Found Classroom, Found Community

What is ‘social capital,’ and how do we measure it?

By Gerald F. Lordan, O.P., Ph.D., Social Studies Teacher and Faculty Mentor

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, was a novelist and Free French Army aviator lost missing in action in 1944 during World War II.  He is paraphrased to have said, “The most important things in life are invisible and impossible to measure.”

For many years this statement applied to the benefits of Catholic education.  A recent book, Lost Classroom, Lost Community by Margaret Brining and Nicole Stelle Garnett, helps to quantify the value of Catholic education to the community.  The authors, both of whom are Notre Dame University Law School professors, studied demographic, educational and criminal statistics in Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. They found a close connection between the presence of a Catholic school and community social capital.  This connection can have a positive impact not only on the life of the community as a whole but also on the lives of the individuals within that community.

Social capital can be defined as the social networks and norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness shared by members of a community with one another.  Brining and Garnett found high levels of social capital among the administrators, teachers, parents and students of Catholic schools.  Social capital can be considered a factor of production similar to physical, financial and human capital.  According to Brining and Garnett, social capital can be viewed as something that helps to produce a better society, less crime, less disorder and more trust.  When Catholic schools are closed in a community, the community suffers.  Many people who support Catholic education sense these findings intuitively.  Saint-Exupery to the contrary, notwithstanding, Brining and Garnett help to quantify those intuitions.

What Catholic education can do for an individual may be even more important than what it can do for a group.  Social Capital may be one of the greatest attributes to a Catholic education.  It can be even more important than either the building, the teachers and the curriculum.  It can be the value-added component that makes the price of tuition worthwhile.  It can make a Catholic education a sound investment not only in our children but also in our grandchildren.

Many of us marry a person we meet between the ages of 18 and 25.  Should our children attend Catholic schools, they may well meet, court and marry another Catholic school student.  Research suggests that Catholic school graduates, when compared to public school graduates, have a higher high school graduation rate, a higher college graduation rate, more stable marriages, better jobs and more community involvement. These are attributes that many of us would want to see in the marriage partners of our children and the parent partners for our grandchildren.

Catholic schools are not a prerequisite for a successful community nor a successful life.  However, they are a great starting place and an incubator for both.

View the video, “A Crisis of Community.”

About the Author

Gerald Lordan

Dr. Lordan is entering his 27th year of teaching at Fenwick. Originally from Massachusetts, Lordan completed his under-graduate studies at Northeastern University and received a master’s degree in elementary education from the University of Maryland. He earned his Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from Boston College.

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