What’s Your Score On The S.A.T. (Salvation Aptitude Test)?NOEL J. AUGUSTYN
I modestly offer the following as a draft of the sort of exam that I think an eighth-grade Catholic student should have to pass before graduating from Catholic grammar school. I don’t think that knowledge equals faith (or hope or charity). But I know that the religious literacy I had accumulated, fairly painlessly, by age 13 has enriched my faith during subsequent years and has given me a secure base of knowledge on which to build. The following exam tries to teach as well as to test, and has a number of “think” or “short essay” questions.
Ten years ago a college professor named E.D. Hirsch gained national notoriety for a radical thesis about education. In a book entitled Cultural Literacy he wrote that a basic purpose of education is to replace ignorance with knowledge. He argued that such fashionable educational concepts as "problem solving," "critical thinking," and "creativity" are empty if students possess no core of shared knowledge.
The passage of a decade — despite the birth of the so-called Information Age and the supposed building of the Information Superhighway — has only added support to his thesis. At every level of schooling, students are uninformed or ill-informed. There is illiteracy and innumeracy; there are science-stiffs and cultureclods. There is also — as parents of children in parochial schools are uneasily aware — a parallel Catholic phenomenon that as yet has no name. Should we call it "indogmacy"? In plain English, it is religious ignorance. American Catholic schoolchildren today know very little about their religion.
Last December I was chatting with an honor-roll eighth-grade student, my son's classmate at the parish school. Noting that the boy was scheduled to serve Mass on the day after Christmas, I commented that, like Good King Wenceslas, he would be out and about on the Feast of Stephen.
"Who's King Wenceslas?" he asked.
"E.D. Hirsch, give me strength," thought I. But then I reflected: It's a mild case of Caroling Illiteracy, nothing serious. The lad may not be much of a singer, and, after all, Prague and its Wenceslas Square are rarely in the news these days, and, besides, the Bohemian prince and martyr's feast day each September 28 is an optional memorial.
Then the boy said, "Who's Stephen?"
"You know," I replied. "The first martyr."
He thought that over. "What's a martyr?"
"Well," I said, "a martyr is one who gives up his life for his faith — one who imitates Christ completely. You know!"
No light dawned. I thought it might help to mention Saul, who later became Paul. You know, the one who wrote the Epistles? He was holding the cloaks of those who were stoning Stephen. You know? All this seemed to be news to him.
"Eight years of Catholic education," I murmured to myself. To him I said, "So, what are you studying in religion class these days?"
"We don't really study the saints," he informed me.
I guess they don't. I've heard a professor at the Catholic University of America joke about the need for a course in remedial Catholicism for freshmen who even after 12 years of Catholic school are religiously illiterate. The students reportedly exclaim, "What? We've got to learn all seven sacraments?" Funny. But maybe the joke is onus. Catholics educated before Vatican II are not, perhaps, better Christians than those educated afterward. The fact remains that we knew "by heart" (a term meaning far more than rote memorization) the Seven Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Corporal Works of Mercy, the Precepts of the Church, the Theological Virtues, and much more, including the meaning of "martyr," the story of Saul/Paul, the lives of many saints, and dozens of Bible stories. The gift of faith, of course, is ultimately a mystery, but education is ours to control. Students do tend to learn what they're taught.
Whence comes the decline in religious literacy in Catholic schools? "Religion" now seems to be but one more subject in a crowded curriculum, rather than a pervasive truth guiding all studies. But why? One apparent reason is the virtual disappearance of teachers who are religious by vocation. Today's lay teachers are not as scripturally literate as were the Sisters and Brothers of yesteryear. There is not the same ready richness of biblical reference: the sort that would allow a teacher to remind students of the number of days it rained on Noah, or the number of days Jesus fasted in the desert, to reinforce the answer to the math problem "5 times 8"; the sort that would prompt a teacher to hint that a dodecahedron is a figure with exactly as many sides as Israel had tribes and Jesus had Apostles.
Another explanation is the absence of Catholic textbooks in the various subject areas. In the past a number of stories in Catholic school "readers" were based on the Bible or the saints or other areas of Catholic heritage, whereas today there are no such readers, and hence no such stories. History books used in Catholic schools once had a Catholic focus. Today, don't expect your Catholic schoolchildren to have learned about Pope St. Leo the Great or Father Marquette. The texts now used in Catholic schools are identical to those used in public schools, and they have a decidedly secular slant. Indeed, a sixth-grade social studies textbook used in a local Catholic school stiffly offers an arm's-length definition of "monotheism" as that variety of religion which believes in just one "god." Finally, the decline in religious literacy is related to the religion books themselves, which at least have drawn some critical attention for offering more mush than meat.
So the problem of religious illiteracy is apparent, and causes are easy to find. But what is the solution? There is no resurgence in religious vocations for orders dedicated to teaching in parish schools. No Catholic publishing houses seem to show any interest in producing Catholic elementary school textbooks for "secular" subjects. And any hopes that the Catechism of the Catholic Church would lead to the publication of religious texts apt for schoolchildren are, so far, mostly just hopes.
A possible solution may be to adopt an idea that has recently found favor with educators that of "standards." In standards-based education, you define precisely what students should know at each level, and you test them on those precise matters. "Teaching to the test" remains, of course, controversial, but so do most other ideas in education, and an attempt at standards in religious literacy could well overcome in Catholic school classrooms the absence of vowed religious teachers and the dearth of religiously literate textbooks.
What should the standards be? What should be on the tests? I modestly offer the following as a draft of the sort of exam that I think my eighth-grade friend from last Christmas should have to pass before graduating from Catholic grammar school. Who am I to set the standards? I'm just an ordinary Catholic whose formal training in Catholicism ended in eighth grade over 35 years ago. I don't think that knowledge equals faith (or hope or charity). But I know that the religious literacy I had accumulated, fairly painlessly, by age 13 has enriched my faith during subsequent years and has given me a secure base of knowledge on which to build. The following exam tries to teach as well as to test, and has a number of "think" or "short essay" questions. If it seems easy to you, gentle reader, you might want to try it out on your local Catholic eighth-grader (or high-schooler) before you dismiss it as laughably elementary.
Older readers will note that the last question of this exam is the first question of the old Baltimore Catechism. It's a good question with which to end, for it remains the basic question (and as coaches are fond of saying, success is built on mastery of "the fundamentals"). Not long ago, most Catholic eighth-graders could have aced this exam. Shouldn't eighth-graders today know at least as much? This test was composed without much trouble, largely from the mental residue of my grade-school education, which acquainted me with patriarchs and prophets, judges and kings, emperors and bishops, missionaries and abbots, pagans and polytheists, saints and sinners. As a youngster I was given a glimpse of past and present, history and eternity, the natural and supernatural worlds. My parochial school's insistence on religious literacy made me not parochial but Catholic (in the upper-case and lower-case meanings of that fine Greek word).
"A little learning is a dangerous thing," wrote Alexander Pope. "Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, but drinking largely sobers us again." For that ancient spring sacred to the Muses, the patronesses of pagan learning, let us substitute the "living water" of Christian faith, the eternally flowing fountain of the truth that will make us free. (Question 65: To whom did Jesus promise living water?) The poet's warning, put prosaically, is that it's dangerous to think that we know a lot when we only know a little. It's a fair warning. But even we Catholics who know only a little about our faith and its history can see that many of our children today know next to nothing. We must give our children a chance to refresh themselves at the perennial spring of sacred knowledge. Perhaps you can't make a child drink, but you can at least lead him to the water.
Augustyn, Noel J. "What's Your Score On The S.A.T. (Salvation Aptitude Test)?" New Oxford Review LVIII, no. 7 (July-August 2000): 12-14.
Reprinted with permission of the New Oxford Review (1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706). To subscribe to the New Oxford Review, call (510) 526-3492.
Noel J. Augustyn is a lawyer living in Maryland He has taught English in high school and college, and has taught the law of evidence in law school.
Copyright © 2000 New Oxford
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.