Catholic Schools Week p. 2: How Did We Get Here?

This will be a quick skim no references version. The deep dive heavily referenced version is the book or two I hope to write in a few years when I’ve retired.

A key point you’ll need to keep in mind to understand the following: the form we consider normal for schooling is an historically recent invention. The idea that a nation should separate its young into ‘classes’ by age and teach every child in that class the same materials in the same way regardless of their existing knowledge, intelligence, interests and natural family relationships would have struck sane people as at least bizarre until about 150 years ago. If it weren’t for pervasive Stockholm Syndrome, it would strike us as bizarre as well.

When such schooling, known as the Prussian model, was first proposed in America by Horace Mann, Massachusetts’ and the nation’s first state secretary of education, around 1838, it was widely opposed. Literacy was about 99% in the North at the time – somehow, people were getting educated without the involvement of the state government and taxes! The hard-headed farmers and shopkeepers of New England were not about to tax themselves to get something – educated children – they already had.

Then starting in 1845, Mann got his lucky break: the Great Famine in Ireland resulted in many thousands of Irish immigrating to Massachusetts. Having suffered under the murderous fist of the English for centuries, having the culture and religion crushed, and being treated as slaves, the Irish understandably did not fit in. They weren’t good little Protestants.

These same hard headed New England farmers and shopkeepers were now sold the idea that compulsory public schools on the Prussian model were needed – to make good little Protestants out of the filthy Papist Irish via removing their children from their care and indoctrinating them in good solid Protestant teaching.

And the voters bought it. It became illegal to not send your kid to school – your kids could be taken away from you if found at home during school hours. Of course, those same kids could be working in a factory owned by Mann’s friends and peers – that was fine, so long as they were removed from the evil influence of family. That’s a key feature of Prussian schooling, which in its pure form (rarely advertised) advocates for the complete removal of the child from the family as soon as practical – say, once weened – for the kid’s entire childhood. No, really – you’ll need to read the book, all this is laid out at the founding of the public school movement. Complete removal of children from families has not proven economical or practical – yet. Instead, the school day and school year just keep growing, to reduce as much as possible the baleful influence of family.

As more and more Catholics came into the country, the bishops, with varying degrees of fervor, began pushing for the construction of Catholic schools. They were so desperate to prevent the Protestantization of the faithful via the schools that, at one point, they sought to get Vatican permission to excommunicate any Catholic parent who could send his kids to a Catholic school but refused. The pope, very probably not really understanding the situation, would not allow it. The bishops – this will shock you – went along with the pope’s decision without a fuss.

At no point did more than 50% of Catholic kids attend Catholic schools. The results we see today are exactly what those bishops feared. They would weep to see the secularization of almost all Catholic schools today.

Recall that not too many years later, in 1907, Pope St. Pius X issued his condemnation of modernism. Now, a pope will not bother condemning something in such dramatic fashion unless he sees it as a real and present danger. The example of what happened in American Catholic schools is just the sort of thing that PASCENDI DOMINICI GREGIS was written to address.

It is common and understandable that immigrants would desire to become accepted and acculturated. Many Catholic immigrants and their children wanted to be more American than the Americans. I remember reading somewhere that enlistment rate, for example, were and are higher for naturalized Americans and their children than for native-born Americans. There is a strong urge among Catholics to make their schools better examples of the public schools, so much so that today, you find Catholic schooling touted as a better version of public schools, higher test scores, better college admission rates, better future financial success, and so on. What’s not emphasized or explained in other than very broad and do-gooder terms is what makes Catholic schools Catholic. Mass attendance, prayer life, adherence to the teachings of the Church – these are not much discussed.

Not only did those largely German and Irish 19th century bishops fail  to get most Catholics into their schools, by the 1960s, it made hardly a lick of difference if they did.

Back to the timeline. Unfortunately,  by the late 1800s higher education in America had completely fallen under the spell of Hegelians and Marxists – and thus, we created a class of educated Catholics who, sharing with their less educated brethren the desire to fit in,  kept looking for ways to adapt the Catholic schools to the newest and best thinking at  (Calvinist=>Unitarian=>Hegelian/Marxist) Harvard. And boy, are those Ivy League schools down with compulsory Prussian education!

So, while the bishops obeyed Rome and stopped threatening the real risk of damnation on those who refused to send their kids to Catholic schools, other Catholics were doing their best to make those Catholic schools conform in spirit to the public schools.

A note on teachers, then we’ll put this aside for now and take it up again later. One of the biggest challenges the bishops faced was finding teachers. This was exacerbated by money – except in a few places, immigrants were both being taxed to pay for the public schools and then asked to contribute to the Catholic schools. There was very little money to pay teachers. So the bishops looked to religious orders to supply them. Demand was so high that young women – it was almost always women – would find themselves in the classroom teaching with only a year or two of preparation.

The religious orders both newly formed and old emphasized community life for the nuns, based on centuries of experience: they knew that if these young women lived in community with more experienced sisters, they could be taught how to teach while having their vocation strengthened and supported. The option – sending the young sisters away to some education school or other – was too risky to their callings even apart from the expense. Some orders and diocese tried to form their own education schools, but that proved expensive.

When the National Catholic Education Association formed in 1904, one of its chief missions was to professionalize Catholic grade school teachers. What this meant was sending them to education schools and getting them paid. This often put them at odds with the bishops and religious orders.

The NCEA eventually succeeded to a large extent. What this means is that for the last century, the best educated Catholic school teachers are taught in education departments founded and run by people completely on board with the methods and goals of Prussian education. Starting with Mann, every state and university education department in America has been established by devotees of the Prussian model. They are the gatekeepers.

Once we can start imagining education without the insane graded classroom model, we can start imagining true Catholic education.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

6 thoughts on “Catholic Schools Week p. 2: How Did We Get Here?”

  1. Very interesting. It would be even more interesting to compare Irish immigration to Canada and the U.S during the famine. The Irish that came to Quebec might’ve fared better as they were fellow Catholics. And welcomed with open armed due to escaping what was the 19th century Protestant style dimmitude
    You confirm my suspicions that the Irish in the U.S. had it tough; while not the quasi dimmi status of Ireland, they were still oppressed by the sanctimonious residues of Puritanism that simply couldn’t abide their existence.

    1. Yes. Just as such schools were labeled ‘scientific’ – as opposed to one-room schools, which were the norm – normal – across most of America in the 19th century. It’s bracing to note that there’s never been anything like a scientific study suggesting that little-butts-in-seats schooling is ‘better’ in any objectively measurable way. Not a one.

      Our schools are nonetheless ‘normal’ ‘scientific’ schools. Right.

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