For years I have wondered…. How much better at math would I be had I spent those average 2 hours each school day in lecture instead of religious activities? You could say I excelled in some areas and didn’t in others (like most children). However, I find several thousand dollars per child per year for a “better education” to be a suspect expense for a struggling family when that child then tests into remedial math with the mentally challenged and the drug-addled tweens at the start of high school.
Because there’s no such thing as a gap year for math curriculum, getting behind in math is a handicap that plagues you for the rest of your life. I started high school effectively two years behind my peers who came from public or other private/charter schools. Therefore, I never had time to take advanced trigonometry, pre-calculus, calculus, or physics. This meant I tested low for PSAT and SAT, and by extension meant I began college in remedial math theory. To stay on schedule, I pushed through an Economics Bachelors without a background in calculus (there was no such thing as remedial calculus at my college, but a 17 year old can’t plan for what she doesn’t know she needs). After college, I then–naturally–tested low in math for the GRE.
“But maybe you’re a poor math student. Lots of kids are. It’s unfair to blame Catholic education.” I considered that. Believe me, I spent years debating the question of culpability. It’s next to impossible to evaluate my Catholic K-8 education having no control group, never attending a public school. However, I ended up in the statistics field by choice. That’s not exactly what you expect of a literature-hungry arts kid who’s simply “bad at math”.
I’ve spent the last decade working in public school education research. I’ve visited countless public schools across the country to perform observations, and I’ve studied their curriculum and that of the Common Core. Now I work on the national assessments. As I delved into standards and reporting, it seemed horrific to discover that there are no required curricula for private schools. The curriculum is mostly up to their discretion, and parents must somehow make an informed decision from schools’ recruitment materials. What defense do parents of prospective students have against the well-produced propaganda? They’re victims, too, in a way. Society promises that private education is better, but this claim is based solely on aggregate national data and some anecdotes, all of which are correlated with the fact that wealthier families’ kids perform better no matter the school. Put wealthy kids in the same building, and that school will perform better than public schools regardless of the curriculum (for reasons that are discussed at length by numerous books and articles that are superfluous to repeat here). Busy parents with little to no institutional knowledge of private schools can’t be expected to know this, or to parse the propaganda effectively, and their kids can’t be expected to bring home critical reports of the education they’re receiving. For working parents, the education their children receive at private schools is a black hole, and there’s no easy way to fix the knowledge gap if media doesn’t care enough to develop the kind of investigative reporting crusade necessary to break through the private school lobbies that require that black hole to operate. My K-8 school has finally been shuttered, but ultimately not for any of the reasons it should have been.
I think at this point in my life, it’s safe to call it. I’ve made as informed a decision as would be possible for someone in my situation: my Catholic K-8 education was not worth the cost, and I am [scholastically] worse off having attended. I use the qualifier “scholastically” because there’s still the bias (earned or unearned) of college guidance counselors that expensive schools are better, and so my attendance may have bolstered my acceptance into my first choice college. It’s unfortunate that my parents’ expenditures met such unpredictable outcomes when their intentions were so good. School data was not so easily come by in the 80s and 90s as it is now, so I can hardly hold that against them. And, unless you work in the field or have the time and interest to keep up with the field, our U.S. society does not make these things easy to know. And, of course, who can really fathom what a pamphlet means by vague phrases about religious nurturing? Why would a parent suspect that an expensive school that claims to value education so much would then regularly remove their children from classes for noneducational activities? That is simply unknowable at the time of enrollment (in B.I.E., Before Internet Era).
Of course, then there’s the other part of my brain that balks at being so forgiving and understanding. Certainly, I’d expect intelligent, rational, working adults to be a little suspicious of the ability of an impressionable young girl to achieve career-oriented education at a facility that openly believed a woman’s greatest life achievement was leaving society. The figureheads of the school prayed full-time and lived off the charity of working people–an idea that would seem to be in direct contrast with my parents’ Republican mantra of welfare recipients are lazy leeches who don’t deserve help. But then again, our nuns were white and Catholic, so….. leeches were OK if they look and sound like you? Or perhaps it was that being poor, non-working, and homeless was OK as long as you threw in the qualifier “But they do it for God” at the end. I don’t suppose these are the kinds of insights Catholic schools expect children to absorb, but they are. What I heard was that girls can do anything, but what I saw was that they shouldn’t if they know what’s good for them. Outspoken girls were told to be quiet. Girls with interest in non-conformist arts (rock/metal music, fantasy/scifi literature) were told their interests were unfaithful and evil. Girls were told their very character was definable by their dress, face, and presence of vaginal blockage. Girls were told that physical activities were useless and that prayer and their eventual wifely service to a man and children were the ultimate expressions of goodness. Girls were told their husbands would be the heads of their household and that the bible commands they obey him in all matters…. In short, I can’t in good conscious give any parent a pass on sending a girl to a convent and then expecting her to come out the other side both empowered and devout. Because of the millennia of gendered repression and baggage that comes hand-in-hand with most religions, it is one or the other. So, with one hand I forgive my parents for their ignorance, and with the other I blame them for it. Ignorance that is so willful is by its nature unworthy of forgiveness.
I’m not just imagining that my Catholic K-8 valued the bible over my scholastic potential. This isn’t hindsight blowing specific moments out of proportion. Unlike many girls who might feel similarly about their experiences at private school and have no proof to back up their sentiments, I have the rare advantage of evidence. Many administrations sugarcoat religious indulgences in order to avoid parental backlash; my school (which has since closed its doors for financial hardship) laid it all out on the table. One day around the Easter season when mass, stations of the cross, benediction, feast day, May Procession rehearsal, & other ceremony schedules were more hectic than usual (consequently, Easter season is also testing season, if anyone cares…. *crickets*), our priest gave a homily that I will never forget as long as I live. In an effort to respond to criticisms about missing so much class for religious activities, he said “When you’re on your death bed, you won’t need math or the sciences. The only thing that will have mattered in your life is your religious education. We give you what you need to get to heaven. Other schools can teach you math and science.” As a seventh grader sitting in that pew, the words shocked me, although I didn’t know why. I felt like someone was revealing something to me, but I didn’t have the objectivity or the worldly knowledge yet to know exactly what. But we aren’t at other schools, and we’re not going to be, I thought to myself, experiencing the first seeds of doubt. Even as a devout 7th grader, the priest’s words upset me. I began to grow very wary of the school I loved, the staff I respected, and the lifestyles it venerated.
I have so many questions about my private education to which I’ll never have answers. Chief among them is, would I have turned out “Exceptional” instead of just “OK” had I not always been so behind my peers as I got older…. had an institution of higher learning not abused its power to convince me that my education didn’t matter as it systematically scraped away at it? Might I have been more successful than I am today had I not been made to carry this angry chip on my shoulder about my life at the convent? Or is the contrary true? Am I actually exceptional because I fought these battles at a critical age? Were these events actually the catalysts for my success? Were these intellectual and emotional battlegrounds I traversed in youth the reasons I took education, atheism, and feminism (the very pillars of my adult identity) so seriously? And is it true that not being challenged in such ways leads to uncritical, under-stimulated minds and selfish, untested perspectives?