Education Round Up: A Great Confluence

Still working through the Education History Reading List (for which I’ll throw up a bibliography as a page here soon. I hope). Stalling out on the Great Confluence – hey, catchy, that! – when, during the last decade of the 19th century and the first 3 decades of the 20th, the attitudes of American Catholic leaders toward state schools changed. Initially, the great founding bishops, themselves often immigrants, opposed as a matter of principle the goals and methods of the nascent compulsory state school systems. They (pounding on the pulpit, one imagines) were asserting the Church’s ancient teaching that parents had the duty and right to educate their own children, in cooperation with the Church, and that the state’s proper role was to support – or at least not thwart – the efforts of parents and Church. The parochial schools were established to this end. Even if, somehow, the state-controlled schools had not been anti-Catholic, the principle of the thing remained: the state was overstepping its proper bounds when appointing itself schoolmaster to its citizens.

Two rivers meet, yet stay separate – for a while. 

Yet, from the beginning, the state’s taxing authority was used as a lever to separate the faithful from their shepherds. To poor immigrant family, trying to survive and fit in, the schools became a carrot and a stick: you could put your kids in school – for free, or at least, the cost was paid by taxes you were going to pay anyway – or get them a factory job, (1) or have them subjected to truancy laws, where they could be arrested for hanging out and you, as a parent, would be conclusively presumed to be not competent to be parents for the crime of not putting your kids in the schools (and for being Catholic – a far more grievous crime in the eyes of established Americans). Your kids could be taken away. Sometimes, there were Catholic schools available, but often not. And you had to pay, at least sometimes, for these Catholic schools.

So, from the beginning, some sort of accommodation or compromise had to be worked out. Among the bishops were some who put building parish schools near the top of the list, right under building the parishes themselves, and wanted the threat of excommunication to use against those who were able to send their kids to a parish school but did not.(2) But even among the less zealous, the idea that the public schools were an evil to be mitigated, and that state involvement in education was, at best, a slippery slope even in theory (and a horror in practice!) was the dominant position. Yet, for millions of immigrants, a parish school was not an option.

Starting around 1887, at the time of the founding of the Catholic University of America, another strain became more prominent: those who wanted to incorporate progressive ideas of education as seen in the public schools into parish schools. This did not go over well with the old guard, who saw it as a betrayal and surrender to the enemy. But slowly, over the course of about 40 years, this idea that Catholic schools should mirror public schools in pretty much every way, except be better at it and include religion classes, became the accepted orthodoxy. Thus, we see studies about ‘outcomes’ for Catholic versus public school children, which would have made those crusty 19th century bishops blow a gasket – the outcome they were interested in was faithful Catholic kids! That part has been downplayed to the point where, in my personal experience, anecdotally confirmed from all over, the typical catholic school kid is indistinguishable in behavior and attitudes from any conventionally schooled kid from a comparable social and economic background. (3)

If the Catholic schools are just good private schools with religions tacked on, why would a parent make the huge financial sacrifice to send their kids to one? Why not just send them to the public schools, and then send them to the local parish’s Sunday School-equivalent? You’d do it if you have some money for school, and the parish school is the best bang for the buck considered as a private school. Thus, our local Catholic high schools cost about $17,000 a year – and explicitly cater to parents who want college prep. Catholicism is mostly downplayed, except to assure prospective customers that it’s not required. One suspects that, if an equally affordable and prestigious private school were available in the neighborhood, some significant percentage of parents would at least strongly consider it. Why not? And the universities are far, far worse.

So I’m investigating how we got to this point. But it’s all confusing, and the unexpressed biases of the authors I’m reading make it even harder. So, it on to the source materials – and that’s a lot of work, so I’m kind of stuck, or at least, moving really slowly.

  1. In the middle of the 19th century, it was more often than not OK, in the eyes of the law, to stick you 10 year old in a factory, but not to let him simply hang out while Mom and Dad worked. If your kids weren’t working, they had to be in school.
  2. I imagine this threat of excommunication was intended to be used against vocal proponents of Catholic parents sending their kids to public schools, to, if not shut them up, at least make it clear they were not speaking with the Church. But I don’t know.
  3. We’re talking here about attitudes toward sex, money, and religious obligations (spiritual, not religious, therapeutic deists). They dress the same: the girls like pop stars – meaning, as prostitutes – the guys in name-brand clothing by companies touting sex.  Same with money – if you’ve got it, flaunt it. The pro-life ‘club’ at a local catholic high school is controversial – mustn’t impose beliefs, and all that. Talk about hell in faith formation class, get fired. These are just examples I personally know about.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

2 thoughts on “Education Round Up: A Great Confluence”

  1. I can corroborate your impression of modern Catholic school students. My older son went to a diocesan school for grades 1-8, the younger one for grades 1-6, before switching to a NAPCIS school (a Catholic school independent of the local diocese, generally with a classical curriculum). The difference was night and day. They were miserable at the diocesan school, whereas their faith came alive at the NAPCIS school, not to mention that their schoolwork became infinitely more interesting, and they made much better friends. This was largely due to the factors you describe: That the kids in the diocesan school were no different from kids at a public school in terms of attitude and dress, and were there primarily because their parents wanted an academically superior school.

    I suppose some of them also wanted to shield their kids from bad influences; that was our primary motivation. But as the years rolled by, we started to wonder how much shielding was actually being done. Granted, the school was probably better at keeping outright wickedness to a minimum, since it could be as strict as it wanted with regard to admissions and could expel a misbehaving kid at the drop of a hat. But in terms of cultural attitudes and influences, there was virtually no effort made to form the kids to be any different from any other American kid.

    The one thing that crystalized this idea for me was the annual Spring choral concert. Each year the concert had a different theme: One year it was Broadway show tunes, the next year songs from Disney movies, and so forth. Hello? Are we not Catholics? Would it kill us to sing a hymn in honor of our Lady? It was very discouraging. Whereas the NAPCIS school choir would sing Mozart and Palestrina. It was like a drink of cold water.

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