Education History: Some Threads Come Together

I highly recommend Parish School by Timothy Walch as the place to start reading on the history of Catholic schools in America. Unlike me, he’s a real historian, who properly sources and references his materials. In addition to providing an excellent, if short, overview, it’s a gold mine of contemporary sources. I first got turned on to many of the key players by this book. Dr. Walch was kind enough to send me the current revised edition, which I’m now about 1/3 through (re)reading. Since the goal of the revised edition was to bring this history up to the 2010s, not surprising I’m not seeing any obvious differences in the first chapters.

It’s a lot of fun to reread this material after having tracked down a few of the sources and gotten a bigger picture. In particular, having now read some of William Torrey Harris, these passages from the beginning of Chapter 7 take on a new light. From the Report of the U.S. Commissioner of Education for 1903:

The most impressive religious fact in the United States today is the system of Catholic free parochial schools. Not less than 1 million students are being educated in these schools. This great educational work is being carried out without any financial aide from the state…. the diocesan superintendent has been a powerful factor in the great progress made in these schools in recent years. It would be well if every diocese had such an officer. Indeed, there can be no perfect organization of the system without him.

William Torrey Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education.

Even his fanboys and girls recognize that, as a philosopher, he’s a 2nd rate Hegelian; I’d say that’s a little generous. Be that as it may, there’s no denying he was a true devotee of that wacky take on Lutheran theology whose enduring contribution to thought is glib rejection of the need to make sense. This rejection remains the hallmark of academic philosophy to this day: the law of noncontradiction is for the little people, you see. Real philosophers can and do both mean and not mean anything they say. So when you notice academic statements make no sense or are self-refuting – feature, not bug.

Hegelians are looking for the Spirit, incarnate and effectively co-extensive with people taken as a whole over time, to unfold itself in History. Rather than history being a rolling up and cumulation of the acts of millions of us little people, capital H History is the Work of God, and thus at the same time beyond human understanding and the only worthy object of the speculative philosopher.

While Hegel himself made the critical and obvious point that, until the Spirit unfolds History, it is unknowable (almost by definition, although ‘definition’ is a curious concept in context). We can look to the past, in other words, and see what the Spirit has done, but looking into the future makes no sense, as the necessary conditions for understanding what the Spirit will do are not present.

Just as Dewey popularized Pragmatism by ignoring what Pearce said it meant and going with the much more coherent ‘the ends justify the means,’ Hegelians, in the splendor of their diversity, have ignored this caution against fortune-telling except when convenient. Thus, they worship Progress (as one of the Spirit’s manifolds) while both seeing it everywhere and rejecting any demand to state clearly what it is.

Anyway, so Harris, who tried during his time as U.S Commissioner of Education to get Hegelianism declared the official philosophy of American education, looks at parish schools and sees their fundamental value not in the millions of educated children, but in the establishment of diocesan education directors. It is the perfection of the organization of the system in which Progress is manifested. It’s worth

If you think I’m making too much of this, here’s what Harris said about Native Americans:

Harris called for the forced and mandatory education of American Indians through a partnership with Christianity in order to promote industry. It was Harris who called for the removal of Native children from their families for up to 10 years of training for the “lower form of civilization” as opposed to the United States government’s policy of exterminating them. Harris wrote, “We owe it to ourselves and to the enlightened public opinion of the world to save the Indian, and not destroy him. We can not save him and his patriarchal or tribal institution both together. To save him we must take him up into our form of civilization. We must approach him in the missionary spirit and we must supplement missionary action by the aid of the civil arm of the State. We must establish compulsory education for the good of the lower race.”


So why did he not call for the forced and mandatory education of American Catholics in the same way? It’s what Fichte would have done (and Fichte was a big influence on Hegel). Mostly, it would have been political suicide, given the millions of Catholic voters now present on the rolls. I don’t think he lost any sleep over this, however, because he saw the *progress* being made on that front. For the previous 8 decades, including the couple decades Harris spent as a more local school bureaucrat, that’s exactly what good, solid Protestants were calling for, one way or the other. If the dirty Papists sent their kids to the existing state schools, where they would have a little Protestant Jesus beat into their heads and thus become good Americans, well and good. If they insisted on founding their own schools, we’ll make them pay twice – tax them for our schools, then make them raise money from the same poor people for their own. This step worked very well, as at no point did as many as half of Catholic kids attended parish schools.

Then, to complete the Americanization (which every ‘good’ American knew meant the Protestantization) of Catholic kids, we’ll find a way to exert state control on Catholic school curriculum.

Harris could look with satisfaction at the current state of Catholic schools in 1903. The Spirit was clearly unfolding his idea of Progress among them. When Archbishop Ireland addressed the NEA in 1890 and said that it was his dream that Catholic kids would all attend public schools, and paid his homage to the goodness and light embodied in compulsory state education, which then as now is the NEA’s reason to exist, why, he warmed the cockles of Harris’ heart! The firestorm of controversy Ireland’s remarks caused among Catholics who had worked so hard and sacrificed so much to keep their kids away from state indoctrination was merely the last gasp of one leg of the dialectic getting subsumed and suspended in the synthesis that is compulsory education managed for the good of the state.

And Harris didn’t even have to do anything! The immigrants’ burning desire to fit in and outshine the natives in an ‘anything you can do, I can do better’ race to the bottom did all the work for him – or, I should say, the inexorable unfolding of the Spirit thus manifested itself in History.

The elephant in the room: the critics of Archbishop Ireland and all the ‘liberal’ Catholics of the day have proven to be correct. If there’s anything distinguishing the local products of our parish schools from the products of similarly situated public schools, it’s amazingly subtle. So subtle that not only are Catholics largely uninterested in spending money to send their kids there, non-Catholics can send their kids to the typical parish school with little worry they’ll come out Catholic.

Catholic schooling has about the same cultural meaning as eating organic or driving a hybrid.

One final note: wanted to see what the NEA had to say for itself, and found the unabashed propaganda one would expect.

On a summer afternoon in 1857, 43 educators gathered in Philadelphia, answering a national call to unite as one voice in the cause of public education.

At the time, learning to read and write was a luxury for most children—and for many children of color, it was actually a crime. But almost 150 years later,  the voice of the fledgling Association has risen to represent 2.7 million educators, and what was once a privilege for a fortunate few is now a rite of passage for every American child.

NEA Website

Take passing note the anachronistic use of the fancy-dan word ‘educator’. Teachers, maybe? One chapter of my planned book will be titled “Messianic Schooling,” in which I’ll cover the various salvation/end times myths perpetrated in the name of compulsory schooling. Here, for example, the writer simply lies: in 1800, excluding slaves, literacy was near 100% in America. She lies so that she can frame up schooling as Messianic: we ‘educators’ have come to free the people from the bonds of illiteracy! You know, the land where de Tocqueville observed farmers reading Descartes while resting their plowhorses, and where the Last of the Mohicans adjusting for population, outsold Harry Potter. Where the Federalist Papers were printed in general circulation newspapers and where, a couple decades later, among hundreds of other publishers, there were 125+ newspapers and magazines dedicated to the anti-papist cause.

Sound illiterate to you? Here’s the opening of Last of the Mohicans:

It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet. A wide and apparently an impervious boundary of forests severed the possessions of the hostile provinces of France and England. The hardy colonist, and the trained European who fought at his side, frequently expended months in struggling against the rapids of the streams, or in effecting the rugged passes of the mountains, in quest of an opportunity to exhibit their courage in a more martial conflict. But, emulating the patience and self-denial of the practiced native warriors, they learned to overcome every difficulty; and it would seem that, in time, there was no recess of the woods so dark, nor any secret place so lovely, that it might claim exemption from the inroads of those who had pledged their blood to satiate their vengeance, or to uphold the cold and selfish policy of the distant monarchs of Europe.

Last of the Mohicans, CH 1

Cooper starts his book here – after quoting Shakespeare. Those poor illiterate sods who bought this book by the thousands! Clearly, we need ‘educators’ STAT!

Or take this beautiful mistake back in the NEA history web pages:

Lafayette, Indiana, August 21, 1854

“And I must not forget the Schoolhouse which is a log house thirty-five by thirty with four windows & two doors… The cracks are filled with mud and plaster & there is no ‘loft’ & the shingles are very holey so that when it rains we take the books and stand in one place till it begins to drop down & then we move to an other spot & then an other…”

Affectionately Yours,

M.M. Rogers

Excerpt from a letter written by Martha M. Rogers, a young female pioneer who headed West to teach. Reprinted with permission from Women Teachers on the Frontier by Polly Welts Kauffman.

from the NEA website

Those familiar with one-room schools should recognize a couple things here. In the 1850s, it was common for young single women, generally with nothing more that a one-room school education themselves, to head out to the frontier to teach – and to snag a husband. (If you’ve read the Anne of Green Gables series, you’ve run across the phenomenon, more or less.) Teacher turnover was high, as one would expect.

On the frontier, as part of the homesteading laws, pioneers would build, manage, and staff a one schoolhouse per 36 square mile section, near the middle, so that no kid would be more than an hour’s walk from it. Such schoolhouses were built to the standards to which the farmers built their own buildings – the schoolhouse as described above was probably very similar to the surrounding farmhouses.

The schoolhouse became a sort of ‘town hall’ where meetings and voting and other socialization took place. While it’s very probable that the schoolhouse maintenance and improvements lagged those of the farmer’s own buildings sometimes, it is unlikely it lagged much very often. Few really old schoolhouses survive, as they tended to get replaced over time. Those pretty clapboard postcard-perfect ones that you see were likely build just before the turn of the century or a little later, when farmers were doing well enough to want to show off their success a little. There was even some competition among neighboring sections: one section might spring for a belltower and a bell – soon all the neighbors had one as well.

So, even on the frontier, you had farmers building a schoolhouse as soon as they could and as well as they could, keeping it up as well as they could, and hiring as good a teacher as they could find. A young woman of, say, 16, who had graduated school and yet not found a suitable mate in her own section had an obvious strategy: become a teacher at a nearby section where maybe the male/female ration in the proper age range might be more favorable.

It worked remarkably well. Miss Rogers above, who could very probably be just such a young woman, write very well! Nice letter! You think your typical public high schooler writes any better than that? The truth is, extensive samples of the writing of people educated only in one-room schools exist, and it’s pretty good for the most part. And there’s the rub: in the late 1800s, ‘educators’ like William Torey Harris had identified those one room schools as the enemies of Progress. They began the mythology that those hicks in the country – deplorables, they might call them today – were ignorant rubes and needed proper schools to free them from the tyranny of their ignorance. The most horrifying evidence of this ignorance was their rejection of the idea that they needed to have their happy and successful locally managed schools replaced by modern consolidated schools run by and for their betters.

For the one room schools worked in any measurable way. Their graduates did better on standardized tests, and got into college (the few that did) at a higher rate than the graduates of ‘scientific’ schools. Which brings us to the little dodge the writer of the NEA history used: start by criticizing the ignorance of the non-centrally schooled people, but when presenting an example, shift to their *poverty*. This is, in fact, the route taken historically. The practical, stoic farmers wanted to see exactly why their schools needed to be replaced. When the tests were administered and it became obvious that from any practical educational perspective, the one room schools generally did better than the schools eager to replace them, the strategy shifted: One room schools were dirty! They were poorly equipped! And their teachers aren’t even certified by the state!

So the farmers upgraded their schools, as mentioned above. They spent a little money on better equipment. They even started hiring certified teachers (who, nevertheless, remained under their surveillance).

And thus, the one-room schools survived, until technology (e.g., tractors), the resulting bigger farms, rural depopulation and finally the Great Depression combined to do them in. That last generation mourned the loss; now, it has all but passed from living memory.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

11 thoughts on “Education History: Some Threads Come Together”

      1. Once again, it is to be noted that the issue goes much bigger than “Back in my day ten to twelve year olds were reading high level classics!”

        Well, yes, but in what environment?

        That broad term applied to many levels.

        Not that the critique itself is wrong either. What I’m saying is, everything is broken, and isolating any one issue isn’t a real solution.

        Teaching kids who can’t comprehend Cooper “Mohicans” is a fool’s errand, but: WHY can’t they understand “Mohicans”?

      2. True. Cause and effect are intertwined here, where ‘understanding complicated ideas’ is almost the canary in the coal mine. Why are people not interested in or able to understand anything? We school in a manner calculated to break families; broken families demand we school as we do. School assumes roles that can only be filled by families; families then insist school fills those roles.

        Change will be messy, almost tragic. How many families are ready and able to reassume their duties to their own children after generations of handing them off to school?

  1. Ever look into the effects of the Civil War on American schooling? It has struck me that pre-Civil War, the stereotypical schoolteacher was male – Ichabod Crane, say – whereas after the war the teachers tended to be predominantly female – see any photograph of a one-room classroom you’ve ever posted on this site. Get upwards of million adult males killed or disabled and some jobs start going to women. Obviously, this would be predominantly American phenomenon.

    1. You make an interesting point. The sources I’ve gotten to so far tend to largely gloss over the effects of the Civil War on schooling, comparatively speaking. When you think of how central the Civil War is to how America is today, how radically the nature of the Union and thus of the relationship of the individuals to the government changed, it’s clear schooling could not escape the effects. There are a few points that come up – sounds like a blog post….

      1. I’m thinking more in terms of how much difference it makes that the teacher is a woman rather than a man. Not obvious at once, but after several generations I’d bet it’s pretty substantial. It strikes me that most girls can thrive/do OK in not-totally-perverse male hierarchies, but very few boys thrive/do OK in female social structures.
        In the West, formal education was for boys, and if you wanted your daughters educated, you either gave them what the boys got, or set up something for girls. I’d be willing to bet that in most normal schools until, say, 1965, the generic student was a boy and teaching instruction was geared to the best ways to engage, motivate and discipline boys. Now, I’m sure the generic student is a girl, and many boys don’t fit into that model. In other words, in the old model, girls would tend to be less-aggressive, somewhat more eager-to-please students. In the current model, boys tend to be more-aggressive, somewhat less eager-to-please students. If you go into a classroom prepared to corral and direct thirty boys, having half of them be girls will make it a piece of cake (until puberty). If you go into a classroom prepared to corral and direct thirty girls, having half of them be boys will be a nightmare.

      2. Perhaps another way to think of it: whether a particular teacher is a man or a woman, it matters more if that teacher is seen as part of a sane social system. If, for example, a female teacher shows respect and appreciation for men, in particular, her father/husband/brothers, and this is something known to the students, and conversely, if male teachers are understood as willingly upholding the social role their manhood demands of them, then I think it might matter less who is teaching what. Or, put it another way: that women teachers would , as you say, generalize their assumptions about how girls behave to become how *students* behave can only happen when that woman doesn’t recognize and honor masculinity. A sane mother, for example, who loves her husband, knows she is raising her sons to be men, and knows that some things will have to be taught to them by men.

        Anyway, I think I largely agree. I’m placing the problem one step back, and want to consider the possibility that having women dominate teaching is less of a problem when those women embrace and even love their role as women, and love the men in their lives. The unchecked and untethered feminism of the teachers (male and female, alas!) is more the problem. I think, maybe.

  2. I think until the baleful 1960s, Catholic nuns would have been much more immune to what would now be described as anti-patriarchal sentiments than lady teachers in the public school system.

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