Too often, Catholic education, particularly at the high school level, seems to be valued not so much for its moral and religious content as for its prestige in the community, or for its ability to produce graduates who get into the “right” colleges and get higher-paying jobs later on.
In my experience, Catholic high schools tend to be known in their communities as 1) schools rich kids attend, 2) a way to escape poor-quality public schools, 3) athletic powerhouses, or 4) institutions whose graduates enjoy disproportionate wealth and influence — the quality Chicagoans famously call “clout.”
Just today, in fact, I heard someone refer to alumni of a local Catholic high school as a “Catholic mafia” that allegedly dominates local business and politics. Although this characterization is probably not entirely justified, many alums of this particular school do seem to end up in positions of influence in the community.
I would rather that graduates of this school, or any Catholic school, were envied for their generosity, their character, and their love of Christ — though I am certain many of them do display these virtues — than for their ability to get well-paying jobs or get elected or appointed to various public offices.
Unfortunately, recent developments in Illinois are likely to reinforce the latter impression. The Chicago Tribune has published an ongoing series of articles titled “Clout Goes to College,” outlining the role political figures have played in getting students admitted to the University of Illinois main campus in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).
In the past 5 years, according to the Tribune, more than 800 applicants received special consideration when applying to UIUC due to the intervention of a public official on their behalf. More than 600 of these “clout list” applicants were recent graduates of Illinois high schools; others were out of state residents or transfer students. In some cases, clout list applicants were admitted over other applicants with higher test scores or grade point averages.
After obtaining records from the university via the Freedom of Information Act, the Tribune has compiled a database of all the high schools from which clout list applicants graduated during the past four years (2005-2009). It can be accessed at http://cloutcollege.apps.chicagotribune.com/cloutschools/
The database does not name these students, but merely indicates how many graduates from each school were included on the clout list at some point in their admissions process. Not all of them were admitted.
With few exceptions, high schools whose graduates appeared on the clout list are either Catholic schools or public schools serving upper-income communities. The majority of clout list applicants came from wealthy suburbs of Chicago.
Out of curiosity I checked to see if the downstate Catholic high school I graduated from had any clout list graduates. It had one. A medium-size public high school in the same area had two clout list graduates. The only other school in the area with a clout list graduate was — you guessed it — another Catholic school.
My curiosity further piqued, I began running the names of other downstate Catholic high schools through the database to see how they fared. Sure enough, more often than not, the highest number of clout list applicants in each community came from the local Catholic high school (although in each case, this number was in the single digits).
Why do Catholic schools appear so frequently on the clout list? Most likely, because the families who can afford to send their children to them place greater emphasis on getting their children into the “right” college by whatever means necessary. While most if not all Catholic schools do provide scholarships or financial aid to families of more modest means, those families are probably grateful to get their child into any college or university they can afford.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with Catholic schools giving their students a high-quality academic education that prepares them well for attendance at most colleges and universities. Nor is there anything wrong with a parent desiring this for their child.
However, this should not be the PRIMARY aim of Catholic education, or the primary motivation for parents to enroll children in Catholic schools. It should be to help their children become saints — in the classic words of the Baltimore Catechism, “to know, love, and serve God in this world and be happy with Him forever in the next.”
Catholic high schools do encourage holiness and generosity in their students in a variety of ways — offering regular Mass and confession, requiring Christian service hours for graduation, sponsoring retreats or days of renewal, sponsoring mission trips and pilgrimages, encouraging vocations awareness, sponsoring pro-life or other service clubs, etc. But in many cases, this does not seem to be what really attracts students to a particular school, or motivates alumni and parents to support it.
I noticed that Protestant schools rarely appeared on the clout lists in the communities I looked up. While these schools can be as expensive as Catholic schools, it’s obvious that parents’ primary motivation for enrolling children in them is to ensure they are taught in a suitable moral and religious environment. It appears that they are thinking more of their children’s eternal salvation than of their earthly success or prestige.
Ironically, UIUC does have one major attraction for Catholic students — St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, one of the biggest and best in the nation, overseen by the Diocese of Peoria. St. John’s Chapel, built in 1926, is an architectural gem, and the Newman Foundation provides far more opportunities for in-depth study and practice of the faith than do many Catholic-in-name-only institutions of higher learning. But, I doubt this was uppermost in the minds of those Catholic high school parents who fought to get their children onto the clout list. (For more information on the St. John’s Newman Center visit http://www.sjcnc.org/)
The clout list scandal represents one more chapter in the sorry history of Illinois political corruption. Perhaps that culture might change if Catholic school parents spent more time calling upon the Blessed Mother and the saints to intercede for their children than calling upon their local politician to do so.
What are your thoughts or experiences regarding clout and Catholic education? What kind of reputation do the Catholic schools in your community have — are they regarded primarily as havens for children of the wealthy and powerful, or are they known for the quality of their religious and academic education? If it’s the former, what do you think can or should be done to change that?