Praying for the Emperor: Catholic Education and Military Service

Although it is a tenet whose popularity has been mercurial at best, I have steadfastly been a believer in the greatness of our country. This is just one of the reasons I believe Catholic education should and does play a big role in the training of the United States’ military officers’ corps.

In fact, just about 10 percent of all Catholic priests have a military background themselves. Twenty percent of those come from military families. As for the brass, every member of the Joint Chiefs except for Marine Corps Commandant Gen. John Amos is a practicing Catholic, according to the Archdiocese for Military Services.

The Davin Brothers: Joseph (Class of 2009), James (Class of 2011), Jason (Class of 2015) and John (Class of 2017), upon graduation from Kennedy Catholic, were all commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps
The Davin Brothers: Joseph (Class of 2009), James (Class of 2011), Jason (Class of 2015) and John (Class of 2017), upon graduation from Kennedy Catholic, were all commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps. (Photo by Rick Davin)

Jesus said, “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” Saint Paul always said, “Pray for the emperor.” All of which is to say, there is nothing in our Christian tradition and heritage which places us at odds with being an active part of civil society and the community in general. When you look at the military, it’s not that they are “war hawks” or out there to wreak carnage and havoc. Here in the United States, we view the military as the first arm of defense for our citizenry and protectors of our way of life.

We’re a great country, built on the principles of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Both of these documents resonate strongly with our Catholic faith, and Christianity in general. Our Judaeo-Christian roots are foundational to our country. In a Catholic school, I think civic pride, love of country, character, and virtue formation all feed into that.

Kennedy Catholic High School has an extraordinary track record as far as Academy acceptances go. We have had a U.S. military Academy acceptance from Kennedy every year since 2010. Five midshipmen from the Annapolis class of 2015 were from Kennedy. Last year we sent a man to West Point, and we sent two to the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point.

President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy leave Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, Washington, April 29, 1962, after attending Mass. Mrs. Kennedy wears a while mantilla to cover her head. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)

When asked about his time serving on PT 109, no less famous a Catholic and statesman than President John F. Kennedy remarked, “I can imagine a no more rewarding career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.'”

There is something in our formation, and in the Kennedy experience that generates a lot of enthusiasm for this type of life. When you look at the Kennedy students who go on to the service academies you note that they are principled people, they have a desire to serve. They also have a lot of focus, and their act together. They anticipate, early on, the markers that they must meet in order to get to this acceptance. The selection process is highly competitive.

If I sound like a bit of a cheerleader, maybe it’s because all this hits a bit close. I was in the Chaplain Corps in the U.S. Navy. Part of the job of the Chaplain Corps is to say to the men and women serving, “You’re doing a good thing! You’re serving your country, and God is pleased.”

Catholic Education’s Commitment to Community Service

One of the most important distinguishing elements of a proper Catholic education does not take place within the school’s classrooms, labs, library or chapel. It is our commitment to community service, and it occurs outside the walls and away from the sports fields, often in the poorest sections of the school’s town.

Community Center of Northern Westchester
Volunteers at the Community Center of Northern Westchester, in Katonah, NY

The institutionalization of community service occurred in the U.S. alongside our entry into World War I. During that time the word “volunteer” took on less of a military connotation and evolved rapidly to describe civilians engaged in using their non-martial skills in a patriotic way.

At Kennedy Catholic, the community service program is specifically Christian, and modeled after the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy.

Traditionally, the Spiritual Works are:

  • To feed the hungry;

  • To give drink to the thirsty;

  • To clothe the naked;

  • To harbor the harborless;

  • To visit the sick;

  • To ransom the captive;

  • To bury the dead.

 

…And the Corporal Works are:

  • To instruct the ignorant;

  • To counsel the doubtful;

  • To admonish sinners;

  • To bear wrongs patiently;

  • To forgive offenses willingly;

  • To comfort the afflicted;

  • To pray for the living and the dead.

St. Thomas Aquinas is frequently credited with codifying the Works, or “almsdeeds,” which had long been a part of Church tradition. In his Summa Theologica (ST II-II.30.1), Thomas defines mercy as “the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him.” Affective mercy, for Thomas, is purely emotion. It’s the pity we feel for others less fortunate, the sympathy which arises – or should arise – from our empathy.

St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas

The Christian service which Catholic schools like Kennedy mandate is what Thomas would have termed effective mercy. It’s an action that we take to alleviate someone’s suffering. With this in mind, Kennedy Catholic students often do their community service in area food pantries (such as the Community Center of Northern Westchester, in Katonah, NY)  and hospitals.

For a college preparatory school, community service is important above and beyond its theological moorings. Volunteer work shows college admissions counselors that a student is engaged with their community, and, when indexed against a student’s GPA and chart of extra-curricular activities, possesses the kind of strong time management skills that colleges favor.

Shakespeare’s Portia had it right: The quality of Mercy should not be strained. That is, it ought to be spontaneous. So although Kennedy Catholic requires students to complete 120 hours of Christian community service before the end of their senior year, we encourage them – unofficially – to do more.

I am delighted to note that it’s not unusual for a Kennedy Catholic student to have completed more than one thousand hours of Christian community service before graduation.

Why Accreditation Matters

Kennedy Catholic works very hard every day at maintaining our Middle States Association accreditation. Every seven years, the facilities, records, staff, and student body undergo an exhaustive inspection and interview process to satisfy a team of investigators who “camp out” at the school for over a week. As one of our administrators noted, “They turn us upside down and inside out.”

So who are these guys, and why do we care so much?

MSA-CESS LogoEstablished in 1887, the MSA is a volunteer and not-for-profit peer-based association that – not to put too fine a point on it – evaluates how good a school is. They cover public and private schools throughout Delaware, D.C., Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

There is certainly no shortage of government-mandated homogeneity among all secondary schools in the U.S. Public or private, Catholic or secular, every institution has to teach to a minimum established curriculum set by the state board of education, conform to certain safety regulations and meet fiscal benchmarks.

Schools that receive accreditation by the MSA have taken those benchmarks, raised them, and added a few of their own. The MSA has specific criteria which must be met for information resources, student life, student activities, student services, school organization, and even planning.

The MSA’s standards are designed to serve as a mechanism for amping up students’ – and teachers’ – performance. They are research-based and mirror proven pedagogical practices. Importantly for Kennedy Catholic, they are not designed to make all schools cookie-cutter clones of each other.

The MSA even tracks “indicators of quality” for faith-based schools. These include:

  • Appropriate attention is given in all school programs and activities to values and traditions that demonstrate and reinforce the school’s religious nature.

  • Members of the faculty are provided with opportunities to advance their understanding of the religious beliefs and foundation documents of the school.

    Checklist

  • Formal and informal opportunities are provided for the spiritual development of the faculty and staff members.

  • Regular professional development opportunities are provided for the spiritual development of the faculty and staff as spiritual leaders in the school community.

  • The religious studies program for students is consistent with the mission of the school and the sponsoring institution.

Certainly much of what MSA inspectors look for before awarding accreditation to a school could be categorized as the kind of “inside baseball” items that don’t make it onto the radar of prospective parents shopping for a private school. Still, we think that MSA accreditation is a “need to have” and not a “nice to have.” Just as you wouldn’t buy a new house without it first getting a passing grade on an engineer’s report, so, too, should parents check into their children’s school’s accreditation to see if that institution is “structurally sound.”

The full set of the most recent MSA’s “Standards of Accreditation” (which Kennedy Catholic met, by the way) have been published here.

Why Teach Latin?

Studying Latin has always been a hallmark of a Catholic education, yet I am still often asked why we teach it at Kennedy Catholic High School. Those curious often color their questions with a tinge of bemused concern for our “traditionalism,” as though we are pensioners driving three towns away to attend a Tridentine Mass.

It’s certainly not as if Latin is ‘#trending.’ In the old days – a century ago, in this case – half of public high school students took Latin. By 1974, that number had dropped to about 1 percent, and was even lower at last measure two years ago, according to records maintained by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Statue of AugustusSo why does Kennedy Catholic buck the conventions and teach three years of Latin, a so-called “dead” language, as a component of our Advanced Regents Diploma?

As a college preparatory school, we see Latin instruction as our secret weapon.

More than half of English words come from Latin (and more than 90 percent of those over two syllables), and that prevalence flows over into standardized testing. Do some research into the most common words to appear on the verbal section of SAT, and you’ll see they owe as much to Cato as they do Catcher in the Rye. Our experience at Kennedy is that the study of Latin is good for at least an extra 10 points on the SAT. (Nothing “dead” about that…!)

A few years ago Bloomberg interviewed William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid, and he was candid about the interest his employer takes when seeing “Latin” on a high school transcript. “We certainly do take notice,” he said. “It can end up tipping the student into the class.” (The Bloomberg article is paywalled but heavily excerpted here.)

Harvard’s not alone: The Deans of Admission for Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Princeton, and the University of Chicago have all gone on record about how heavily they weight the language of the legions.

Statue of CiceroNow, the topic of this blog is “On Catholic Education” and not “On How to Impress College Admissions Boards,” so what value does Latin have beyond greasing the skids into higher education?

Not to put too fine a point on it, Latin is the language of Western culture and civilization. For a millennium, the only language we had was Latin. Give Greek and Hebrew their propers, they were the languages of the original thinkers but it took the Romans to summarize, synthesize, codify and properly disseminate all that thinking. Through five Romance languages and the hybrid English, Latin became and remains the most influential language in history.

Even post-internet, Latin remains the language of medicine and law. I know this because I have lost count of the number of Kennedy grads who have made a point of returning to the school to tell me how much their Latin studies at Kennedy helped them in their pre-law and pre-med majors. As for the sciences, all of the root vocabulary for all the sciences trace their origins back to Latin. Of course, students of government, theater, art, architecture, philosophy and mathematics all benefit from a thorough grounding in Latin instruction and the Roman history and social studies which inevitably accompany it.

And if you believe, as I do, that it will again fall to the Catholics to save Western civilization in the 21st century as our Irish monks did in the 5th, then you know Latin instruction is not a “nice to have,” it’s a “need to have” in Catholic schools.

Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur!

Reaching for The Stars, Through The Cloud

Having already replaced all our text books with iPad texts (we see text books going the way of 8-track tapes in every district, very quickly) the next logical phase of future-proofing Catholic education at Kennedy was bringing all the lessons online.

iPhone & iPad set against a CloudWhy push education “into the cloud”? Don’t students and administrators have enough to worry about without adding bandwidth and connectivity issues into the equation?

I feel that Catholic educators must go online because that is where the students are living. From cradle to career, young people are communicating, working, playing and killing time online. In fact, the BBC just announced that they are investing £34 million into expanding their digital programming because their research has shown British youth are being “shaped and defined” by what they experience on American online media such as Facebook and Netflix.

Like the BBC, Catholic high school education must reinvent itself online if we are to keep pace with all the distraction vying for young people’s attention. We may not be able to prevent students from keeping their noses buried in a smartphone or tablet, but we can ensure that their education is no more clicks away than YouTube.

Our experience is that teachers, after a brief period of adjustment, find that Blackboard and other online lesson tools we use at Kennedy make them more productive. Beyond the lack of papers to shuffle, they are able to link to lectures – current and archived – and other resources that add a new hypertextual component to otherwise static and linear lessons. Also, a cloud-based curriculum allows for nimbleness and quick pivots over the course of a semester.

When the lessons are online, parents become part of the conversation in real time. As with PowerSchool, the app which Kennedy parents can use to keep abreast of their child’s grades on a daily basis, parents’ access to Blackboard grants them a glimpse into not only what their children are learning, but how they are being taught.

Students on iPads in Kennedy Library

The most prevalent criticism of online lessons and learning is that students may somehow suffer from the lack of interpersonal activity. We feel that our combination of in-class instruction and cloud-based homework and follow-through takes the wind from the sails of whatever merit that argument had. Plus, the research is all going in our direction.

The U.S. Department of Education published a report, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. Its conclusion could not make matters more clear: “Students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.” The government, too, found that the “blended” method, combining virtual and real-life classrooms, was most effective.

We have also noticed that some of the more socially awkward students who might not raise a hand in class will speak out in online forums There is a time and place when social skills should be taught, but I would submit that first period trigonometry class need not be among them.

Kennedy Catholic has just placed the last brick in the online bridge, with our Fine Arts department’s adoption of the SmartMusic app. Music students – both vocal and instrumental – are assigned a section of music as homework, and the app allows them to record their work and submit it to their music teachers as if it were just another page of algebra problems. The program also provides its own evaluation, letting the students know if they failed to hit the correct notes. Teachers decide, lesson by lesson, how many tries their students are allowed for each assignment to get it right.

Perhaps best of all, cloud-based coursework is kryptonite to the nemesis of every educator in northern Westchester County: snow. No matter how deep it is piled up outside, homework can still be assigned and turned in online!

The Paperless Advantage

At Kennedy Catholic, we spend a good deal of time thinking about technology, and it’s not just because we field two championship robotics teams. All of our classrooms are paperless, and all of our lessons are online. Kennedy students access their lessons through school-provided iPads.

Kennedy Catholic Student Using iPad in ClassroomWhen Kennedy first made the decision to drop text books in favor of iPads in 2012, we had a hunch we were in the vanguard of a brilliant movement in education. Now, over 7 years after Apple’s release of the tablets, there is quite a bit of empirical data that shows our hunch was correct.

Before closing up shop in 2014, the Pearson Foundation had done two surveys regarding tablets in the classroom. They learned that 86 percent of students using iPads believed the device helped them with their studies. Seventy-six percent of the users felt they performed better in class. This jived with an Oklahoma State study of college-age students that found 75 percent of students surveyed agreed that their iPad made learning a better experience. A study by text book publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt backed up those impressions, indicating that students using iPads saw their math test scores increase 20 percent in one year compared to students using traditional textbooks.

What’s the science behind these stats? Our experience is that working on a tablet draws students into the lessons more deeply. It adds a tactile component to the learning that mere textbooks cannot match. Plus, most students enjoy working on the iPads, so they are engaged, and their enthusiasm is contagious and spreads to those students who are initially wary.

Classroom of Kennedy Catholic Students All Using iPadsWe have also found that, being a private Catholic school, we have less difficulty controlling the culture and so can avoid the problems reported by some of the early adopter public schools. In the Kennedy environment, we are better able to implement filters, manage bandwidth, and minimize distraction.

Of course, our gym has been more crowded since we switched to iPads as our scholar-athletes need to find another way to build biceps, absent carrying around those towers of text books, but that’s a “happy problem”…