Mich. diocese opts for liberal arts over Common Core

The new classical curriculum in the Diocese of Marquette aims at an active engagement with Catholic tradition, the great works of western culture, and moral and intellectual formation of the whole person.

A remarkable thing is happening in the Diocese of Marquette.

While not the only diocese or school district in the nation to express reservations about the Common Core State Standards, the Michigan diocese is unique in that it is implementing a Catholic, liberal arts curriculum diocese-wide instead. Regarding Common Core specifically, Marquette Bishop John Doerfler released the following statement:

After much consideration, the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Marquette will not adapt or adopt the Common Core State Standards which were developed for the public school system. That said, we acknowledge that there is a base of adequate secular material in the Common Core State Standards that faith-based schools could reference as part of their educational programming. While we respectfully understand that other private and Catholic schools may discern to adapt or adopt the standards for these and other reasons, we do not believe that such actions would benefit the mission, Catholic identity or academic excellence of our schools.

Rather than adopting Common Core, the schools of the Diocese of Marquette have been implementing a classical curriculum, formed and informed by the best of the Catholic tradition.

“The decision to adopt a Catholic liberal arts model of education is the fruit of much careful study by the Department of Education, now the Department of Evangelization and Education of our diocese,” Bishop Doerfler said in an email to CWR. “The outcome of this study is a curriculum foundations document that is tailored to the needs of our diocese and proposes the adoption of a Catholic liberal arts curriculum for our diocesan schools.”

Last spring, Marquette’s Superintendent of Schools Mark Salisbury told the Cardinal Newman Society that the curriculum’s implementation has met with early success.

“Teachers are happy with the results,” Salisbury said. “We have improved our ability to teach students how to write well, students are learning and memorizing more poetry.” In addition, the Latin component of the curriculum has begun to yield extremely positive results, Salisbury said, helping “students with English grammar, vocabulary, and critical thinking skills.”

In March 2014, the diocese released the Foundations Document for the Catholic School Curriculum of the Diocese of Marquette, approved by Bishop Doerfler. The document makes clear from the outset: “the core of our curriculum is the person of Jesus Christ.” It goes on to stress that “our curriculum seeks to form our graduate’s character, aiming as high as its perfection.” To accomplish this, the schools of the diocese will focus their efforts on what they have identified as four essential parts of the academic curriculum: ordered basic knowledge, basic skills or tools of learning, development of the moral imagination, and the principle of correlation between subjects. This method, focusing on these principles, is designed to “assist students in formation of their character based in their relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Far from being simply a reaction against the Common Core standards, the new curriculum in Marquette is an active engagement with the Catholic tradition, the great works of western culture, and moral and intellectual formation of the whole person.

By reading and studying the great works of western culture, the students are being exposed to some of the greatest minds and artists in history. Beginning in the third grade, students learn Latin; they read stories from the lives of the saints daily; by the time a student graduates from eighth grade, he will have read the narrative portions of the Old and New Testaments three times.

“The decision to choose a Catholic liberal arts curriculum is rooted in the Catholic Church’s long history of success using a liberal arts model that avoids a purely secular view of educational ends and means,” Bishop Doerfler said. “For example, the Jesuits have been leaders in education throughout the world for more than 400 years, utilizing a Catholic liberal arts framework. Their leadership reflects both a richness of Catholic identity (taking as their motto, from St. Ignatius, ‘For the greater glory of God and the salvation of humanity’) while also achieving the highest academic excellence.”

Bishop Doerfler went on to elucidate the distinction between a generic classical education, and that which is specifically and particularly Catholic in nature.

“Liberal arts or classical education are not necessarily Catholic,” he said. “However, Catholic liberal arts [education] constantly seeks the most excellent, beautiful, true, and good, which prepares the person for the encounter with the source of all truth, goodness, and beauty—namely, God.”

The foundational and fundamental character of teaching and forming young people is the person of Jesus, according to Bishop Doerfler. “Our foundations document clearly states at the outset: ‘The greatest happiness a person can attain is communion with Jesus Christ. This is the essential beginning and end of Catholic education.’”

Bishop Doerfler is encouraged by the progress that has been made in his diocese’s schools thus far as the implementation of the new curriculum standards has begun. It is still a process, but the bishop is optimistic about the future.

“Our teachers have been doing a wonderful job adopting new initiatives, step-by-step, to enhance our curriculum and achieve excellence in Catholic liberal arts education,” he said.

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About Paul Senz 138 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.