Book Review, pt 1: Parish School

Reading Dr. Timothy Walch’s Parish SchoolI’m taking this in several sections just so 1) I can give some of the critical ideas their due (there are many) and  2) I’m not writing a 20,000 word blog post.

Nutshell: This book is a gold mine. It compensates for it short length (<300 pages) with copious notes and references. I’ve already ordered a couple books from Amazon based on particularly crucial or interesting references, and have a half-dozen more in my shopping cart (I’m going to see if the local library can get them, as we’re starting to look at some real money buying them all.) He names names and points to critical movements and organizations. In other words, Walch has put together an excellent starting point for my needs, as well as a wonderful overview for anyone interested in the subject.

The first half of the book concerns itself with the early days of Catholic education in America up until the 1920’s, even taking time to discuss the Church’s activities in the various Spanish, French and English colonies. It hits its stride discussing the American and American Catholic responses to the vast waves of immigrants and ends with the early efforts of Catholic Liberal (his term) educators striving to implement ‘Efficient’ ‘Scientific’ education into the Catholic schools. I’ll take up the second half of the book in a couple days.

Key points:

  • The established Protestant majority despised and feared Catholic immigrants. Preachers railed against the ignorant, superstitious Papists, and asserted that they could never be good Americans unless they could be made into good Protestants.
  • The rougher elements in their flocks responded with violence on several occasions, and with contempt and  political machinations to thwart Catholic attempts to make America home.
  • One key step by the Protestant establishment was the imposition of compulsory schooling, the curriculum of which was designed, not to teach anything so mundane as the 3 R’s, but rather to inculcate solid Protestant values and a corresponding contempt for the Church and the parents, families and cultures that supported it.
  • The response of the American Catholic Hierarchy to this bigotry and the political machinations it spawned was to undertake the building of the Catholic parochial school system.
  • The bishops in charge of this project varied widely in their commitment. In New York, building parish schools was seen as almost a life-or-death project; in Boston, it was almost an afterthought. Other bishops fell somewhere in between.
  • While a huge success on some levels, at its peak only about 50% of Catholic school-age kids ever attended Catholic schools; at most times the percentage was much lower.
  • By the turn of the 20th century, once the project was well under way and had met with much success, the issue became exactly how much like the public schools the parochial schools should strive to be. ‘Conservatives’ (Walch’s term, again) were not interested in conforming to Protestant ideas of education; Liberals wanted Catholic schools to be ‘up to date’ and reflect the best current ‘scientific’ education practices as promoted by the likes of John Dewey. (1)
  • The Catholic Education Association (CEA) was founded at this time, as the Catholic equivalent of the NEA. This move was part of a more general effort to centrally manage and homogenize Catholic schooling.

And that’s where we get to at the end of the first half of the book.

Much of the above I was familiar with from previous reading. One thing new to me was how the role played in the growth of parish schools varied by the ethnic origin of the parish itself: (I extrapolate a bit here in regards to how the immigrants’ experience of government in their native lands influenced their enthusiasm for school-building.)

When the German immigrants starting pouring into the Midwest in the middle of the 19th century, they, like many American immigrants, formed tight-knit communities based on their ethnic origins. The Catholic Germans needed little encouragement to throw themselves into the project of building churches for German-speaking parishes. All across America, wherever German Catholics settled, one finds beautiful churches. The sacrifices the largely impoverished immigrants made to build these glorious buildings is breathtaking.

Along with beautiful churches, German – and Polish, Czech, and Slovak – immigrants also built Catholic schools in response to the encouragement of their bishops. They instantly grasped that if they were to keep their Catholicism alive in the patently anti-Catholic America they found themselves in, they would need to make sure their children learned the faith and were insulated at least to some extent from the efforts of the established Protestant majority to drive a wedge between the parents and their children. (2) It was obvious to them, based on their experiences of the activities of the governments of their native countries, that such division was in fact the major goal of the public school. If they had any doubts, they needed only to look at the constant stream of anti-Catholic invective coming from staunch Protestant preachers, and, more important, school related legislation and regulations intended to use the public schools to suppress and supplant Catholicism. (3)

Again, the Germans, Poles, Czechs and Slovaks made huge sacrifices to build and run parish schools, second only to their efforts to build the churches themselves. A significant majority of their kids attended these schools, which largely retained their ethnic character until WWII.

Yet at no time did more than 50% of Catholic kids attend Catholic school. Often, the attendance rate was much lower. Support for parish schools varied widely depending on ethnic group. Italians almost never could be moved to build parish schools. The Irish rarely built schools outside of the New York City archdiocese. (4)

Italians, who had largely not been schooled by the state back in the old country and who generally seemed to believe any schooling past 6th grade was excessive, (5) seemed to be unimpressed by the idea of schooling in general. Besides, the state offered it for free. Paying for schooling to make sure their kids would stay Catholic was probably simply incomprehensible to someone from Italy. German Catholics had lived for several centuries in a country where it took active effort to remain Catholic; Italians, not so much.

But the real story here is the Irish. Their sons, not the Germans, dominated the American Catholic hierarchy for a century or more. These archbishops, bishops, and priests were the architects and front lines in the parish school movement.

Unlike any other ethnic group (with the possible exception of the Jews), the Irish had endured centuries of mistreatment at the hands of their government. Their British overlords generally treated them worse than animals when they weren’t actively trying to exterminate them. When Irish peasants got to America, they met with what must have seemed depressingly familiar attitudes from the established Protestant majority – hatred and contempt. (6)

The Protestant leadership constantly flung the accusation at the Irish that they were not and could not be good Americans, as they were ignorant, superstitious Papists. Some bishops and other Irish leaders felt the need to prove them wrong. I strongly suspect that, as far as schooling goes, the psychological need to out-American the Americans meant to many leaders trying to adopt as much as possible the public school model. It was assumed without comment by the Liberals that the ‘efficient’ ‘scientific’ public schools were better than Catholic schools at educating kids for their place in the modern world.

Of course, changing schools that were created in opposition to the public schools to be more like the public schools was a controversial idea. The two chief concerns: how much of the public school model embodies what it is that the Catholic schools were built to oppose? And, how compelling is the case for spending money on a Catholic education for your kid if what he’s going to get is a public school education with the Baltimore Catechism tacked on? We’ve reached the middle of the book.

Observations: Walch points out that, early in the game – mid 19th century – that the bishops opposed not just the rampant Protestantism of the public schools, but the very concept that the state, rather than the family and the Church, had the primary role in the education of the young. The Hegelian (and Fichtian, and, frankly, Platonic) idea that the value of the individual is a function of their role in, and usefulness to, the state would have been anathema even apart from its manifestation in the public schools. Somewhere along the line, that battle appears to have been lost or at least obscured.

I put ‘efficient’ and ‘scientific’ as applied to schooling in scare quotes since, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, these words they keep using – I don’t think they mean what we think they mean. As mentioned here, William Torey Harris, the fourth United States Commissioner of Education from 1889 – 1906 and a prolific leading voice in school reform, tried during his life to make Hegelianism the official philosophy of the US education. While he failed to get Hegel officially accepted, the Hegelian gate-keepers at all the major education schools made sure it became the de facto standard.

The term ‘scientific’ as applied to education at the turn of the last century must be taken in the Hegelian sense, not in what might be called the Feynmanian sense. ‘Scientific’ here does not mean ‘demonstrated via rigorous application of the scientific method as practiced by, for example, physicists and chemists’; nor does it mean ‘results come from a systematic organized body of knowledge’. Nope – Hegel uses the term most tellingly in his Science of Logic, which science, as Hegel would have it, eliminates what any sane person would call ‘logic’ and replaces it with ‘speculative reason’, which by definition is beyond the reach of the Aristotelian logic that lies at the core of Science as understood in the prior definitions. Specifically, the Law of Non-contradiction is rejected – you know, the very law that allows anyone to make any sense of anything and communicate anything at all – that law.

No, ‘scientific’ as used by education theorist from the late 19th century on means ‘we are more enlightened that you are’. It certainly does NOT mean ‘supported by rigorous research using the scientific method’ since no such research was ever conducted.(7)

Similarly, for an Hegelian, all the world is the Spirit unfolding itself through History. ‘Progress’ is toward wherever the Spirit is going. But we can’t see where the Spirit is going until it has sufficiently unfolded itself – that’s why we can’t tell you where we’re going until after we get there. ‘Efficient’ means whatever gets us to where we can’t say we’re going – got it?  And if this makes no sense to you, that’s proof you’re a benighted fool – all the cool kids get it. The Emperor’s robes are truly dazzling!

The only thing more striking than the willingness of Hegelians to accept this patent, irrational nonsense is their certainty that they’re right.

A Thomas Edward Shields – I’m trying to lay my hands on some of his essays and books – was the major Progressive voice in American Catholic education in the early 20th century. He was a champion for incorporating modern ‘scientific’ ‘efficient’ methods into Catholic schooling. Most tellingly, when he was rebuffed in these attempts by the Catholic Education Association in 1908, his next step was to just start publishing textbooks for Catholic schools that incorporated these ideas. He was the owner, editor and chief writer for his own publishing company. Thus, we see demonstrated another aspect of Church ‘reform’ – if the proper authorities don’t like it, just get sneaky to get it done anyway.

  1. When he wasn’t acting as an apologist for Russian Communist atrocities according to dictates of Progressive Pragmatism (can’t make an omelet, and all that), Dewey promoted kinder, gentler ways of turning kids into obedient dunderheads. Not that I have an opinion on this, or anything. I will be reading more Dewey as part of this project – maybe I’ll change my mind…
  2. Perhaps some of those Germans had read Fichte, and knew what the game was really about?
  3. In case you doubt  this, turns out there is copious documentation that this is exactly what was going on. That I’ll save for the book – this is just a preliminary essay.
  4. The early archbishops of New York were among the greatest and most vociferous supporters of parish schools, and expended far more energy on the project than the typical bishop of the time. Outside New York City, Irish Catholic parishes with schools were the exception rather than the rule.
  5. In 19th century Italy, as in almost all places through almost all of history, a 12 year old was expected to contribute to the sustenance of the family.
  6. It should not be surprising that when the Irish have gained dominant political power in America, what seems to follows is an utterly corrupt political machine. The give-and-take that characterizes (or, at least, used to characterize) American politics is noticeably absent in Boston and Chicago, where a single party dominates by whatever means are necessary. To the Irish, reacting to centuries during which (British) government was, in effect, the mere exercise of raw power, small-R republican ideas of a government guarding a common patrimony for the good of all were probably merely incomprehensible. Political power is, as Callicles said 2500 years ago, the ability to reward one’s friends, punish one’s enemies, and indulge your every whim – as Billy and Whitey Bulger, or Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathouse” John Coughlin would understand. Every group has its bad apples, but these characters attained Robin Hood status among the Boston Southies and Chicago Irish, respectively.
  7. While my efforts are hardly exhaustive, I’ve made a hobby of looking for scientific support for the claims of educators – that’s primarily how I got involved in all this in the first place – and, so far, I’ve seen exactly one education-related study that had anything important to say that stood up to 15 seconds of examination. It takes that long or less to identify where the study fails from a scientific view.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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