Catholic Schools Week p. 4: How Did We Get Here? Continued More

By the 1920s, the efforts of American bishops greatly aided by many teaching orders had built hundreds of parochial schools. Efforts were not consistent, however. In New York, lead by a series of strong and committed bishops, most parishes also had a parish school. (Alas, even then, the Church was never fully able to keep up with demand. Catholic immigrants arrived faster than schools could be built and teachers hired.) In Boston, efforts were less focused. I’d have to look it up (not looking stuff up for these blog posts – wait for the book) but I don’t think Catholic school attendance among Catholics there ever reached 50%.

Part of this has to do with the nationality of the immigrants. German immigrants tended to come from well-ordered towns where individual positive involvement with local government was not uncommon – people would get together in towns and villages an *do* stuff. One of the things they did was run schools. So, when challenged by the bishops to fund and build schools, German Catholic immigrants got right down to business: almost every parish formed to serve German immigrants has a school. Italian immigrants were a much more mixed bag: (speculation follows) while village life was common, the power of local aristocracy (and mafias!) loomed large. People couldn’t just get together and do something like build a school without considering political ramifications. I suspect (more research needed!) this tended to put a damper on local initiative. At any rate, Italian parishes (outside New York, where the whip was cracked and the bishop stood in for the aristocracy) were more spotty about support for schools.

The Irish had a couple chips on their shoulders: they were, along with Sicilians, southern Italians and Jews, the most despised immigrants. They had a harder time getting jobs and fitting in. Plus, they had no experience of benevolent or even merely indifferent government – for centuries, they had been ruled by the English and treated as slaves when they weren’t actively being exterminated. The English weren’t exactly going to encourage the Irish to build and run their own schools. So while many beautiful churches and parish schools were built by and for Irish immigrants, it was not something they seem to have taken to easily. The Irish could be mustered to build a church. Getting them to then sacrifice for a school seems to have often been too much.

(Aside –  a current personal example of what I’m talking about: the parishes around here often have more Spanish-speaking Latin Americans than English speaking parishioners. Several of my friends have ministries to the Spanish speaking, and talk about how hard it is to get the Mexicans in particular to own responsibility for the parish. They don’t really see it as their job to fund and take care of it. Looking at the last century of Mexican history, this makes some sense. The Church was – still is – persecuted in Mexico. For several generations now, open support for church activities was a career-limiting move at best. People from other Latin American countries are free of this problem to greater and lesser extents.)

That’s on the local level. The good news was that millions of Catholic kids were getting some education, mostly by religious sisters. They were winning by subtraction: the real victory was keeping them away from the state schools. The evils inherent in the graded classroom model were mitigated in Catholic schools by the belief that each kid was a child of God with an infinitely valuable immortal soul for whose salvation the adult teachers were somewhat responsible, as opposed to a blank slate on which the state’s will was to be written.

In the 1930s, with local power weakened by the Great Depression, states began to consider taking more drastic steps to curb or destroy Catholic schools. Oregon passed a law that outlawed private schools and required attendance at state schools. The case went to the US Supreme Court.

Now, if the law had been allowed to stand, other states were ready to try it, too. If you’ve been following these blog posts, you should see that the goals of the education establishment as founded in this country by Horace Mann included getting rid of exactly the kind of schools Catholics were setting up: local and outside state control. Catholic schools and one-room schools were the major stumbling blocks on the road to complete state control of all education, and thus were relentlessly attacked.

But the Supreme Court struck the Oregon law down. Before we dance in the streets, we should consider the nature of the victory and arguments. The Church and other private schools did not argue that the state had no place interfering with a parent’s God-given right and duty to educate his own children. Instead, they argued that the state has a critical interest in the education of children, but that as long as the parish schools conformed to the general guidelines and submitted to testing and inspection, they should be left alone. The Supreme Court agreed – that while the state had a duty (and therefore a right) to see to it that children got educated, the actual mechanisms should be left to the parents.

Note that the Church won the battle but lost the war: we could have or own schools, just so long as we complied with state education department rules and tests. Now, the smarter people at the top of the educational establishment were no doubt buoyed by this ruling: if the Catholic schools could be compelled to use the graded classroom model and test kids to make sure they were ‘performing at grade level’, the eventual outcome was assured. For the state is a jealous god.

The funny part is – and more research is needed here – the Catholic schools had already by this time adopted the graded classroom model, advertised as ‘scientific’ and ‘progressive’, without the need for state compulsion.  They already structured their curricula around ‘grade level’ rather than on the person interests and skills of the child. They already used graded textbooks. They had already separated the children by age with no regard paid to kinship or friendship. All the state had to do was watch.

And they got their wish. Rare is the parish school where a kid will learn familiar prayers and attend Mass and learn any doctrine. More likely, a huge percentage of the kids are not even Catholic. Their parents just want them out of the public schools, and have no fear their kid will come out Catholic – or, worse, that if they did it would have any meaningful effect. The milk toast Catholics the schools produce are indistinguishable from muddle-headed Gaia worshipers, where recycling is a virtue but following Catholic doctrine is strictly optional – and sort of icky and backwards.

Here in California, remarkably one of the less controlling states as far as education goes, Catholic parents have set up K-12 schools and colleges to get away from the horror and failure of the established Catholic schools. O, the irony! The founders of these schools probably never considered doing anything other than the graded classroom model! They don’t understand what Chesterton and Lewis point out many times: what you tell a kid may or may not take, but what you *assume* without discussion they absorb forever! So, these lovely schools – at the moment, they are lovely, in the bloom and vigor of their youths – have embraced the seeds of their own destruction.

For the kids will learn more deeply and profoundly that anything they are actively taught that 1) the most important inviolate thing is to stick to your assigned group; 2) people in charge will assign you to a group; 3) it doesn’t matter (much) what you already know or are interested in, you will study what we tell you to study; 4) experts will tell you how you’re doing  & define competence and success for you; and 5) it doesn’t matter who your friends and family are, those relationships are not as important to sticking to your assigned group and doing what you’re told.

(That last item may need a little expansion: to pick a familiar example, in American one-room schools, families and neighbors made up the entire student population. Kids were not segregated by age. Instead, family and neighbor relationships were taken as a given and reinforced by the school. It would be you brother or neighbor who taught you how to read cypher, and your cousin or sister you in turn taught. Compare and contrast to modern schools. Imagine how different schooling would be if the one-room model was adopted and adapted for modern city use, rather than being exterminated by the fans of the Prussian model.)

Of course, these messages are contradicted by the very real love and care of the faculty of these newer parent-run Catholic schools. The message of Christ – of love and sacrifice and most particularly the infinite value of each human soul – is a far stronger and more powerful message than that people must conform to the will of the state (which is why the state tries to bury it!). And the little saints and good people behind these schools can keep them on track for some time with the grace of God. BUT: those messages – Fichte’s and Mann’s and the NEA’s and Freire’s and Marx’s – that the child is blank slate, family is less important than school, and we all ar tools to be used to achieve the state’s ends – will, in the end, win by attrition so long as they lurk unrecognized in the graded classroom model itself.

This victory of the state is not a theory. It’s what has happened to all the beautiful and well-intentioned parochial schools already. Which is why parents form new Catholic schools. And why those schools, too, will eventually fail unless they reject the graded classroom model.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

8 thoughts on “Catholic Schools Week p. 4: How Did We Get Here? Continued More”

  1. More than once, I’ve seen struggling parochial schools in areas without a whole lot of resources–whether urban neighborhoods or small towns–that exemplify a lot of what I’d want in a Catholic school. The parents and the school have a strong commitment to the Catholic faith and they make it a priority for the kids to go to Mass, pray, and learn the faith; they aren’t obsessed with bogus measures of “academic performance” that make everyone miserable and don’t improve education; they welcome parental involvement; they tend to treat kids with more love and compassion than the average public or Catholic school; they make it clear that the kids and their families are part of the parish community. Typically, these schools close down when they no longer have enough families with enough money sustain one class for each grade. That’s a crying shame. They could easily set up a Catholic school with just a couple of teachers, not necessarily on the one-room schoolhouse model but on something a lot more like it. It would be less expensive, so the school could stay open. I think it would be better for the kids as people, and I’m convinced that reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic wouldn’t suffer, either. But sadly, this just isn’t seen as an option for a parish school.

    Oh well, Happy Feast of Saint John Don Bosco!

    1. Thanks for the comment. And a happy, holy & blessed feast to you as well.

      Right – God and the faith are stronger than education theory, so good people can run a good catholic school – hard though, as you point out.

      St. John Bosco is a very interesting case, as far as education history goes. Plan to write on him sometime…

  2. I suspect the relative success of Germans in building schools had less to do with problems that other groups had, and more an affinity that Germans had. Fichte didn’t exist in a vacuum. Is it really so surprising that people of the same culture and race as the inventors of the system should take to it more naturally?

  3. Ma went to a one room school… and Grampa got so annoyed by that he ran for school board, and eventually wound up running the thing.. to get the school I went to built. This is hardly the first time I’ve wondered if he knew what things were really going on, if he would have done the same. The only saving part of that, for me, was one of the teachers was a very hard-nosed aunt who had this idea of *teaching*, and damn the torpedos. At least one other impresses me still, in that things were read/done *as a matter of course* that would likely lead to an investigation and witchhuntery now.

    1. Wow. So, you did or did not go to a one-room school? Your dad got a modern school built?

      One contention I make that’s based more on high-level general observation rather than any of those pesky facts: Public schools, especially outside urban centers, needed to at least appear comparable to one room schools in quality – as long as there were any one-room schools to compare them to. There is documentation that the Consolidated Schools at first claimed to produce better educated students – then they got their wish and implemented statewide testing, and – well, after that, they focused on how poor and ill-equipped one room schools were.

      Once the one-room schools were eliminated – effectively, by WWII – then you had to wait for the living memory to die off. So, about 1960 in urban areas or 1970 out in the country, public school could begin doing what they were designed to do without having to worry about old timers reminding people that you got better results with less time and fuss in the old days.

      And so here we are.

      1. Ma went to the one-room (rode her horse there once, show your pet day… so I can say ma rode her horse to school… and not be lying by commission). I went to a 1-6 grade school Grandpa got built: Three classrooms each side of a hallway, gym/lunchroom at one end, office(s) & restrooms between the classrooms and the gym-space. In the 1970’s, there was still an incinerator in back, that was used. Not sure when the place was built. I’d guess sometime in the 1960’s.

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