Catholic Schools Week p. 3: How Did We Get Here? Continued

We left our brief and unannotated summary of the history of Catholic schooling in America around the turn of the last century. At that time, the bishops for the most part remained firm in their support of Catholic schools in opposition to the public schools. It was clear public school – compulsory, Prussian model built upon ‘blank slate’ theory – were set up specifically to destroy the Catholic faith – as well as family and local community.

A little context: Back in 1811 in Berlin, Fichte had proposed schooling as the solution to the problem of German national unity – if only progressive, right thinking people could break the local, family and religious bonds that compete with loyalty to the state, and replace them with unthinking obedience to the will of the state (as embodied by the likes of Fichte), all problems would be solved! The German people could assume their rightful place as leaders and teachers of mankind!

All we need to do to achieve this earthly paradise, Fichte taught through a series of very popular public lectures, is physically remove all children from their parents and start right in training kids to do exactly what their teachers tell them to do. Kids must learn to reject home, village and their village’s God. They must learn to mistrust their own inclinations and instead realize that only the approval of their teachers matters. Their freedom lies in becoming completely subservient to the will of the State as expressed by their teachers. Once properly trained, they will become a new people, fit for the new  enlightened and progressive paradise.

(If you hear in Fichte foreshadowing of Hegel, Marx and Nazis, you are not wrong.)

This went over so well in Prussia that von Humboldt put Fichte in charge of the newly-established University of Berlin, where the details of how to deliver such an education were worked out. (For example: nothing says ‘control’ like bells, arbitrary social arrangements like age-grouping, and needing permission to go to the bathroom – let’s do that!) Mann, and just about every American education reformer for the next 50 years, went to Prussia to learn how to do it. After Mann returned from his tour of Prussia in 1841, he became an even greater cheerleader for Prussian schooling in America – he had seen the future (well, at least up until maybe Great War) and it worked!

The unholy rage for central control of everything was in full bloom all around, and the example of the bloodbath and ruin of Russian Revolution and Nazi Germany had not yet presented the case studies of how such efforts to perfect Man in this world play out. I imagine that, then as now, if you had too strong and too public doubts about all this, you were unlikely to get invited to the cool kid’s parties. Once it’s been established that external approval by the proper authorities IS the measure of all things – the central goal of our system of schooling – how could it be otherwise?

(As an aside: in Lord of the World, written just before WWI, Benson could plausibly speculate that centralized control worked just great under its own term. Seemed to be working at the time. He contemplated the horrors that would result from a tidy, efficient world at ‘peace’ bought roughly under Fichte’s terms. Those with eyes to see had not yet been disabused by small h history.)

So we have a Catholic hierarchy in America consisting mostly of German and especially Irish bishops, many of whom were themselves immigrants or children of immigrants, trying to provide for the spiritual needs of millions of often uneducated and desperately poor Catholics. The need for Catholic schooling was just one of many things they had to worry about.

The Catholic University of America was founded in 1887. Catholics had been founding universities since the 12th century – Catholics invented the university – so CUA is hardly surprising. I need to do much more research here, but from the admittedly incomplete reading I’ve done so far, it seems that at least in part, CUA was a manifestation of the outsider’s desire to fit in. It wasn’t enough to reject the grim Calvinism (in its myriad mutated forms) of Harvard – we had to have a big university, too! And it will be *just like* those Ivy schools, only Catholic.

The trouble is, where do you draw the line? How much of what goes on at Harvard can a Catholic university baptize, and how much needs to be utterly rejected?

Somehow, somewhere in this timeframe, the graded classroom model became the American Catholic school model. Again, I must remind the reader that this idea that kids should be segregated by age, spoon-fed certain subjects in the same way, governed by bells and always under the teacher’s unquestioned authority  is NOT normal, nor historical, nor, especially, Catholic. It is an innovation by viritent anti-Catholics instituted to control people like us. Yet, somehow, it became the unquestioned norm of Catholic schools in America.

At this time, parallel to the need for teachers was a ‘need’ for teaching materials that could be used in a graded classroom Catholic school.  A couple priests on the faculty of CUA took it upon themselves to produce such materials, structured to reinforce the graded classroom style (you know, a 1st grade this, a third grade that). There seems to have been some friction with the bishops at this time over who exactly was in charge. The bishops had not granted any formal or exclusive right to publish Catholic textbooks, yet de facto, that’s what happened. The publishers seem to have been far more sympathetic to modernism than the bishops. This foreshadows the conflicts we see today, where the local bishop, who is legally and morally in charge of any schools that call themselves Catholic in his diocese, is opposed at every step by faculty and even parents if he tries to impose anything too overtly Catholic on them.

By the 1930s, when states such as Oregon made efforts to simply ban Catholic schools outright, they had already come to be kinder, gentler versions of Prussian schools where you could pack a rosary without getting into trouble. But the structure – and therefore inescapably the goals – of Prussian schooling were ubiquitous

To be fair, up until the 1960s (I caught the tail end of this) it was customary to start the day at a Catholic school with Mass, and to stop and pray the Angelus, and to pray before classes and to otherwise be demonstratively Catholic. I was present in schools when these traditions died, and the Catholicism of Catholic schools became little more than the marketing gimmick it almost always is today.

To be continued.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

9 thoughts on “Catholic Schools Week p. 3: How Did We Get Here? Continued”

  1. Kids must learn to reject home, village and their village’s God. They must learn to mistrust their own inclinations and instead realize that only the approval of their teachers matters. Their freedom lies in becoming completely subservient to the will of the State as expressed by their teachers. Once properly trained, they will become a new people, fit for the new enlightened and progressive paradise.

    I can see how that would be popular– not in the exact framing, but that is how you break a toxic culture.
    And there were definitely objectively toxic cultures around– a very unpopular thing to point out about some of the Indian Schools is that they basically kept the kids from going into criminal gangs as a matter of course. Not a popular way to describe raiding parties that could and would steal, rape, torture and murder those who were vulnerable, but were outside of the control of the adult groups.
    (digression: The one my great-grandmother taught at was unpopular for another reason– it educated the kids so they were functionally equal to anybody else, thus removing a large pool of dirt-ignorant labor to exploit. My grandmother, who was educated right there alongside the Indian kids [and any of the other kids her folks wanted there] went to college at 16 or 17, became a newspaper reporter. Some of the other kids became my cousins by marriage. Some of the kids who were taught with those guys lost their fathers to the last Indian raid in the US, too. She never said if there was any…issues…about that.)

    1. Those are very good points. In previous posts, I’ve pointed out exactly that: that schools are primarily cultural tools – used to reinforce, change or destroy culture. You from Oklahoma? My dad’s family – part Cherokee – was from Claremore. My dad would never tell stories, and was very dismissive of any interest in our Indian ancestors. His dad had a huge spread, which came about due to the land grants given to his wife and kids. Lost it all in the Depression.

      Sometimes, there are cultures that really need replacing – the examples I used were Asian Indian cultures where girls were effectively bartered off at marrying age (schools were started specifically to train girls so that they became economic pluses to their families, gaining in the process some respect and power) and inner city black ‘culture’ (school all but completely remove the kids from whatever dregs of family remain, make them dress in uniforms, do their homework at school on a schedule, be punctual, address adults with ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ – that they learned some math and standard English in the process is almost trivial in comparison to the cultural change).

      The problem happens when outsiders decide they need to destroy your culture for your own good. In both my examples, school attendance was voluntary, and people fought to get into them, because they saw the benefits of the results: less poverty.

      1. Nah, up in the Nevada/California corner.

        *nod* to the cultures that need work.

        Been reading the rest in the series– mostly riffing on that tiny point because posting “that makes sense” or minor disagreements wouldn’t help much, but the slight mental twist that takes it from “how the heck were these POPULAR?!?” to “huh…ok, I can kind of see how folks would think that stopping That Bad Group There would be a good idea.”

      2. And the Irish were in many ways – what’s that word? – deplorable: poor, unwashed and suffering from group PTSD. Mule-headed and clannish to the death. AND devoted Papists!

        So your typical right-thinking Presbyterian or Anglican would *of course* believe they were doing them a *favor* by trying to take their kids away and, um, de-program them?

        But the long game, what Mann and Fichte and William Torry Harris and John Dewey and so on wanted was for EVERYBODY to go through it. EVERYBODY would learn to follow orders and wait to be told what to think before thinking it.

        Everybody except the tiny % who send their kids to Sidwell.

        Anther historical oddity: German schools had been following Humboldt’s take on Fichte for 130 year by WWII. Produced the world’s finest soldiers – but doesn’t produce officers. So officers were tutored, as it were, mentored by older officers, who taught promising guys how to think and act. That might explain why some German officers behaved well in the war, refusing to blow up architectural treasures or shoot down helpless aircraft. (Many behaved as terribly as one would expect, given their educations – but some did not.) They were taught by men with memories longer than the Third Reich. Evidently, this mentoring was a tradition in the Prussian army.

      3. Heck, I only fairly recently found out that the crazy “all the German officers have a scar” thing from the movies was real— the guys who were really into it did a form of fencing designed to get your face scarred.

      4. I figured you’d know about it so I didn’t get any of the words looked up– here, better details, though it’s still a blog:

        According to Encyclopedia Britannica, German military laws permitted men to wage duels of honor until World War I. In 1936, the Nazi regime legalized the practice once more. This type of duel has roots in the German university system, where mensur (student duels) prepared young men to rank among the social elite later in life. The dueling scar, also called schmiss or renommierschmiss (bragging scar), was considered a mark of honor. Young fraternity men proved their valor in these duels, which were considered an essential rite of passage into high society for government officials, doctors and professors. This essay on “The Manly Martial Art of the Sword” clarifies that mensur was not a fight; instead, it was a “willin[g]…act of personal self-development and group-identity affirmation.” Men who flaunted the fresh slash of dignity made themselves conspicuous in public places — women were known to fawn over the scars.

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