What makes Catholic education distinct from its public and private school counterparts? Is it crucifixes on the walls, uniforms, religion classes, and occasional school Masses? Or is there something deeper than these external decorations and practices? Is there a “Catholic way” to do math, science, and other courses?
Brett Salkeld compellingly answers all these questions in a book whose title aptly captures its purpose: Educating for Eternity: A Teacher’s Companion for Making Every Class Catholic. In two parts, the first theoretical and the second practical, Salkeld clearly presents the vision of Catholic education and how to make this vision a reality in every academic discipline, so that each one complements the other.
“Every education,” writes Salkeld, “presumes an anthropology. That is to say, every education is directed, intentionally or not, by underlying attitudes about the human person.” Since Catholics believe that the human person is destined for eternal life with God, “the ultimate goal of Catholic education is to get us to heaven.” From this final cause comes several corollaries that shape the Catholic educational enterprise. It prioritizes formation over information, and the building of character over the acquisition of skills. As a result, Catholic educators must teach virtue, morality, and “stoke the desire for the good.” They must also help students see that their lives have meaning and that “they are made for greatness and understand what true greatness is.”
A clear and honest presentation of Catholic anthropology is not “brainwashing” or “indoctrination,” a trope that Salkeld helpfully refutes throughout the book. “Education is never neutral,” especially in public schools where there is supposed neutrality toward religious and moral questions. Their chosen silence is itself quite telling; it conveys that such questions are irrelevant to daily life and to academic pursuits. Today’s public schools presume a materialist anthropology that holds economic and political concerns as the only “real life” subject matter. So Catholic schools have a choice: they can present the Catholic vision for education, defending it along the way to make their intentions clear to all stakeholders, or they can unwittingly let today’s secular culture set the school’s curriculum. “If Catholicism doesn’t shape the way we teach every subject, something else will.”
The book’s greatest contribution is Salkeld’s answer to the question that so many educators looking to revitalize Catholic education ask: How can the faith permeate every aspect of the school? The answer is “Catholic Academic Integration,” which requires not “Catholic content” for every subject—religious faith has no bearing on mathematical calculations, scientific experiments, or the exercise students get in physical education class—but “Catholic context.” That is, each academic subject retains its own autonomy while being presented from a Catholic worldview, in which everything studied is a piece of God’s benevolent act of creation.
To make a class Catholic, then, it is not necessary to add more Catholic content, as if the rules of grammar or laws of mathematics must be supplemented with some religious sprinkling. This would be a form of indoctrination. Rather, we should “[t]hink of this work as putting on a new pair of glasses” so that teachers have “new lenses for the tasks they are already doing.” Salkeld focuses these lenses in Part I by presenting the essential features of the Catholic worldview: that God made us for Him, that creation is good, that truth exists and can be known through study, that we are made free to pursue the truth, that faith and reason are complementary approaches to knowing the truth and to loving God.
Salkeld articulates these features of Catholic education in a manner beneficial for today’s Catholic school teachers, be they well-intentioned but unformed, or skeptical of strong truth claims because of the moral relativism that envelops them. In order for a school to educate for eternity, its faculty and staff must share this Catholic vision, which infuses the Catholic context for every subject from civics to science, from art to sports. Salkeld offers eight chapters for eight academic subjects to help make this happen.
Subjects with Catholic content—literature, music, art, history—would seem to be natural places for Catholic education to flourish, although, inexplicably, the curricula of too many Catholic schools in these subjects look no different from their public school counterparts these days. Salkeld offers many suggestions of books and topics for this content. But these courses, too, have a Catholic context.
For example, we can approach language as “a gift from God given to us for the purpose of communicating truth” and grammar as “a great illustration of the fact that rules are not the opposite of freedom but the prerequisites of freedom…. God and grammar are both external to us, making real demands on us. Such demands do not make us slaves; they make us free.” Even for math, while the calculations themselves are independent of religion, “the way we teach math answers a whole host of deeper questions beyond mathematical content…. [M]ath teaches us that God creates an orderly and coherent universe.”
The chapters on science, history, and social studies present not only Catholic context for each discipline but also helpful apologias to frequent objections: God’s existence contradicts science, chance undermines purpose in the world, religions only spark violence, progress requires rejecting the past, Catholicism is incompatible with democracy and pluralistic societies, and many more.
Salkeld deserves special credit for bringing Catholic context to health classes, which, in the hands of the wrong teacher, can too easily lapse into justifying immorality in the name of safety. Since human beings are both body and soul, teachers should focus on bodily and spiritual health; the latter includes learning to bear suffering with faith and developing virtues. To ignore the religious perspective in health classes is “counterproductive or even dangerous” because it “can make religion seem less and less relevant to students.”
At the end of each chapter in Part II, Salkeld offers lesson plan or assignment ideas. These are typically general discussion points and are of varied worth. In English class, he recommends displaying—and discussing—Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote, “We are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” In history, students can study how saints impacted the lands in which they lived, and in health, students can fast for a designated period and keep a record of their reactions to the experience. Less creative are suggestions for “research assignments” in science, art, and social studies classes, with this last considering topics ranging from food waste to demographics.
Salkeld’s helpful book should galvanize Catholic educators. Providing an authentically Catholic education does not require revolutionary or expensive initiatives in pedagogy or infrastructure. It requires only three things: faith, and the ability to see the world—and academic subjects—through the lens of faith, and a desire to pass the faith onto the next generation. If it’s this easy to make every class Catholic, and to prepare every student for eternity, it is faith to wonder why more Catholic schools are not doing this already.
Educating for Eternity: A Teacher’s Companion for Making Every Class Catholic
By Brett Salkeld, Ph.D
Our Sunday Visitor, 2023.
272 pages, $12.95.
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