Skip to content

On the Inside: Free Will in Catholic Schools

This winter, Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote “Catholic on the Inside,” in which she explored the idea that charter schools who adopt “Catholic on the outside” practices, such as uniforms and old-school Catholic discipline measures, are missing something that only faith-based schools can provide. In a periodic series of Posts this summer, we’re reminding ourselves about some of the Catholic “stuff” inside–or at the heart of–our work with students, so that amid all the challenges of this fall, we remain energized by those ideas and practices that make our work worthwhile.

I used to work in a high school where one of my colleagues would call out after almost every student who left her office, “make good choices!” She said it so often that I think we even quit saying “goodbye” at the end of the day and just threw that admonition at each other.

I appreciated the frequent reminder that our students are constantly making choices. It’s not just that modern life is full of options for everything from Starbucks orders to online personas that differ from our real lives. Freely making choices is also fundamental to who each of us is. What the Church teaches about that freedom at the core of who we are has huge implications for how Catholic schools should function.

Section 1730 of the Catholic Catechism notes that God endows each of us with the dignity of people who can initiate and control our own actions. God has done this so that each of us “might of our own accord seek our Creator.” Our rationality is what makes us like God; we are each “created with free will and are masters over our acts.” So the most God-like thing we can do is freely choose to do good. Sin, to paraphrase writer Flannery O’Connor, destroys that freedom, although many a modern person believes it does quite the opposite.

While children are born with God-given freedom, their consciences must be formed for its right use. And because order is crucial in classes for fairness and learning, we cannot always take time to spell out childrens’ behavioral choices to them and encourage the exercise of their free wills in the right direction. Indeed it is so efficient to tell kids what to do without making their freedom explicit that it can be tempting for adults to act as if children have no choice but to do what we say. Such control is, for better or worse, part of Catholic schools’ brand; Hollywood delights in stereotypes of ruler-wielding nuns overzealous with it. It is also key to what charter schools emulated from Catholic schools; as Kathleen notes in “Catholic on the Inside,” their adoption of Catholic schools’ “discipline, structure, and uniforms was a means for raising student achievement.”

As she goes on to explain, though, while order and achievement are important, neither are the end goal of Catholic schools’ formation of students. We know that they are free; we want them to “make good choices”; and so we are forming them to freely choose the good, so that they may know, love, and serve God. This formation for freedom has three key implications for how we educate:

Allowing Choices: As Kathleen explains in “Catholic on the Inside,”

Students should not be tightly controlled throughout their schooling but rather should have age-appropriate opportunities to make choices—to choose to do right, even if no one is watching. The consequences for student misbehavior should not simply be about maintaining order or asserting control. Rather, they are about helping students understand that, in choosing to do wrong, we accept the consequences of our actions.

Making Mistakes: Additionally, like anything we are asking students to learn, learning to make choices involves making mistakes. Taking reasonable measures to guard against harmful mistakes while still giving students the latitude they need to make good choices is the source of many anxious moments for parents and educators; it is also at the heart of our calling.

Forming Habits: Finally, we cannot simply expect students to exercise their free wills to do good simply because we tell them to. It requires lots of practice; so habit formation is key to our work. Every time we expect students to line up in the hall, pray, respond politely, or perform many of the other routines of Catholic school life, we are giving students a chance to build a kind of muscle memory of everyday virtuous acts. As Zora Neale Hurston says, you’ve got to go there to know there–and we believe that students can better recognize kindness and other virtues if they’ve “gone there” dozens of times in practice.

This fall, many of the habits we expect students to follow–either in online learning or in-person–will include lots of new ones, like avoiding multi-tasking while on Zoom lessons or keeping masks on in school. And the stakes will feel literally life-and-death. But if we want to form students’ free wills to choose the good even when we aren’t watching, I hope we find healthy ways to allow choices, to understand that children need room to make mistakes, and to exercise patience with them and ourselves as we all form new habits of making good choices.

Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Partnership Schools.