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The First and Fundamental School

As I sat in the audience during Pope John Paul II’s final Mass in Cuba in January of last year, I was impressed by the explosion of exaltation from the crowd when he spoke firmly to the question of education. He told all parents in Cuba that they, not the state, are entrusted by God to make decisions about their children’s education.

Cuba’s educational system, of course, is the most conspicuous sign of that regime’s omnipresent state control. Before the revolution, there were 250 private Roman Catholic schools in Cuba; all were nationalized by the Communist Party. For the past thirty-five years, the Party has stolen children from their parents at the youngest ages and has subjected them to a long and rigorous political indoctrination by a school curriculum so politicized that no subject escapes a political spin. The Holy Father’s recent words to the Cuban people raised hopes that someday Cuban parents could realize their dream of raising their children according to their own family values.

In truth, John Paul’s thoughts on education in his encyclicals, as well as the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church, remind us of the dangers associated with politicizing education and robbing parents of their right to be their children’s first educators. For example, in Familiaris Consortio, an apostolic exhortation, John Paul calls the family “the first … and fundamental school.” And he continues with unqualified frankness: “Those in society who are in charge of schools must never forget that the parents have been appointed by God himself as the first and principal educators of their children and that their right is completely inalienable.”

The word inalienable here is startling and unequivocal. John Paul rejects in no uncertain terms the secularization, centralization, and state monopolization that has tended to displace the family, to deny inalienable rights of parents, and to absorb education into the political nexus.

I do not believe that John Paul’s words are meant to apply only to countries such as Cuba, however. The tendency toward centralization has afflicted developed societies as well; in some ways, especially considering some of the subject matter now discussed in American classrooms, the West has been just as aggressive in making schools the exclusive domain of government.

Again in Familiaris Consortio, the Holy Father instructs us about our moral duties with regard to political and institutional settings that contradict the Church’s teaching on education. “If ideologies opposed to the Christian faith are taught in the schools,” he writes, “the family must join with other families, if possible through family associations, and with all its strength and with wisdom help the young not to depart from the faith.”

For us in the West, returning to the primacy of parents in education will entail educational reform. We must remember that the issue is not whether radical overhaul is needed; the issue is, rather, what should be done and how.

I suggest that the best way to begin the process of education reform is by asking: What has worked in the past? A great example of success is the parish school. Most parish schools are selective in admission policies, firm in discipline, publicly accountable in their curricula, and economically efficient in their delivery of education services. Insofar as educators are willing to look to this model, they should. Insofar as legislators wish to aid reform, viable options might include school choice and charter schools.

Such reform will call for both boldness and prudence, because legislators will be dealing with the future of real people and real minds. So long as we can put aside selfish concerns and remember that education is not to be the exclusive property of the state but, rather, should be subjected to the principle of subsidiarity that must animate all social concerns, we cannot go too far off the mark.