I’m working on a longer post, but here’s a fascinating bit from my parallel reading of Parish School by Timothy Walch (1997) and The Catholic School System in the United States, by James A. Burns, C.S.C. (1908). Walch, who is still working and seems to be at least the go-to guy for American Catholic School history at the moment, summarily dismisses the efforts of the Spanish missionaries as not amounting to anything. Walch even quotes with some approval the words of the American historian Parkman, who, based on a quick perusal of his other well-known quotations. would have qualified as an anti-Catholic bigot even according to the standards of the time (his career spanned the 19th century). By which I mean, other anti-Catholic bigots would find his words gratifying, while anyone with any sympathy toward the Church and any broader (non-English speaking world) hint of history would find them libelous.
That a modern academic, even a Catholic one, would take a dim view of the Church’s work in the New World except insofar as it can be seen as ‘progressing’ toward the far, far better now, is not surprising. Any other view will get you banished from the cool kids’ table.
What is surprising is the contrast between Burns’ work and views and Walch’s. The latter can hardly spare enough words to describe the California Missions before lumping them in with the Texas, New Mexico, Florida and Arizona missions to be dismissed as fruitless. Burns, on the other hand, spend a short chapter on each one, noting on-going educational efforts, lessons learned even in failure, and reasons for their ultimate demise. In the of case Florida, New Mexico and California, political forces played a large role in frustrating and even exterminating the educational efforts of the missionaries and colonists. Florida, for example, was attacked at one point by English colonists from Georgia, who may have destroyed the seminary school in St. Augustine. New Mexico, by a combination of excessive brutality by both Church and State, fomented the Indian revolt that resulted in the loss of all schools in the territory. In Texas, even the highly critical Cox (he’s clearly of the Parkman school) notes that it was difficult to justify schools when Indian raids and the harshness of the environment made life itself tenuous.
In California, the missions were a resounding, remarkable success, with thousands of Indian converts living and working with the Spanish friars, who shared their lives with them. Only when the Mexican government (you know, the people who eventually brought their country the Cristero War) dissolved the mission system in the 1830s did the the native population assume its trajectory towards extinction.
Burns quotes the following:
“If we ask where are now the thirty thousand Christianized Indians who once enjoyed the beneficence and created the wealth of the twenty-one Catholic missions of California, and then contemplate the most wretched of all want of system which has surrounded them under our own Government, we shall not withhold our admiration from those good and devoted men who, with such wisdom, sagacity, and self-sacrifice, reared these wonderful institutions in the wilderness of California. They at least would have preserved these Indian races if they had been left to pursue unmolested their work of pious beneficence.”‘
Dwinelle, op. cit.. p. 63. ‘Blackmar. op. cit., p. 48. Cf. also Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1905.
The ‘failure’ of these early Spanish schools seems mostly to be a failure to fit the narrative. The concept that government involvement in Catholic education, at least to the extent of establishing methods and curriculum if not exercising (as in modern Germany) near total control, is to be seen as an unmitigated good, once the rough spots of the 19th century were worked out. The idea that people working outside much direct government control might do good that is then destroyed by their government – well, we’re not to dwell on that, or the mean girls will pick on us.
Needed to vent a little there. Getting back into a more scholarly mode: Superficially at least, Burns seems to support the direction of the Catholic schools, already evident in his time, away from the care of devout sisters and priest toward more professional teachers and administrators, after the fashion of the public schools. He and Walch seem to see eye-to-eye on this. The difference is that Burns, after Shields and Pace, is confident enough to allow consideration of other goals and models without knee-jerk condemnation. I suspect that’s because the Catholic schools of his day could still be appreciated as a triumph of the Church, a shining beacon of Catholicism in a country that hated us.
Walch, on the other hand, is writing at a time when large numbers of Catholics consider the Catholic schools tragic failures, from the grade schools to the universities. Those most dedicated to the concept of a recognizably Catholic education are founding schools and colleges outside the parochial system and in the face of existing Catholic universities. The big, happy Catholic families that were sending 6 or 8 kids to parish schools in the 50s and 60s, hoping their kids could get into Notre Dame, are now homeschooling or sending them to the likes of St. Monica Academy hoping they can get into Thomas Aquinas College. Supporters of the current Catholic school models have been betrayed by Progress. While Burns could merely dream of how great things would become if only his progressive ideas were realized, Walch must deal with the less-than-happy sight of those ideas embodied in reality.
I am reminded of the bishop C. S. Lewis puts in Hell in the Great Divorce, who is reduced to arguing that while where he finds himself does not much match his previous visions, it must be Heaven nonetheless.