The National Catholic Review

I am very sensible what a weakness and presumption it is, to reason against the general humor and disposition of the world. Jonathan Swift, 1708

Two fall rituals go together in the United States: the new school year and the new football season. From countless boyhood games in the crisp air of leaf-strewn backyards, this coincidence is in my blood. Nowadays it leaves me cold.

I ask myself, Am I paying tuition so that my first-grade daughter’s Catholic grade school can instill ardor for professional sports rivalries? I’d like to think of that question as merely a lead-in to an absurd satire worthy of Swift. But it is most assuredly not.

On the assumption that concern over the outcome of a professional football game befits a student of 5 or 6 or 10, the school principal saw fit to send home a flier announcing that any students, faculty and staff may be out of uniform on Monday following the Sunday game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers, if and only if they know the game’s outcome. Viking fans wear purple if they win, and Packer fans wear green and gold if they win. Oh, and If you choose not to wear the colors of the winner, you must wear your uniform.

At a school where uniforms are required, being out of uniform is a real perk. So linking this privilege to the promotion of a sporting event of scant value and zero relevance is aiming lower than a school should aim.

Though very little time and resources were expended on this particular gimmick, the bigger issue is both the tacit message conveyed and the opportunity cost incurred whenever a school wastes a child’s time on pointless distractions. Such gimmicks, however benign their intention, insidiously serve to reinforce the cultural status quo, in this case endorsing a commercial icon by giving it a place in the school milieu. Instead of joining forces with the mind-numbing mass of images and messages constantly seeping into children’s sponge-like brains, schools should indefatigably seize the opportunity to offer a fresh, stimulating alternative. If, for instance, the principal generated a similar buzz around a televised commemoration of the work of J. S. Bach or Mother Teresa, what a richer domain of possibilities it would engender for students and teachers alike.

Anyone with a young child knows that the gratuitous use of school time for purposes irrelevant to children’s intellectual or moral development happens all the time, usually in the form of fund-raising. Every time I turn around, my daughter brings home a packet describing another fund-raising campaign that involves getting the studentsK through 8to sell magazine subscriptions, raffle tickets, even preprepared food and (here’s the kicker) by enticing them with LOTS OF COOL STUFF! The more they sell, the more stuff they earn. So the incentive is not enhancing the school’s library or upgrading its computer room or even school spirit, but getting cool stuff (read: junk) for themselves. The worthiness of the endfinancial solvencyis indisputable, but when its means are dumbed down and dressed up in the garb of consumerism aimed at children, the school has stumbled badly, particularly a school that claims to hold depth of character, creativity and imagination at a premium.

As never before, running a school is a commercial enterprise. But the mere fact that education is a commodity does not mean that it has to be commodified, devoting school assemblies, classroom time and young children’s extracurricular time to being a consumer. Consumerism supplants imagination with images, and enthusiastically encouraging children to use their time and ingenuity to earn toys and gadgets under the auspices of school fund-raising is to confuse a child’s identity as a learner with her identity as a consumer. I say, keep the financial matters between school and parents, at least until junior high, and let the children’s imaginations flourish while they may. Hoping to insulate them from all that we as adults may have chosen to reject is a foolish chimera, for we are preparing them to be independent thinkers, not oblivious automatons. They are inundated as it is by the marketing machinery, acquisitive values and hollow pabulum that usually pass for kid-friendly culture. It is the very qualities that make them most vulnerabletheir impressionability, curiosity and fertility of mindthat make it incumbent upon schools to steep them in learning and leave the commercial claptrap to other, less enlightened venues.

Despite the fact that other parents invariably furrow their brow ponderously and nod in agreement with my argument, I feel I am swimming upstream. The standard expression of resignation, delivered in declarative rather than interrogatory voice, is, You’re right, but what are ya gonna do? Though not exactly surprising, it is nonetheless mind-boggling that a nation putatively united behind the cause of excellence in education displays such tepid opinions about what constitutes both excellence and education. An alumnus recently pledged $35 million toward a campus football stadium for the University of Minnesota. My awe at his laudable generosity is mixed with befuddled dismay that he should overlook dozens of educational programs facing severe cuts in favor of a stadium. When it comes right down to it, most Americans are less exercised about mediocrity in education than they are about the big toy or the big game.

Whither the excellence?

Thomas J. McCarthy writes from St. Paul, Minn.

Comments

Vince | 10/15/2003 - 2:52pm
The potential threat to the ligitimacy of funding of his son's position and department aside, to what in Mr. McCarthy's argument does Mr. Kelley "respectfully disagree?" Is it to the idea that without a concerted effort by those charged with educating our children, including parents, the messages that flood their too-accepting minds link their identity to the "stuff" they can accumulate? That they are somewhat less of a person if they don't contribute to consumerism? Or is it to the idea that school should, as a refuge from the cacophony of Madison Avenue, teach a detached analysis of consumerist messages, not Pavlovian responses to the "gotta have it" montra? Or is it to the idea that funding an athletic department of an academic institution should be a secondary consideration, when eminent professors are reduced to over-qualified beggars scrounging for grant money and faced with unemployment?

An unexplained criticism does nothing to legitimate the objection. In fact, in this case, it only supports the criticized by demonstrating the effects of an uncritical education.

Paul Kelly | 9/27/2003 - 1:59am
Our son is a college football coach. We respectfully disagree.

Vince | 10/15/2003 - 2:52pm
The potential threat to the ligitimacy of funding of his son's position and department aside, to what in Mr. McCarthy's argument does Mr. Kelley "respectfully disagree?" Is it to the idea that without a concerted effort by those charged with educating our children, including parents, the messages that flood their too-accepting minds link their identity to the "stuff" they can accumulate? That they are somewhat less of a person if they don't contribute to consumerism? Or is it to the idea that school should, as a refuge from the cacophony of Madison Avenue, teach a detached analysis of consumerist messages, not Pavlovian responses to the "gotta have it" montra? Or is it to the idea that funding an athletic department of an academic institution should be a secondary consideration, when eminent professors are reduced to over-qualified beggars scrounging for grant money and faced with unemployment?

An unexplained criticism does nothing to legitimate the objection. In fact, in this case, it only supports the criticized by demonstrating the effects of an uncritical education.

Mary Therese Lemanek | 2/7/2007 - 3:35pm
Thank you, Thomas McCarthy, for your direct and honest comments on our schools in “Swimming Upstream” (10/6). The amount of time, energy and implied worth that is given to supporting the prevailing cultural values has increased at a disturbing rate, and in direct opposition to what we say Catholic education is all about. Using fund-raising rather than stewardship as a model, we are doing little to model the Eucharist, countercultural values or the creative awe and wonder that are so significant to a child’s faith formation. You are not alone in your reactions, simply more courageous than far too many parents and administrators.

Paul Kelly | 9/27/2003 - 1:59am
Our son is a college football coach. We respectfully disagree.

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