Catholic Schools & the Prussian Model

As mentioned yesterday, currently reading Parish School by Timothy Walch and The Catholic School System in the United States,  by James A. Burns, C.S.C. , a two-volume set published in 1908. For the last few years, I’ve been trying to track down the when and why of the Catholic Church in America adopting the Prussian graded classroom model of school for all parochial schools and high schools. I think I’m on the right track. From the introduction of Burn’s epic:

In point of fact, however, there is a direct historic connection between the Catholic school system in this country and the Catholic school systems of various countries of Europe. The first Catholic schools here were offshoots of the existing school systems there. The founders and first teachers of our schools were products of the Catholic schools and colleges of Europe, and the institutions they established here were reproductions, to a great extent, of those in which they had been trained, or with which they were familiar in the Old World. All through the history of the Catholic school system in this country, this European influence is traceable through immigration, the religious Orders, and other agencies. It has been a potent factor in the making of our schools and colleges and in the molding of their character.

Oh. Duh. In my defense, it seemed amazing that the parish schools in America, founded in opposition to the express anti-Catholicism of the public schools, ended up adopting exactly the graded classroom model used by our Prussian model schools.

To recap: starting with the Potato Famine in the mid 1840s, millions of Catholic Irish immigrated, raising the Catholic population in the US from tiny to significant. According to a couple writers, the few Catholics in America before the Irish tended to be well-off English Recusants and their Catholic friends who knew enough to keep their heads down, mostly, and could afford to do it. They weren’t impoverished peasants showing up in the better neighborhoods looking for work.

The Irish were. They were desperately poor, and coming from a nation where they and their ancestors had suffered  from centuries of English oppression. It’s also not entirely accurate to say the Irish fled Ireland. Some not insignificant portion had their boat fare for the crossing paid for by their English landlords, who did the math and found it cheaper to do that than to feed them as the laws at the time required. (The English hadn’t suddenly gone soft – they just knew a bunch of starving people without hope would be a lot of trouble to control.) The Irish departure from Ireland was not purely voluntary.

The response of the solid Protestant majority was to impose compulsory graded classroom Prussian schooling. Horace Mann and a host of others traveled to Prussia to study their schools, which were, ultimately, the outgrowth of Luther’s demand that the state compel all parents to send their kids to school, so that state-certified teachers could make good little Lutherans out of them. (It never seems to have occurred to Luther that the state might want to do anything else. He’d have made a good Socialist.) Parents might have other plans than what Luther considered the proper moral upbringing of their own children, and that was intolerable. Such families needed to be, at the very least, overridden. This is a consistent theme in German and, ultimately, all state-run schooling

So, in the 1850s, it was legal in Massachusetts for kids to work in a factory or attend a state school – but illegal to keep them home. If you were a good Protestant or at least a better-off non-Catholic, I’d imagine those charged with enforcing truancy laws might not focus on your neighborhood. Instead, focus on the Irish slums. Because truancy – keeping your child out of school unless he’s off working in a factory (likely as not run by one of Mann’s peers), even if at home with you – could lead to your child being taken away from you. The goal was always the destruction of Catholic families and faith. This is of a piece with the Know Nothings and the anti-Catholicism that has always been a constant in America.

A key part of the Church’s response was to found parish schools. In many ways, the Parish Schools were a remarkable achievement, built, managed, and financed largely by independent groups of Catholics, staffed by religious orders, educating millions of American kids over many decades. My siblings and I all attended Catholic schools, as did many of my friends and neighbors. But from the bishops’ perspective, the results were  mixed: even at their peak (1960) fewer than half of Catholic kids attended Catholic schools.

Public schools were ‘free’ after all, and immigrants are poor. Bishops understood this, but still sought (and failed to obtain) papal permission in the late 19th century to excommunicate anyone who sent his kids to public school if a Catholic school was available and affordable. That’s how seriously the bishops took the threat of the public schools.

Yet, even with this well-founded fear of letting the adversarial state educate Catholic kids, all parish schools to this day, even those few that are vigorously orthodox, are little more than kinder, gentler versions of public schools.

Somehow, that seemed like a good idea? Look at graded classroom schools: what insanity inspired people to accept having their kids rigidly segregated by age? We take it for granted now, but there’s no rational basis for it at all! It’s not ‘efficient’ or ‘scientific’ – there’s no evidence of that, and never was! Seriously, no one ever ran a side-by-side comparison of different models of schooling to see which worked better for some clearly understood definition of ‘better’. The sort of slapdash studies or comparisons that did and do happen, such as comparing test result (whose tests? testing for what?) tend to show, before elaborate ‘adjustments’, that just about anything – tutoring, homeschooling, one room schools, any of the many ‘alternative’ schools – produce better results even on the self-serving tests developed for the public schools.  So much so that there’s a sort of industry around doctoring data explaining away this phenomenon.

The reality, clear in all the writings of all the advocates of the graded classroom schools, from Luther to Fichte to Mann to Barnard to Dewey to today, is that the point isn’t the 3 Rs. It is control, for the state is a jealous god. Graded classroom are favored precisely because they disrupt family relationships that could oppose the state.

Recall that over almost all of America in the 19th century, many if not most kids attended one-room schools, where family and neighbors learned side-by side regardless of age. Teachers assigned kids to teach each other with little regard for age. Natural relationships were reinforced. Results were *better* as measured by the state school’s own tests than those of graded school, despite what the propaganda from the time to this day asserts.

Thus ‘educators’ hated, fought & tried to kill off one-room schools. How are kids to be controlled if their loyalty is to home and village – and Church? Much better to school them in doing what they’re told regardless of natural relationships. Thus, graded classrooms.

Yet, ultimately, all parish school came to use the graded classroom model! How did this happen? Short answer: this battle was already a century or more old back in Europe. Messy compromises had been struck, where the Church could run schools if they followed state models.

Immigrants brought these compromises with them. German Catholics, the single largest group of Catholic immigrants and founders of the most parish schools, brought what they knew with them, evidently having long forgotten the origin: exact copies of state schools but run by Catholics. Prussian model graded classroom schools.

On to more research. I’ve got tabs open (hope this computer doesn’t die suddenly!) on many of the people who come up in the discussions, many I had not heard of before. And it seems I’ll need to get up to speed on a bunch more history, especially the Kulturkampf, which I believe largely overlaps the period of greatest German Catholic immigration to the US.

Image result for Kulturkampf
“Between Berlin and Rome”, with Bismarck on the left and the Pope on the right, from the German satirical magazine Kladderadatsch, 1875. Pope: “Admittedly, the last move was unpleasant for me; but the game still isn’t lost. I still have a very beautiful secret move.” Bismarck: “That will also be the last one, and then you’ll be mated in a few moves – at least in Germany.”
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Author: Joseph Moore

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

6 thoughts on “Catholic Schools & the Prussian Model”

  1. Joseph
    This fascinating. What impact if any did the Louisiana purchase and Mexico’s surrender of its lands have on American education?
    You answered the question why graded school were favoured:total control and obedience. Hitler and Lenin were just the Hegelien synthesis of heaven on earth the stared with the Protestant reformation
    xavier

    1. Just getting there – the next chapters of Burn’s book are about Spanish and French influences on American education. He’s thorough enough to notice that the Spanish & French were here since the 16th & 17th century. I’ll write more when I’ve read and researched that issue.

      1. Joseph,

        Thanks. I’m curious as when Vox goes on his immigration diatribes, I often wonder if by his logic America went downhill when it bought Louisiana and then forced Mexico to surrender its lands after the 1850 War.
        I look forward to it and I need to buy the Ignatius book: Continental Ambitions and then compare it to your posts on American Catholic education

        Thanks again!

        xavier

  2. It just amazes me how attached people are to the schools that were, for most of them, such painful experiences. I know it is something like Stockholm Syndrome writ across an entire society, but still I am shocked by it.

    Maybe it has to do with the fact that I was pulled out of school for two years in the middle of the K-12 years, but it just seems so obvious that we are (almost) all victims of treatment that was little better than abuse, all in the name of indoctrinating us to behave like good little cogs…

    Argh.

    1. I know what you mean. My wife and I helped found an alternative school, the major appeal of which is: no age segregation, no required classes, tests or homework. Addition by subtraction, in other words.

      We’d talk to parents all the time who both had miserable experiences in school AND believed their kids needed those experiences to succeed. They were less scary, somehow, than people who, as you mention, have permanent rose colored glasses through which they view their schooling.

      But it can’t work! Kids will fail if you don’t make them do work! Well, 4 out of 5 of our kids then went on to college, the 5th says he will when he’s old enough. Not that college is required for a good life – far from it! – just that college attendance is the standard measure of success/failure for many people.

      1. In high school, I would call it “high indoctrination camp” semi-seriously, but it was not until I started reading about Fichte and Mann and Dewey (and the rest) that it really sunk in how true those words were. As you have said many times before, the curriculum hardly matters when the very system is a form of indoctrination in its own right.

        I want to send my children to an alternative school, or homeschool, but we have not the money for the former and my wife (who was very poorly homeschooled, ‘unschooled’ as some people call it) is leery of starting off with the latter, so the best compromise has been that we will ‘send’ our daughters to an online charter school. Still, it is better than a lot of the alternatives; I only wish we could avoid even that much interaction with the public education system.

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