groups that had passed through the building. His point was of course that a school is more than a building or a particular course of study. School is also those other things that happen like the friendships and the laughter and the mistakes and the sorrows. All of these, as much as a program of study, contribute to forming the students in a particular school. To me (an outsider to this group even though I taught at St Joes for almost 30 years and taught some of the children of this group) it was obvious that St Joes had been a good place for these students and had left them with many happy memories.

This brings me to a problem that I have encountered and that I worry about as I try to represent the Education Foundation. The problem is exemplified by the attitude of the lady who was cutting my hair a week or so ago. She was complaining about taxes ( and I was encouraging her), but then she added an objection to paying the education portion of the property tax since she had no children in the school system. In more general terms the problem is that now people tend to see schools as a place where they can acquire a specific set of skills to prepare them for the job market and nothing more. Obviously in this scheme, funding for schools should primarily be the concern of the student and the businesses that benefit from the skills acquired from the student. In this scheme what is there to motivate a bunch of people 50 years removed from their own school experience to consider supporting Catholic Education through the work of the Foundation?

The basic answer to this problem comes from looking at our attitudes towards the future. In our contemporary culture we are told to focus mainly on our own self-interest. Carried to an extreme (like it can be now) this leads people to ignore everything but the immediate future. This might be a problem that environmentalists face with regard to global warming. People might think, "if the effects of global warming are only going to be profoundly felt 20 or more years from now, why should I worry about it." Such an attitude also leads people to divorce themselves from the concerns of an enterprise like education which clearly is concerned (when it is doing its job) with the long-term future of society. In the "school as market" model of education if a student acquires a set of job skills but then does not acquire skills about citizenship then it seems to me that the future of the society is put in doubt. Education has to form students who can be the citizens that will continue to build the kind of society we want. This need to care for the future is even more obvious in Catholic Education where we are clear that our purpose is not just about providing students with job skills but is especially about forming students in the Catholic faith so that they can play their part in the building of the Kingdom of God. So as a citizen of a democracy and as a Catholic I can say that supporting education is something that everyone can and should do regardless of who they are or how old they are.

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