Putting the Catholic in Catholic education

In "Educating for Eternity: A Teacher's Companion for Making Every Class Catholic," Brett Salkeld, Ph.D., explains the role of Catholic anthropology in education and accompanies Catholic teachers in integrating the faith into all aspects of the curriculum. (Image from book cover)

“Every class can and should be taught from a Catholic point of view”

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – In his new book Educating for Eternity, Regina archdiocesan theologian Brett Salkeld insists that everything in every classroom can be Catholic.

The book aimed at Catholic teachers and school system administrators takes a bit of education jargon — “curriculum permeation” — and puts theological meat on its bones.

“The idea is, every class can and should be taught from a Catholic point of view,” said Salkeld.

The very existence of Catholic schools, particularly in Canada where the Catholic school boards are to varying degrees part of provincially funded public systems, depends on making sure science, math, history, gym and music are taught from a Catholic mindset, a Catholic worldview, said Salkeld.

“If we’re going to have Catholic education publicly funded in Canadian provinces, we need to be clear about what makes us unique,” said Salkeld. A religion class tacked onto the end of the student’s day just isn’t going to cut it.

“You actually want to have a Catholic school system that is different and has some way to justify its existence,” he said. “You need to have some clear sense of who you are and how that impacts what you’re doing, not just in religion class but across the curriculum.”

This is not actually a new idea, points out Institute for Catholic Education executive director Anne Jamieson in Hamilton, Ont. In an extended pastoral letter called This Moment of Promise — launched as a sort of charter for Ontario’s publicly funded Catholic schools in 1989, after Catholic school boards achieved full funding — Ontario’s bishops argued for “a distinctively Catholic vision of education that permeates every aspect of the learning process,” Jamieson said in an email.

More than 30 years on, Jamieson hopes Salkeld’s book will get teachers, principals and school superintendents focused again on the Catholic way to teach every subject and every child.

“Curriculum permeation lifts up important ideas such as the relationship of faith and reason, the interconnectedness of all creation and what it means to hold a sacramental worldview — and looks to the application of Catholic social teaching, for example, to our learning,” Jamieson said.

In Salkeld’s view, there’s nothing more dangerous than the presumption that math or reading or science are just neutral subject areas dictated by the broad public consensus represented in provincial curriculum documents.

“You are never teaching a subject from a neutral point of view. If you imagine you are teaching something from a neutral point of view, you’re actually importing a whole bunch of presuppositions that you haven’t examined,” he said.

“People just assume that math is neutral. Look, there are presuppositions behind why you think people should learn math, what you think math says about the intelligibility of the universe. There are presuppositions in the background one way or another. In a Catholic school, we should be intentional about those presuppositions.”

That doesn’t mean teaching math from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica or turning every class into another opportunity to pound away at the Catechism.

“Science class deserves its proper methodology and to be treated as a science class,” Salkeld said, but imbuing the subject with a Catholic sense of an incarnate God who inhabits every atom in all of creation can be as simple as approaching the subject with wonder and awe.

“This is different from brainwashing. In fact, it’s the presumption of neutrality that is often a better prerequisite for brainwashing,” said Salkeld.

Doing what Salkeld suggests in Educating for Eternity demands access to a precious resource — Catholic teachers formed and trained to teach like Catholics.

The absence of a Catholic teachers’ college and reliance on a patchwork of professional development courses and teachers’ college electives has left the system with professionals who want to be good Catholic teachers but are uncertain about how to share their faith while doing their jobs.

“We say Catholic teachers don’t know their faith. Well, we literally have no institutions that are training them in this kind of thing,” Salkeld said. “We have a provincially approved Catholic studies curriculum (in Saskatchewan) and no training in our post-secondary institutions for teachers of Catholic studies. Can you imagine if that was physics?”

A presumption that there’s a wealth of young Catholic teachers who grew up in their parishes, praying novenas with their families, their wallets stuffed with prayer cards and travelling to World Youth Day as they reached adulthood does not amount to a plan for Catholic education in a very secular culture.

“The school systems are going to be a reflection of what the Church in society looks like,” Salkeld said. “Where are you going to get teachers from, if not from the ambient culture and the Church in the state that it’s in? That means the basic challenges we have in the Church more generally are going to show up in the schools. There’s no way around that.”

But naming the challenge is not the same as throwing in the towel. In his encounters with young teachers, Salkeld meets Catholics with a sense of vocation who fill him with hope.

“They’ve been in a culture where they haven’t had exposure to the Catholic worldview that they deserve to know. My book is trying to fill that gap,” he said.