Shortly after I started working as Dean of Academics at the greatest Catholic high school in the universe I attended a presentation on disruptive innovations that was supposed to till the soil for a diocesan-wide push towards adopting some non-traditional educational models (e.g. online classes, flipped classrooms, hybrid courses). The Catholic Schools Office felt that these educational approaches were worth pursuing because they deemed them the best way to meet the needs and expectations of both students and parents.
The presentation basically argued that the times they are a’changing and, if we wanted to keep pace with other schools, we would accept that the field of education was being disrupted and start making the switch to the new way of doing things. If you don’t know what it means to say an industry or field is being disrupted, I’ll explain.
In any given field conventional wisdom and standard operating procedures work together to maintain the status quo. So for example, before transistor radios, the status quo in the radio industry was R2-D2-sized radios powered by vacuum tubes. Naturally, industry leaders like RCA and Magnavox poured all their R&D money into creating better, more efficient vacuum tubes.
When the first transistor radios came on the scene, they were utterly dismissable. They had crappy reception, tinny sound, and zero aesthetic appeal. BUT they were cheap and portable, which meant that Joanie and Chachi could neck to their rock-n-roll music without Mrs. Cunningham walking in on them. These cheap radios sold like crazy which allowed their manufacturers to produce more of them and improve their quality. Eventually, the upstart radios surpassed the industry leaders in both sound quality and market share.The industry had been disrupted. Sic transit vacuum tube radios.
I find this idea of disruption fascinating, but I think the Catholic Schools Office has misread the signs of the times.
Last week I had the privilege of attending the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education’s annual conference with a few of my colleagues. Hearing about all the good work that is going on in Catholic classical schools around the country was inspiring. For those few days, I felt like I had climbed up out of a smoggy valley and my reward was the clarity that comes with being in an atmosphere of fresh, pure air. From that vantage point it was clear to me that the real disruptive force in Catholic education is not going to come from the future; it’s going to come from the past.
Chesterton says that sometimes to make progress you have to go in reverse (like when you’re running toward a cliff). I think this why I–and any Catholic who cares about their children–need to work without ceasing to return Catholic education to its classical roots. Otherwise, all of our efforts will simply be more efficient vacuum tubes.