What is the future of a school like St. Anselm’s? We find ourselves in a difficult situation, as shifting cultural values put the squeeze on our student pool. Can we last?
There will always be boys schools. No problem. Plenty of people believe in the benefits of single sex education. If the last fifty years have not driven that out of our culture, I doubt anything can.
There will always be Catholic schools. No problem. We may be in hiding some day, there may not be a lot of us, but there will always be a reason for these to exist. Frankly, if things got bad for Catholics in this country, we’d probably see more, not fewer.
There will always be a demand for classical liberal arts schools. But do you see how our pool is winnowing? Still, all this is ok. We are fine so far. It’s the next part that is the problem.
I am not sure how much space is left in the world for a classical liberal arts Catholic school for boys that aims to serve the top 10% of academic achievement and ability. Two factors coincide:
The last twenty years of public education have focused heavily on keeping the best and most gifted students from fleeing to the private schools. It still happens and to some extent it always will, but the burgeoning number of special programs and special schools is meant to stem the tide. They do this by offering something from Factor 2…
Our country has fallen in love with the idea of specialization. To be fair it is a global problem and you can already find authors in the middle of the last century worrying about it. But something in the American psyche has intensified around this point in the last decade or two. We believe, or a great many of us believe, and our government preaches, and our schools respond, that academically excellent children should be tracked into highly advanced, highly specialized fields.
I’m looking at you, STEM.
We implicitly believe that high school is a waste of time. We believe explicitly that children who are really good at math should start taking as many math and science classes as possible, focusing on what they like and what they are good at. So we design courses of study that allow them to do this. News flash: the time has to come from somewhere and they are not staying an extra three hours a day at school. They take fewer classes in literature, history, language, and the like.
Because we believe this—we really believe it, not in some goofy manifesto sense—and because public school systems cater to this belief, a huge number of families with “gifted” children are only interested in private schools that can do the specialization thing better than the public schools. It’s an arms race to see who can build the nicest labs, queue up the nicest internships, and get Johnny or Tammy out of the most humanities classes. Choice! Student choice! Parent choice!
O Tempora! O Mores!
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, private Catholic schools like St. Anselm’s had their pick of the best and the brightest. There really were no alternatives like the public systems are offering these days, and so there was no need to fight for recruits. If you were a gifted young Catholic boy in the 1950s or 1960s, the only school you wanted to go to was St. Anselm’s.
Time marched on and came then the rise of the mega sports programs. Many private schools punched their meal tickets by emphasizing top level athletic programs to the detriment of their academic programs. Scandals and egged faces led to reforms and tightrope acts and a kind of uneasy détente wherein schools had sub-schools.
St. Anselm’s refused to get on board, stood on principle, and became largely irrelevant in the private school sports scene. But it didn’t cost them too much, since lots of parents weren’t interested in that stuff and plenty (most?) bright boys weren’t that athletic anyway. Or at least the pool was big enough that the reduction didn’t really hurt anybody.
Then came the rise of the machines, the College AP Board. Schools had to offer these classes because everyone knew it was going to make far superior students [/s] and save parents a ton of money to boot. It cost St. Anselm’s very little to get on board, and so we did and then some. One of our main marketing edges is that we offer so many AP classes, that all students must take 5 AP classes to graduate (Calculus, 2 Englishes, World History, Biology), that our brightest boys go on to take 12+ and score 4s or 5s on all of them. Look at the shiny numbers! Which we all hate and wish we could do without.
The AP fad will run its course and die out soon enough, but just imagine what would have happened if we had not gotten on board. Trouble! Declining enrollment! Where are the gifted kids of yesteryore?
Now we face a problem that is perhaps greater. We already swim in a fairly small pool and now a huge number of our families are looking for a customizable, specializable, “3 years up in math and I don’t take Latin” type of program. We lose kids to this now and we’re going to lose more in the years to come. If we don’t get on board with this it could be a lot worse than if we had missed the AP train.
AND WE MUST NOT GET ON BOARD WITH IT.
We have to find a way to market the strengths of a classical liberal arts program where our future nano-roboticists all take Latin, French, and Religion classes. Where they all learn how to write papers and read literature and appreciate the opera. Where well-rounded doesn’t mean boring and it doesn’t mean “still doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life—better keep options open.”
Our program is well-rounded (I hate that term) in that it makes our students live. It teaches them to live well, to think well, and to be life-long learners. In order for this claim to be legitimate we must recapture the grand unity of the sciences—that’s classical sciences, all modes of discovering causes through their effects—as something true, worth knowing in itself, and oh-by-the-way useful as well.
We need alumni who go off to the best schools to learn the best stuff from the best persons blah blah blah to come back and say “Not only was I in no way disadvantaged by my non-specialized education at St. Anselm’s, I was at a number of advantages. They are…”
We have to inspire parents with the vision of happy, grounded, virtuous children-turned-adults who regularly outperform all their colleagues in all their fields because they do everything better, with more attention to detail, with more understanding of the big picture, with more insight into the problems…not because they learned to find the area under a curve when they were
fifteen fourteen nine.
Even some of our most-committed parents have expressed to me, at earlier stages of their time at St. Anselm’s, worry that we do not put enough emphasis on test-taking. We explicitly reject the idea of teaching toward tests and our parents are baffled when we insist that we do this and yet our students all score in the stratosphere (well, most of them). How else could you possibly get there? they wonder.
We do education right and those tests are mostly crap anyway. You have to see it to believe it. You have to trust the process. But that requires testimonial…and who will be the preachers? Man this is starting to sound religious or something. Weird.