Book Review: Burn’s “Catholic School System in the United States”, part 1: Introduction

Reviewing – really, putting out my notes to the text – on this book a bit at a time, as it and its companion volume are long. Fr. Burns wrote much of this as his PhD thesis at Catholic University in 1906, and expanded and published it as a book in 1908, and then a follow up volume in 1912. This first volume covers the history of American Catholic schooling from colonial times to 1840; the second from 1840 to the first years of the 20th century. This division is logical, as Catholic immigrants did not start arriving in great numbers until the 1840s, which really changed the game for Catholic schooling.

This was the first scholarly effort to document the American Catholic school movement, and remained the go-to work on the topic until very modern times. I’ve read pieces of this book and commented on them as part of following up on the references in Walch’s Parish School, but had not done yet a thorough cover to cover read.

The preliminary materials and introduction are very interesting. First, as noted in previous comments on this work, Burns is deeply indebted to Thomas Shields and Edward Pace, fellow priests and professors at Catholic University. They were founding faculty of the school of psychology at that institution, and mentored Burns. Shields ran a Catholic textbook publishing company for many years

Now, here I’ll own up to a strong prejudice: everything I’ve ever read of and about psychology in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century impressed upon me what preposterous frauds the key players were from its founding. Freud? C’mon. The dude set a standard for ad hominem responses to anyone who dared question him that has been followed by every poser since. You only disagree with Freud because you’re sexually repressed, don’t you see?

What is lacking in the early psychologists: that peculiar type of humility real scientists have, where they prefer to understate rather than overstate their claims. In a robust science, it is expected that any claims will be run through the gauntlet of critical appraisal by one’s peers. Thus, it is simply better style, if nothing else, to acknowledge uncertainties, note possible problems, and generally make claims with a bit of hesitancy, if only in the hopes that your peers will be more sympathetic.

Instead, what we ended up with is ‘academic freedom’: the dismissal of all questions by anyone who isn’t a credentialed psychologist on the sole basis of his not being a psychologist. Such a credential only available to those who get through the gate manned by – credentialed psychologists. See: ‘replication crisis‘ for details on how that works.

This dynamic – over-certainty of scope and claims, lack of interest in criticism from those not on the team – was already the reality in 1908, when Burns penned this book. And he simply can’t resist: the introduction is more about his Progressive, 19th century psychology-driven take on schooling than about what happened. It’s odd – one paragraph is a triumphant touting of the greatness of the parish schools and the Church that inspired them, the next is either speculating on how great things will be when further Progress is made, or gentle rebukes that more Progress hasn’t yet been made.

He states three principle that drive Catholic parish schooling:


Here Burns means simply moral training. Can virtue be taught? Maybe, but his third principle is how it would be done. What can be done is to help create a habit of thinking of life’s endless decisions in moral terms. I’m good with this.


He belabors it much, but what he seems to be after is that religious education is, at the same time, part of a coherent whole and conditions how that whole is understood. He’s worried that catechisis can be, and often is, done in a vacuum, without constant reference to the rest of knowledge. Burns wants – his example – the Incarnation understood in an historic, geographic, and cultural setting, and to inform the student’s understanding, in turn, of those subjects.

I’m down with that. A formal classroom setting using textbooks – Burns is totally down with textbooks – is likely the worst possible place to get it done, but in theory, that’s what we want.

He deplores question/answer drills, which, he assures us, the modern psychology of education has moved beyond. While he, himself, acknowledges the centrality of doctrine and even dogma, the outline of the seeds for singing kumbaya while sitting cross-legged on the floor and calling it religious ed are easily discernible.


Catholic schools should be patently Catholic, all the time:

“There is the influence of the appointments and ornaments of the schoolroom itself, which may be made to speak lessons of order, neatness, virtue, and religion day by day, silently, but none the less effectively, through appeal to the eye and the esthetic sense.

“It is the aim of the Christian school to turn all such things to account for the attainment of its specific end. If the teaching of religion is a thing of supreme importance in the work of the school, then every influence that can be made use of to make the religious instruction more effective and fruitful ought to be employed. The selection of teachers with special reference to their moral and religious character ; the admission of only such pupils as belong to the religious faith which the school endeavors to foster and propagate; the placing of religious pictures and objects of piety in conspicuous places on the school walls ; the use of religious songs, as well as common oral prayers and devotions; the organization of religious societies — through these and kindred means the pupil is continually surrounded with an atmosphere of religion and piety in the schoolroom which supplements and reinforces the work of formal religious instruction.”

Here we agree. I would make this my first and only principle – do this, and the rest will follow.

Here are some illustrative quotations from the Introduction, with a few comments:


The interest of the Church in the schools has always centered about these fundamental principles. In the teaching of the purely secular branches she has had no direct interest. She took the curriculum of secular studies such as she found it, and left its development to the operation of the ordinary laws of educational growth. [Yikes. Hegel is peeking out from the nearby bushes- ed.] Outside of the matter of religion, there has been no attempt to differentiate Catholic parish schools from other denominational schools or from the public schools. [This is the problem: while we think in ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ terms, the public schools are playing a winner-takes-all cage match.] The tendency has been rather the other way.

“While Catholics, however, have clung faithfully to the historic ideals of the Christian school, it needs but a slight acquaintance with the history of Catholic schools in the United States to make one realize that the working out in practice of the principles outlined above is a matter which opens up grave difficulties and problems. If we compare, for instance, the teaching of religion in the parish schools to-day with the teaching of it a few generations ago, it will be seen that great changes have taken place. Religion had a larger place formerly in the curriculum than it has now. The catechetical drill was more thorough, and took up more time. More importance was attached to it. The value to the growing mind of a knowledge of the truths of faith, simply as knowledge, was better evidenced in practice formerly. Not that the principle itself, perhaps, that religious truth, when properly taught, has a high educative value, is any less accepted now. But conditions in the school have changed. Secular studies have been multiplied. To make room for them, the time given to religious instruction has been cut down. There are some compensations, of course, for this. Methods of teaching religion have improved. The ill- prepared teachers of the early days, often with little or no religious training themselves, have been replaced by teachers who are devoted to the service of religion by profession. The more distinctly religious atmosphere of the school is relied on to-day to do much of what was formerly done by direct instruction and drill. [Then, when the religious atmosphere has been dispensed with, there’s nothing left of religious education…]

“Not only have there been great changes in the extent and methods of religious teaching in our schools in the past, but great differences in both these respects exist to-day. Parish schools are sometimes found within a few blocks of each other in which the teaching of religion is about as different as it could be, the dogmatic content remaining the same. In some schools, the sum total of the religious influences at work hardly extends beyond the bare half hour of catechism-teaching. In others, religion is kept in the foreground all the time. In some instances, the desire to rival the rich and varied program of the neighboring public schools [!] has caused a paring down of the religious work of the school to such an extent that anything like a religious atmosphere is scarcely possible. [See above. This is the state to which gravity pulls a school that does not make the constant, express efforts needed to stay Catholic.] On the other hand, we see schools whose standard in secular studies is quite as broad and as high as that of the best public schools of their class, [To be fair, at this time William Torrey Harris was promoting an academic program for public schools that would put a modern Bachelor’s and most modern Masters degrees to shame. Whether any schools got there in practice is something I don’t know.] which are still able to include in their program various exercises of piety as well as classes in religious instruction.”

“It is evident, in fact, that, on the religious side, the parish school of to-day is very far from having reached the term of its complete development. [There’s that loathsome ‘one perfect way’ concept again, toward which all right-thinking schools must be progressing. Burns seems unable to imagine there might be a million good ways to do education, and that the perfect is the enemy of the good.] It is still in a partly embryonic condition. The adjustment of means to end and principles has to become much closer and to proceed much farther before anything approaching a satisfactory condition as regards religious training can be said to be attained. In point of religious teaching, the development of our schools is, on the whole, far behind their development in respect to secular studies. [? See the passages above – far behind?] This is a strange fact, and it would be a grave menace to the future of our schools, did not a consideration of the causes that have brought about this condition, in the light of the past history of the schools, warrant the hope of a fuller development in the future on the religious side. The need of greater unification, or at least simplification, [Dewey, anyone?] of the school curriculum, is now widely recognized, and the fuller realization of this need, together with the growing movement for more effective religious instruction in the school, will doubtless lead our educators and teachers in time to give to the teaching of religion the place of supreme importance it deserves.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Burn’s “Catholic School System in the United States”, part 1: Introduction”

  1. Thank you again for your continual and consistant efforts on this topic. This line struck me as key in the changes that have slowly accrued: “This is the state to which gravity pulls a school that does not make the constant, express efforts needed to stay Catholic.” I see the same in other fields, such as my own, which has both a professional as well as a trade association. Each has different goals one being the profession, the other more concerned with getting paid for work, (that is economic issues) which may or may NOT coincide with the professional aims. Pournelle’s example in his Iron Law uses schooling as the example for a reason. Some want prestige and power for the profession with little regard to actually promoting learning. As you have often noted, real learning is expressly not an overall goal of the education establishment as it has developed: Compliance and conformity ala Fichte has ascended to primacy despite many educationally ideolized individual teachers.

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