Catholic Schools Week p. 5: History Wrap Up

In previous posts, here, here and here, we quickly ran through some high points and low points in the history of Catholic Schooling in America. Picking up where we left off:

The Supreme Court decision in the 1930s case of the blatant anti-Catholic Oregon laws outlawing Catholic and other private schools and mandating government schools left the Church free to continue its program. The ruling basically said that, yes, parents have the right and duty to educate their kids BUT the state also has a duty to see to it that its citizens get educated. This seems on the surface a reasonable and workable position. Catholics get to run their own schools, yes, but the state gets to decide whether or not they’re doing a good job, and, at least implicitly, could step in with whatever amount of management, rules, laws, and curriculum it saw fit to ensure the schools were ‘educating’ Catholic school students to the state’s satisfaction.

Two points here: First, the potential for state interference in Catholic schools may seem like fear mongering, as the state has not – so far – intervened too often or too egregiously. For now, I merely want to point out that the Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t actually preclude on the surface any amount of state interference. Just as the state has found the ideal expression of the Prussian model unworkable – they have not yet simply seized our kids and barred the family from any role in education – they have so far found it unnecessary to, say, have state monitors in every Catholic classroom. It would be hard to argue, philosophically and legally, that the state couldn’t do if they wanted to. They just haven’t so far.

The second point is our need to recognize WHY the state has let Catholic schools slide. First of all, the state education departments generally get a passive acceptance if not a downright enthusiastic response to their ideas from Catholic educators. See, for example, how Common Core got adopted by most diocesan Catholic school systems without much discussion until after the fact. There are many reasons for what might seem to be a shocking degree of acquiescence to the state’s education programs, given that the parochial schools were founded precisely to Catholic kids out of state schools. But that popular Catholic fervor has, like, sadly, all distinctly Catholic fervor, all but died. It was pretty much dead by the time Kennedy became President, crushed at least partially under weight of the immigrant’s need to fit in that the Kennedy’s embodied. A concession here, a compromise there, and – hey! We’re real Americans, too! In the phrase American Catholic, the ‘American’ part comes first.

Further, National Catholic Education Association has been, from its founding, dedicated to the idea of teacher professionalism and, from that same founding, at odds with the bishops. Under the NCEA, the teachers’ core belief is that THEY are the PROFESSIONALS, and the bishops should take direction from them. This was evident from Day 1, and is yet another sign of what people will do to be part of the cool kids club. NCEA members are JUST AS GOOD as any other teachers, especially the public school teachers. They’re ideally certified by the state and everything! Frankly, that’s the problem.

Just as the state achieves the goal of separation of child from family by simply mandating longer and longer school years and hours and piling on the homework and extra-curricular activities, it can achieve its goals without overt steps if the Catholic school commit themselves to simply becoming better versions of state schools, with a tiny and decreasing bit of that God-person thrown in. Once the graded classroom model was adopted by Catholic schools, the state has been getting 90% of what it wants anyway. Here’s the oft-quoted line from William Torry Harris with which readers of this blog are no doubt familiar:

“Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.”

Harris was the US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906. He was involved in the rapid spread of ‘scientific’ ‘consolidated’ schools and the war waged against one-room schools. (One topic of research for the book I hope to write is Harris’ approach to Catholic schooling. His fell hand can be seen in the escalating attacks of the state education departments on the established, successful and beloved one room schools set up, funded and run by local parents. Can’t imagine he didn’t get into the anti-Catholic school show. But research required.) The NCEA was founded in 1904, during the time when Harris’ attitudes represented the most modern, progressive thinking on education. Harris was a leader in the cool kids club that NCEA members wanted, more or less consciously, to be a part of.

(Aside: Harris says a number of other equally insane things about schooling, this is just my favorite. It is of course hidden in a bunch of bland truism and vague Hegelian blather. Freire follows a slightly different template: it’s only after reading a couple hundred pages on the plight of the poor that he cuts to the chase of how the oppressors – anyone who opposes him, by definition – will of course need to have their stuff seized, be locked up and, well, maybe killed – for their own and and everybody else’s good. Context and thorough reading are needed to find the nasty needles in the pablum piles of education writing.)

State and University Education departments were founded and are run by people who, if they think at all, thing like Harris, who thinks like Mann, Fichte and von Humboldt. You got nowhere with state or university education departments if you opposed these ideas. That’s the case to this day – there was never a vigorous academic or political debate of various educational philosophies, they were not allowed. That’s how, 150 years later, most people can’t even imagine school as anything but the little butts in seats micromanaged by ‘experts’ model.

Here are some source materials. The key points shared by these thinkers summed up:

  • Education is totally managed by experts, with no parental input desired or even tolerated.
  • Schooling recognizes no bounds. If it proves desirable to forcibly remove children and separate them from their families and communities for years on end, that would be OK.
  • The goals of the state are completely coextensive with any legitimate goals of the children and families. If the child or the family object, they are not just wrong, but immoral and traitorous. No, really – it is that clear.
  • The only value an individual has is as part of the state. T
  • Finally, unstated but always present: the children of the leaders don’t attend these schools. The educational needs of the powerful are not the same as those of the weak.

Of course, this isn’t packaged exactly this blatantly. Fichte, for example, saves the good stuff for towards the end of his Addresses to the German People and just sort of tosses them in; Harris writes in dry journals rarely read by anyone besides his coreligionists and sycophants, the kind of things PhD students would research. For the peons – and classroom teachers are definitely among the people Woodrow Wilson (he was president of Princeton for a while) wanted to spare from the extravagance of a liberal education – are to be fitted for the jobs their betters want them to do, in the manner Harris describes.

Think outside the box? What box?

My fear is that I might in my researches turn up some poor soul who convinced himself that those goals above were perfectly OK, so long as the tools were in the hands of  our *Catholic* betters. That would be tragic. I hope instead that the basic human need to fit in, to be part of the tribe, overpowered the good sense of Catholic educators and put us on this educational slippery slope without much conscious though. Because, boy, if they actively chose this… Visions of millstones.

Overt anti-Catholic bigotry largely went underground around the time of JFK (no worries – it’s making a comeback! Your hopes of martyrdom are not total fantasy!). Well before that time, most Catholics, including the people running Catholic schools, seem to have made peace with the idea of state schooling: while parochial schooling was certainly still promoted within the Church, it’s not like many Catholics couldn’t sleep at night if their kids went to the convenient – and free! – public schools. After all, Catholic schools by then would be almost indistinguishable from public schools if it weren’t for the uniforms, crucifixes, occasional nun and proximity to a church building.  Add a little dollop af CCD Faith Formation, and there’s nothing left to argue about. And then you gradually forget even that smidge of Catholic training – heck, the Catholic schools largely do!

By now, for most Catholics and the many non-Catholics who send their kids to Catholic schools, such schools really are nothing more than better versions of public schools. Such parents might hope their kids will be spared the overt violence and apathy so apparent in so many public schools and maybe learn a few things they’ll need to get into a good college.  Few if any seem to hope their kids will get a heavy dose of Catholicism – if they can imagine what that would look like.

We can only start considering a truly Catholic education once we’ve rejects the graded classroom model and embrace a Catholicism that makes us Catholic Americans and not the other way around. As long as that model persists, the state is getting what it wants – obedient, mindless drones. That they are nominally Catholic drones doesn’t matter to the state, so long as they can be counted on to do as they are told – like so many of our ‘Catholic’ congressdroids. That’s the goal, That’s what the model was built 200 years ago to produce. And it works.


Author: Joseph Moore

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

21 thoughts on “Catholic Schools Week p. 5: History Wrap Up”

  1. For a while I have wondered if a sort of cooperative home schooling arrangement (assuming state doesn’t screw it all up…) would be a return to a one-room-ish system, with the benefits thereof.

    1. Sure, sounds good. The basic point, one made by John Taylor Gatto, is that kids have gotten educated many different ways for thousands of years, and that the most important thing is learning as part of your own family and community. I’ve suggested Samwise Gamgee as the perfect example of an educated man (well, Hobbit). No scholar, but a solid member of his community who knows what’s right and has the character to do it.

      In the end, we should be free to try whatever forms of education we want, and condemn as unfit for free people the very idea of compulsory state graded classroom schools.

      1. I have read a bit of Gatto, and find my self grumbling in agreement, having been through that mill – and sometimes wondering how to undo what damage remains. I’m not even sure how much damage there is, alas. And that, I fear, was part of The Plan.

    2. Co-ops can be toxic, too; we’re in a good one, right now, but that’s because I trust the ladies…and we’re religious, in the same way, and it’s mostly a “get the kids together to play, do service projects, oh heck let’s do a mini-class” setup.

      Even then, we’re very careful about which subjects. Most groups aren’t that way, and holy CRUD you don’t want to know the fireworks that result from a strict “science is a method of searching for truth, a lot of the conclusions are really interpretations of those results with all the weaknesses inherent to human judgement” approach.

      1. I admire your effort. Sure, there’s nothing to guarantee any given group will be able to work together even when members presumably share the common interest of children.

        Americans today and probably always did generally lack any sort of community level commitment. Our ‘mobile’ (= rootless) culture means we’re not all that motivated to find a way to get along with the neighbors we happen to have, since they or we will probably move away sooner or later.

        So, when differences of opinion or just basic human friction makes thing hard, we don’t immediately think: these are my neighbors, we must work things out. Rather, those who should be most dear to us after our own families are felt on a gut level as ephemeral is not outright disposable.

        This is not something we can solve in less than generations, I fear. Getting rid of graded classroom schools would be a huge, essential step in the right direction.

      2. I’m not sure it would be a good idea to do so on a physical level– there are extremely negative results to the geographic-based sorting into “folks I can dismiss” and “folks I really should try to get along with.”

        Oddly enough, the internet might be helping with the “neighbor” problem– there’s still the issue of bullies that will shut everything down if they don’t get what they want, sure, but they can’t shut down everywhere, and eventually folks get tired of being chased out so they’ll boot out the bullies.

        Which leaves the folks that agree on 90% of stuff, and good luck getting that 10% to be fairly uniformly distributed, so you have to learn what you’re willing to “give” on– and what you’re not. And HOW to behave when you’re not willing to give, but you still have enough in common to want to hang out with someone.

  2. Thanks for this series; I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Since I went to Catholic school in a different (Western) country, it has been interesting to read how Catholic schools have evolved in the US. Recalling my school experience, and observing the experiences of my siblings and their children in “Catholic” schools there, I suspect that the story is alarmingly similar in my country of origin.

    1. Thanks for reading and the kind words.

      This really requires a book. There are books – I’ve read a couple – on Catholic schooling in America, but they all assume the graded classroom model was inevitable. I want to show it wasn’t.

      1. Joseph,
        Like marriage should the state get out of education? I know nearly 2 centuries of compulsory public schooling it’s very difficult but needs to be done. I find compulsory education violates subsidarity even if it’s confined to the state/provincial level.
        The biggest obstacles the licencing requirements to become a teacher. I’m conflicted: i want it burnt tp the ground or I want it to be as straightforward as getting a CPR certificate. I really loathe the teacher orders that use the licences to teach as a guild like barrier to entry. My view is paired with mentors to learn classroom management and lesson planning, anyone can teach and do it well.

      2. Xaver,

        Yes, I think the state needs to get out of the education business, other than protecting the rights of parents to educate as they see fit. The parent founded, funded and managed one-room schools are I think a good example of the proper level at which schooling (if, frankly, schooling needs to be done at all) would reside.

        I’m also strongly opposed to the very idea of a classroom – a schoolhouse is a better idea, and even then, it should not be viewed as a place where children are managed. The example of my children might be informative: our oldest 4 (#5 is 13) all attend or did attend college, all are outstanding students – A students, magna cum laude, that sort of thing – and none of them took any formal classes at school or at home until, of their own volition, they signed up for classes at the local community college when they were tennagers. Having NO K-12 experience as commonly understood didn’t slow them down AT ALL.

        One of the main lessons of the schooling we have now is that we are not competent to teach ourselves, let alone our own children. The whole evil edifice hangs on people believing that.

      1. Joseph
        Thanks for your thoughts. I never believed that i was too incompetent to teach. Other than math and science which i’m clearly unsuited to teach. But I can teach alot of other subjects and i do my best.
        I live on a country which combine elements of Confucianism with graded classrooms and i deeply loathe it. The pressure that kids face as early as grade 4 is immoral.
        And it’s rote learning and exam oriented.
        I think that schooling should be limited to 4-5 day and then free learning around the home and museums

      2. Xaver – Good points. Kids need free time, and plenty of it. Even farm kids, who typically worked long hours, had much more time for quiet, independent reflection than modern kids. That’s an essential component to freedom of thought.

        Mr. Eye – I’ve pondered for years how a real Catholic school should look. One weird thing, an historical accident – schools such as Don Bosco or Maria Montessori founded had, as the primary task creating a structure for kids who had none. They were dealing with kids without families, or with severely compromised families. The structures they created are not appropriate for the education of kids from intact families, or even for kids from a culture dominated by intact families.

        Yet, they are often held up as ideal models for what a Catholic school should be. They are not at all what Catholic schools should be, if the goal is to support and promote strong Catholic families.

  3. As someone who dabbles in the science of learning, one of the things I’ve noticed is that almost all the classes I’ve been in we’re not designed to maximize learning. In fact, I can only think of two teachers in all my schooling who I set up their curriculum in such a way where you could actually learn.

    1. It’s been years since I was up on this stuff, but there were all these studies showing how cutting the students some slack, letting them choose what to pursue and letting them pursue it until they’re done, was a much more effective, not to mention pleasant and humane, way to learn.

      The whole periods, bells and age grouping is just so antithetical to how real people of whatever arge learn anything – except, I suppose, soldiers.

      1. “It’s been years since I was up on this stuff, but there were all these studies showing how cutting the students some slack, letting them choose what to pursue and letting them pursue it until they’re done, was a much more effective, not to mention pleasant and humane, way to learn. ”
        I haven’t looked into that, so I have no comment.

        “The whole periods, bells and age grouping is just so antithetical to how real people of whatever arge learn anything – except, I suppose, soldiers. ”
        Knowledge and skills transfer best when they are close as possible to their real usage. My theory is that The way students are divided up I think makes it harder to transfer the knowledge an skills to the real world. This is actually more damning the presence of Marxism and Postmodernism, because no matter which philosophy runs these schools, The organization used to run schools is inherently bad at passing on knowledge. I do wonder if the one room school accidentally produced the best conditions to transfer knowledge and skills…

  4. Finally, unstated but always present: the children of the leaders don’t attend these schools. The educational needs of the powerful are not the same as those of the weak.

    Joseph, what are the schools that are self-appointed, so called “betters” send their kids too and how does the education there differ from the public/Catholic schools?

    1. First of all, recall Chesterton’s observation that kids will forget what you say but always learn what you assume without discussion. Therefore, we should look at the assumptions of the schooly the 0.2% send their kids to, for example:

      Sidwell Friends Academy, DC:
      Called the “Harvard of Washington’s private schools” Sidwell is peopled almost solely with the kids of rich and powerful government people, who would never dream of sending them to the DC public schools. What is assumed: that some people are meant to rule, that there is an all but impassible gulf between you and those other people, and that here is where the very best and virtuous people go to school.

      Harvard: the assumption at Harvard and all the Ivies and a few other schools like Stanford is that OF COURSE we should be in charge! It is OF COURSE completely natural that our grads, especially those in secret societies such as Skull and Bones should rule, either directly or in the background. OF COURSE people who don’t think so are ignorant, stupid, evil or all three.

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