Why (almost) Nobody Can Read

In a comment somewhere, I opined that if we consider literacy to mean not the mere mechanics of reading, but both actually reading and understanding what you have read, the percentage of people who are literate in America has got to be under 10%. I’m thinking probably well under. If you can’t read, in the sense of rendering those symbols on the page or screen into English, then of course you’re classically illiterate (and so of course aren’t reading this). But even if you can read in that sense, if you don’t read, it clearly makes no difference. The label ‘functionally illiterate’ should apply to people who don’t read as as much as those who can’t read.

Image result for readingThe bigger issue is understanding what you read. Recent reading and discussion, for example, show an almost complete misunderstanding of what the Constitution *is*.  That men wrote a document in order to establish and limit a national government seems almost entirely missed, as is the understanding that an unlimited government is by definition a tyranny.  Even the Bill of Rights is seen as somehow magically granting gifts to the People, rather than stating areas where the government shall not tread.

Recently tried to explain the Electoral College to a coworker, how it protects minorities – those who live in less populous states – from getting bullied by the majority, and how the Constitution very probably would not have gotten state approval without it – and he simply refused to understand, but continued to relish his anger at having the majority denied their will. I even added that revolts tend to come from the provinces, that the Founders knew this, and instituted the Electoral College as a way to mitigate this risk. Nope.

This accusatory finger here is pointed squarely at the mirror: hardly a day goes by when I don’t read something and realize I lack the context to understand it. What I do have, in addition to curiosity, is a liberal education – Great Books, some math and music, a little science and art and history. What that gives me is a skeleton like the girders that hold up a skyscraper that can be filled in, here and there, with more detail. That no man, let alone a poser like me, could ever fill it all in is beside the point. At least I have some context for the context, as it were.

Perhaps the most important part of a liberal education is a profound appreciation of how ignorant we all are. There is an effectively infinite set of things it would be good to know, and we most definitely have a finite amount of time and capacity. Further, no one with a functioning mind could come away from an encounter with Plato or Aristotle (or a host of others!) and still believe we moderns are way smarter than those stupid ancient people. No one (1) could look at the works of art – architecture, sculpting, painting, literature, music – and imagine we moderns are just way more sophisticated and smart than those old geezers. In fact, the feeling we’ve fallen far is hard to shake, that we couldn’t hold a candle next to truly great minds. Now, objectively, I believe there are any number of truly brilliant people around today in a thousand fields, as brilliant as anyone ever, but the image that springs to mind is of Dawkins and Musk with their hubris and gadgets trying to talk with, oh, Charlamagne and St. Thomas or Plato and Archimedes or even Jefferson and Newton. Always worth a giggle.

A liberally educated man will therefore be at least a little timid about his conclusions no matter how vigorous in his principles – and know the difference. The typical miseducated college grad is vigorous in his conclusions and vague about his principles – or would be, if he could tell the difference.

When I’m being careful and honest with myself (I try, but I’m only human), I’m somewhere between suspicious to pretty confident about what I’ve deduced from reading education history. I’m very confident about much of the framework items, such as Fichte’s role, the role of the Prussian models of universal and university education, and how compulsory graded classroom schooling spread in America – mostly because no one I’ve come across, critic or supporter, seriously disputes it. I’m a little uncomfortable with the contention that the Irish immigrants were the proximate cause of Mann getting Prussian style schooling approved in Massachusetts. I’ve seen this in 2 or 3 sources, and the timing matches, and the attitudes of Americans about the Irish certainly support it, but it’s not clear these sources aren’t really one source passed through time.

And so on, down to my complete lack of sources for the when and why the graded classroom model became the Catholic schooling model. It happened, that’s for sure, but I’d like some names, dates and arguments.

This is just an example, a place in the framework where I’ve managed to fill in some of the detail. I’m painfully aware of the effectively infinite number of empty spaces for every space I’ve filled in even a little. I’m aware I could be wrong. But I’m also aware that the enemies of truth and reason don’t feel (can’t say ‘think’) the same way about their positions, and don’t care. Can’t let legitimate minor doubts silence you in the face of irrational hatred.

In conclusion: I flatter myself imagining I read with some context and care. I fear, and unfortunately, the world seems hellbent to confirm it, that the number of people who can claim even this much is as a drop in a bucket. I hope I’m wrong.

  1. No one except Hegel. But boy, was he committed to getting the square peg of Reality into the round hole of his Theory.

On Progress and The World as Grass

Two interesting posts from two of my favorite regular blog reads:

Mike Flynn says:

“We often hear that the rate of progress is accelerating. Change is coming faster and faster. Things that were once pooh-poohed as “slippery slope fallacies” only a few years ago are now spoken of as inevitable and well-established. We are building something new, we are told.

“Yet a building being constructed does not move faster and faster. A building collapsing does, as it accelerated under the force of gravity.”

Brian Niemeier says, among other things:

There’s another, more sinister aspect to this phenomenon that heightens the already disorienting experience of learning that the Weird Al single you’d meant to buy on release but kept putting off is now old enough to drive–like children born on September 11, 2001 are now. It’s an empirical fact that Western pop culture–and even Western technology itself–has remained largely static since the late 1980s.

Submitted for your consideration:

  • The last two generations of iPhones have had no new features.
  • The celebrated iPod performed the same essential function as a 1970s Walkman.
  • Movies and TV are dominated by sequels to film franchises and adaptations of comic book story arcs that first gained popularity in the 70s and 80s.
  • Nintendo is still the biggest name in video games, trading on IPs it established in the 80s.
  • In terms of ordinary street clothes, popular fashion hasn’t changed substantially since the 70s. You could zap the average American twentysomething dude back to 1988 right now, and no one would bat an eye, except perhaps to comment that he looked like a slob. There would be no Marty McFly-style gaffes, e.g.: “Hey kid, you jump ship?” “I’ve never seen purple underwear before!”
The issue is bigger than a generation of kids raised on Nickelodeon turning 40. As the 21st century lumbers out of its infancy, we find that the music-makers can only sample Vanilla Ice ripoffs of Queen songs; and the dreamers can only dream of the lifestyle their parents took for granted.
We’d better get some new dreams.
I commented on these thoughts, respectively:

Good image. Also, from working in the software industry: progress almost never means coding, or more generally, the stuff you can see happens as a result of the real progress, but is not progress in itself. Almost all the progress happens before there’s anything to show for it.

Two wildly different examples: in my industry, meaningful progress happens during the ‘thought-smithing’ stage, where sharp people figure out what’s really going on, what’s really necessary. Ideas and processes crystalize. THEN, if you’re lucky and did a good job, coders code, and there’s software to look at. But coders code and produce stuff to look at all the time – it’s called ‘shelfware’, beautiful software nobody wants, so it sits on a shelf. Conclusion: the software itself isn’t where things got made better.

Second, in honor of the upcoming feast of St. Scholastica, a lot of real progress was made more or less unintentionally when the great Benedictine monasteries were built. The Rule of St. Benedict and the motto Ora et Labora ARE the progress – they ALLOWED the monasteries to spread, thrive, and change the world through being consistent pillars and sources of stability, civilization and technological development. It was almost like having a cultural mom and dad, who, just by being there and not budging, allowed the kids to grow up more confident and optimistic.

Corollary I: few people ever see where the real progress is made, they only see the results of real progress and imagine those results are causes rather than effects.

Corollary II: What people most tout as progress probably isn’t – which I suppose is your point.


Your point about new gadgets is good. I suspect the number of ways people can be distracted is not all that flexible, so a cool gadget that really hits the spot has nowhere to go. Technologically speaking, phones, games, movies can only improve on the margins.

Look at the new gadgets people seem to be pining for: robots (especially sexbots!) do DO anything really different, just free up more time for? New gadgets? Flying cars are called ‘airplanes’. Otherwise, we want *better* books, phones, games, movies – the same things, only better. Real progress in most ways we spoiled consumers define it has come to a halt.

Hegel and by extension all other believers in Progress as a sort of benevolent force at work in the world hang their faith on the very evident material progress made over the last 250 or so years. In his Logic, Hegel in fact asserts that it is obvious traditional logic needs to change (in the sense of be destroyed) as it alone among the arts and sciences has remained ‘unimproved’ since Aristotle. He sees Progress at work in the world, and anything not progressing as being, as the cool kids say, On the Wrong Side of History.

A story told by Feynman springs to mind: he was once on a scientific junket of some sort to I believe Brazil, and was asked about the problems of the poor and if science had anything to offer. The specific example was how slum dwellers needed to march down a hill for a long ways to reach potable water, and then haul it back up to where they lived.Feynman points out that all the technology, all the science needed to solve this problem existed and had existed for decades or centuries: run a pipe up the hill and put in a faucet. Whatever the reasons for that simple solution not having been done, science wasn’t it.

The Antikythera Mechanism. A beautiful dead end. ‘Ahead of its time’ – whatever that’s supposed to mean!

In a similar way, most of what we see as progress day to day is application of technologies developed years earlier. And, worse, it’s almost all fluff – unless you need cutting edge medical care. Even then, chances are the cutting edge is built on ideas that have been around for decades. Our TV and phones and cars are marginally better than they were 10 or 20 or 50 or a hundred years ago – but they serve the same purposes, and the new improved versions have improved our lives little – unless we measure improvement in gadgets.

Real progress is messy, difficult and relies on changes of heart and mind more than any mere material invention. The Greek philosophers legendarily considered caring (much) for practical improvements to day to day life to be beneath the dignity of a real man. Practical progress of a sort was made in some arts, Archimedes is a legend himself – and then there’s the Antikythera Mechanism. But the outcome was not airplanes and moon landings, or even better plows and printing presses – it was constant internal bickering followed by conquests by the Macedonians followed by the Romans and jobs as tutors to their conqueror’s kids.

What the Greeks were missing was ‘why’. Certainly, they were brilliant, curious and ambitious enough to have accomplished so much – that made little material difference. It took the influence of Jerusalem and Christian Rome to provide a civilization with enough room, enough hope, to turn random intermittent ‘progress’ such as is characteristic of men whenever and wherever we live into a program, a communal effort.

If we are made in the Image of God, and the Heavens proclaim His glory, and the world is His handiwork, then applying our minds to understanding the world is a worthy activity. We can use that understanding to better serve our brothers and sisters. We needn’t accept the way things are. Christians are the only people who as a culture were not indifferent to the lives and deaths of the poor. Romans and Greeks, Indians and Chinese would have considered it an affront for a poor man to have the temerity to die on their doorstep; a Christian would be expected to see it as his own personal failure. Look what I  have done the the least of these!

Only if despair is considered cowardice and treason will we persevere in our efforts to help the needy. Only in a culture of hope and duty to one another can material progress become the norm. Such material progress is a side effect of a change of heart.

To the nihilist, relativist Progressive, technology is a tool of power, and science is a bother when it does anything but serve politics. True science, which is no respecter of men if it is science at all, is a threat to power. It follows where it will – and we can’t have that!

But we can have more and batter gadgets, and live an ephemeral life. Until we don’t.

Catholic Schools Week p. 4: How Did We Get Here? Continued More

By the 1920s, the efforts of American bishops greatly aided by many teaching orders had built hundreds of parochial schools. Efforts were not consistent, however. In New York, lead by a series of strong and committed bishops, most parishes also had a parish school. (Alas, even then, the Church was never fully able to keep up with demand. Catholic immigrants arrived faster than schools could be built and teachers hired.) In Boston, efforts were less focused. I’d have to look it up (not looking stuff up for these blog posts – wait for the book) but I don’t think Catholic school attendance among Catholics there ever reached 50%.

Part of this has to do with the nationality of the immigrants. German immigrants tended to come from well-ordered towns where individual positive involvement with local government was not uncommon – people would get together in towns and villages an *do* stuff. One of the things they did was run schools. So, when challenged by the bishops to fund and build schools, German Catholic immigrants got right down to business: almost every parish formed to serve German immigrants has a school. Italian immigrants were a much more mixed bag: (speculation follows) while village life was common, the power of local aristocracy (and mafias!) loomed large. People couldn’t just get together and do something like build a school without considering political ramifications. I suspect (more research needed!) this tended to put a damper on local initiative. At any rate, Italian parishes (outside New York, where the whip was cracked and the bishop stood in for the aristocracy) were more spotty about support for schools.

The Irish had a couple chips on their shoulders: they were, along with Sicilians, southern Italians and Jews, the most despised immigrants. They had a harder time getting jobs and fitting in. Plus, they had no experience of benevolent or even merely indifferent government – for centuries, they had been ruled by the English and treated as slaves when they weren’t actively being exterminated. The English weren’t exactly going to encourage the Irish to build and run their own schools. So while many beautiful churches and parish schools were built by and for Irish immigrants, it was not something they seem to have taken to easily. The Irish could be mustered to build a church. Getting them to then sacrifice for a school seems to have often been too much.

(Aside –  a current personal example of what I’m talking about: the parishes around here often have more Spanish-speaking Latin Americans than English speaking parishioners. Several of my friends have ministries to the Spanish speaking, and talk about how hard it is to get the Mexicans in particular to own responsibility for the parish. They don’t really see it as their job to fund and take care of it. Looking at the last century of Mexican history, this makes some sense. The Church was – still is – persecuted in Mexico. For several generations now, open support for church activities was a career-limiting move at best. People from other Latin American countries are free of this problem to greater and lesser extents.)

That’s on the local level. The good news was that millions of Catholic kids were getting some education, mostly by religious sisters. They were winning by subtraction: the real victory was keeping them away from the state schools. The evils inherent in the graded classroom model were mitigated in Catholic schools by the belief that each kid was a child of God with an infinitely valuable immortal soul for whose salvation the adult teachers were somewhat responsible, as opposed to a blank slate on which the state’s will was to be written.

In the 1930s, with local power weakened by the Great Depression, states began to consider taking more drastic steps to curb or destroy Catholic schools. Oregon passed a law that outlawed private schools and required attendance at state schools. The case went to the US Supreme Court.

Now, if the law had been allowed to stand, other states were ready to try it, too. If you’ve been following these blog posts, you should see that the goals of the education establishment as founded in this country by Horace Mann included getting rid of exactly the kind of schools Catholics were setting up: local and outside state control. Catholic schools and one-room schools were the major stumbling blocks on the road to complete state control of all education, and thus were relentlessly attacked.

But the Supreme Court struck the Oregon law down. Before we dance in the streets, we should consider the nature of the victory and arguments. The Church and other private schools did not argue that the state had no place interfering with a parent’s God-given right and duty to educate his own children. Instead, they argued that the state has a critical interest in the education of children, but that as long as the parish schools conformed to the general guidelines and submitted to testing and inspection, they should be left alone. The Supreme Court agreed – that while the state had a duty (and therefore a right) to see to it that children got educated, the actual mechanisms should be left to the parents.

Note that the Church won the battle but lost the war: we could have or own schools, just so long as we complied with state education department rules and tests. Now, the smarter people at the top of the educational establishment were no doubt buoyed by this ruling: if the Catholic schools could be compelled to use the graded classroom model and test kids to make sure they were ‘performing at grade level’, the eventual outcome was assured. For the state is a jealous god.

The funny part is – and more research is needed here – the Catholic schools had already by this time adopted the graded classroom model, advertised as ‘scientific’ and ‘progressive’, without the need for state compulsion.  They already structured their curricula around ‘grade level’ rather than on the person interests and skills of the child. They already used graded textbooks. They had already separated the children by age with no regard paid to kinship or friendship. All the state had to do was watch.

And they got their wish. Rare is the parish school where a kid will learn familiar prayers and attend Mass and learn any doctrine. More likely, a huge percentage of the kids are not even Catholic. Their parents just want them out of the public schools, and have no fear their kid will come out Catholic – or, worse, that if they did it would have any meaningful effect. The milk toast Catholics the schools produce are indistinguishable from muddle-headed Gaia worshipers, where recycling is a virtue but following Catholic doctrine is strictly optional – and sort of icky and backwards.

Here in California, remarkably one of the less controlling states as far as education goes, Catholic parents have set up K-12 schools and colleges to get away from the horror and failure of the established Catholic schools. O, the irony! The founders of these schools probably never considered doing anything other than the graded classroom model! They don’t understand what Chesterton and Lewis point out many times: what you tell a kid may or may not take, but what you *assume* without discussion they absorb forever! So, these lovely schools – at the moment, they are lovely, in the bloom and vigor of their youths – have embraced the seeds of their own destruction.

For the kids will learn more deeply and profoundly that anything they are actively taught that 1) the most important inviolate thing is to stick to your assigned group; 2) people in charge will assign you to a group; 3) it doesn’t matter (much) what you already know or are interested in, you will study what we tell you to study; 4) experts will tell you how you’re doing  & define competence and success for you; and 5) it doesn’t matter who your friends and family are, those relationships are not as important to sticking to your assigned group and doing what you’re told.

(That last item may need a little expansion: to pick a familiar example, in American one-room schools, families and neighbors made up the entire student population. Kids were not segregated by age. Instead, family and neighbor relationships were taken as a given and reinforced by the school. It would be you brother or neighbor who taught you how to read cypher, and your cousin or sister you in turn taught. Compare and contrast to modern schools. Imagine how different schooling would be if the one-room model was adopted and adapted for modern city use, rather than being exterminated by the fans of the Prussian model.)

Of course, these messages are contradicted by the very real love and care of the faculty of these newer parent-run Catholic schools. The message of Christ – of love and sacrifice and most particularly the infinite value of each human soul – is a far stronger and more powerful message than that people must conform to the will of the state (which is why the state tries to bury it!). And the little saints and good people behind these schools can keep them on track for some time with the grace of God. BUT: those messages – Fichte’s and Mann’s and the NEA’s and Freire’s and Marx’s – that the child is blank slate, family is less important than school, and we all ar tools to be used to achieve the state’s ends – will, in the end, win by attrition so long as they lurk unrecognized in the graded classroom model itself.

This victory of the state is not a theory. It’s what has happened to all the beautiful and well-intentioned parochial schools already. Which is why parents form new Catholic schools. And why those schools, too, will eventually fail unless they reject the graded classroom model.

Catholic Schools Week p. 3: How Did We Get Here? Continued

We left our brief and unannotated summary of the history of Catholic schooling in America around the turn of the last century. At that time, the bishops for the most part remained firm in their support of Catholic schools in opposition to the public schools. It was clear public school – compulsory, Prussian model built upon ‘blank slate’ theory – were set up specifically to destroy the Catholic faith – as well as family and local community.

A little context: Back in 1811 in Berlin, Fichte had proposed schooling as the solution to the problem of German national unity – if only progressive, right thinking people could break the local, family and religious bonds that compete with loyalty to the state, and replace them with unthinking obedience to the will of the state (as embodied by the likes of Fichte), all problems would be solved! The German people could assume their rightful place as leaders and teachers of mankind!

All we need to do to achieve this earthly paradise, Fichte taught through a series of very popular public lectures, is physically remove all children from their parents and start right in training kids to do exactly what their teachers tell them to do. Kids must learn to reject home, village and their village’s God. They must learn to mistrust their own inclinations and instead realize that only the approval of their teachers matters. Their freedom lies in becoming completely subservient to the will of the State as expressed by their teachers. Once properly trained, they will become a new people, fit for the new  enlightened and progressive paradise.

(If you hear in Fichte foreshadowing of Hegel, Marx and Nazis, you are not wrong.)

This went over so well in Prussia that von Humboldt put Fichte in charge of the newly-established University of Berlin, where the details of how to deliver such an education were worked out. (For example: nothing says ‘control’ like bells, arbitrary social arrangements like age-grouping, and needing permission to go to the bathroom – let’s do that!) Mann, and just about every American education reformer for the next 50 years, went to Prussia to learn how to do it. After Mann returned from his tour of Prussia in 1841, he became an even greater cheerleader for Prussian schooling in America – he had seen the future (well, at least up until maybe Great War) and it worked!

The unholy rage for central control of everything was in full bloom all around, and the example of the bloodbath and ruin of Russian Revolution and Nazi Germany had not yet presented the case studies of how such efforts to perfect Man in this world play out. I imagine that, then as now, if you had too strong and too public doubts about all this, you were unlikely to get invited to the cool kid’s parties. Once it’s been established that external approval by the proper authorities IS the measure of all things – the central goal of our system of schooling – how could it be otherwise?

(As an aside: in Lord of the World, written just before WWI, Benson could plausibly speculate that centralized control worked just great under its own term. Seemed to be working at the time. He contemplated the horrors that would result from a tidy, efficient world at ‘peace’ bought roughly under Fichte’s terms. Those with eyes to see had not yet been disabused by small h history.)

So we have a Catholic hierarchy in America consisting mostly of German and especially Irish bishops, many of whom were themselves immigrants or children of immigrants, trying to provide for the spiritual needs of millions of often uneducated and desperately poor Catholics. The need for Catholic schooling was just one of many things they had to worry about.

The Catholic University of America was founded in 1887. Catholics had been founding universities since the 12th century – Catholics invented the university – so CUA is hardly surprising. I need to do much more research here, but from the admittedly incomplete reading I’ve done so far, it seems that at least in part, CUA was a manifestation of the outsider’s desire to fit in. It wasn’t enough to reject the grim Calvinism (in its myriad mutated forms) of Harvard – we had to have a big university, too! And it will be *just like* those Ivy schools, only Catholic.

The trouble is, where do you draw the line? How much of what goes on at Harvard can a Catholic university baptize, and how much needs to be utterly rejected?

Somehow, somewhere in this timeframe, the graded classroom model became the American Catholic school model. Again, I must remind the reader that this idea that kids should be segregated by age, spoon-fed certain subjects in the same way, governed by bells and always under the teacher’s unquestioned authority  is NOT normal, nor historical, nor, especially, Catholic. It is an innovation by viritent anti-Catholics instituted to control people like us. Yet, somehow, it became the unquestioned norm of Catholic schools in America.

At this time, parallel to the need for teachers was a ‘need’ for teaching materials that could be used in a graded classroom Catholic school.  A couple priests on the faculty of CUA took it upon themselves to produce such materials, structured to reinforce the graded classroom style (you know, a 1st grade this, a third grade that). There seems to have been some friction with the bishops at this time over who exactly was in charge. The bishops had not granted any formal or exclusive right to publish Catholic textbooks, yet de facto, that’s what happened. The publishers seem to have been far more sympathetic to modernism than the bishops. This foreshadows the conflicts we see today, where the local bishop, who is legally and morally in charge of any schools that call themselves Catholic in his diocese, is opposed at every step by faculty and even parents if he tries to impose anything too overtly Catholic on them.

By the 1930s, when states such as Oregon made efforts to simply ban Catholic schools outright, they had already come to be kinder, gentler versions of Prussian schools where you could pack a rosary without getting into trouble. But the structure – and therefore inescapably the goals – of Prussian schooling were ubiquitous

To be fair, up until the 1960s (I caught the tail end of this) it was customary to start the day at a Catholic school with Mass, and to stop and pray the Angelus, and to pray before classes and to otherwise be demonstratively Catholic. I was present in schools when these traditions died, and the Catholicism of Catholic schools became little more than the marketing gimmick it almost always is today.

To be continued.

Catholic Schools Week p. 2: How Did We Get Here?

This will be a quick skim no references version. The deep dive heavily referenced version is the book or two I hope to write in a few years when I’ve retired.

A key point you’ll need to keep in mind to understand the following: the form we consider normal for schooling is an historically recent invention. The idea that a nation should separate its young into ‘classes’ by age and teach every child in that class the same materials in the same way regardless of their existing knowledge, intelligence, interests and natural family relationships would have struck sane people as at least bizarre until about 150 years ago. If it weren’t for pervasive Stockholm Syndrome, it would strike us as bizarre as well.

When such schooling, known as the Prussian model, was first proposed in America by Horace Mann, Massachusetts’ and the nation’s first state secretary of education, around 1838, it was widely opposed. Literacy was about 99% in the North at the time – somehow, people were getting educated without the involvement of the state government and taxes! The hard-headed farmers and shopkeepers of New England were not about to tax themselves to get something – educated children – they already had.

Then starting in 1845, Mann got his lucky break: the Great Famine in Ireland resulted in many thousands of Irish immigrating to Massachusetts. Having suffered under the murderous fist of the English for centuries, having the culture and religion crushed, and being treated as slaves, the Irish understandably did not fit in. They weren’t good little Protestants.

These same hard headed New England farmers and shopkeepers were now sold the idea that compulsory public schools on the Prussian model were needed – to make good little Protestants out of the filthy Papist Irish via removing their children from their care and indoctrinating them in good solid Protestant teaching.

And the voters bought it. It became illegal to not send your kid to school – your kids could be taken away from you if found at home during school hours. Of course, those same kids could be working in a factory owned by Mann’s friends and peers – that was fine, so long as they were removed from the evil influence of family. That’s a key feature of Prussian schooling, which in its pure form (rarely advertised) advocates for the complete removal of the child from the family as soon as practical – say, once weened – for the kid’s entire childhood. No, really – you’ll need to read the book, all this is laid out at the founding of the public school movement. Complete removal of children from families has not proven economical or practical – yet. Instead, the school day and school year just keep growing, to reduce as much as possible the baleful influence of family.

As more and more Catholics came into the country, the bishops, with varying degrees of fervor, began pushing for the construction of Catholic schools. They were so desperate to prevent the Protestantization of the faithful via the schools that, at one point, they sought to get Vatican permission to excommunicate any Catholic parent who could send his kids to a Catholic school but refused. The pope, very probably not really understanding the situation, would not allow it. The bishops – this will shock you – went along with the pope’s decision without a fuss.

At no point did more than 50% of Catholic kids attend Catholic schools. The results we see today are exactly what those bishops feared. They would weep to see the secularization of almost all Catholic schools today.

Recall that not too many years later, in 1907, Pope St. Pius X issued his condemnation of modernism. Now, a pope will not bother condemning something in such dramatic fashion unless he sees it as a real and present danger. The example of what happened in American Catholic schools is just the sort of thing that PASCENDI DOMINICI GREGIS was written to address.

It is common and understandable that immigrants would desire to become accepted and acculturated. Many Catholic immigrants and their children wanted to be more American than the Americans. I remember reading somewhere that enlistment rate, for example, were and are higher for naturalized Americans and their children than for native-born Americans. There is a strong urge among Catholics to make their schools better examples of the public schools, so much so that today, you find Catholic schooling touted as a better version of public schools, higher test scores, better college admission rates, better future financial success, and so on. What’s not emphasized or explained in other than very broad and do-gooder terms is what makes Catholic schools Catholic. Mass attendance, prayer life, adherence to the teachings of the Church – these are not much discussed.

Not only did those largely German and Irish 19th century bishops fail  to get most Catholics into their schools, by the 1960s, it made hardly a lick of difference if they did.

Back to the timeline. Unfortunately,  by the late 1800s higher education in America had completely fallen under the spell of Hegelians and Marxists – and thus, we created a class of educated Catholics who, sharing with their less educated brethren the desire to fit in,  kept looking for ways to adapt the Catholic schools to the newest and best thinking at  (Calvinist=>Unitarian=>Hegelian/Marxist) Harvard. And boy, are those Ivy League schools down with compulsory Prussian education!

So, while the bishops obeyed Rome and stopped threatening the real risk of damnation on those who refused to send their kids to Catholic schools, other Catholics were doing their best to make those Catholic schools conform in spirit to the public schools.

A note on teachers, then we’ll put this aside for now and take it up again later. One of the biggest challenges the bishops faced was finding teachers. This was exacerbated by money – except in a few places, immigrants were both being taxed to pay for the public schools and then asked to contribute to the Catholic schools. There was very little money to pay teachers. So the bishops looked to religious orders to supply them. Demand was so high that young women – it was almost always women – would find themselves in the classroom teaching with only a year or two of preparation.

The religious orders both newly formed and old emphasized community life for the nuns, based on centuries of experience: they knew that if these young women lived in community with more experienced sisters, they could be taught how to teach while having their vocation strengthened and supported. The option – sending the young sisters away to some education school or other – was too risky to their callings even apart from the expense. Some orders and diocese tried to form their own education schools, but that proved expensive.

When the National Catholic Education Association formed in 1904, one of its chief missions was to professionalize Catholic grade school teachers. What this meant was sending them to education schools and getting them paid. This often put them at odds with the bishops and religious orders.

The NCEA eventually succeeded to a large extent. What this means is that for the last century, the best educated Catholic school teachers are taught in education departments founded and run by people completely on board with the methods and goals of Prussian education. Starting with Mann, every state and university education department in America has been established by devotees of the Prussian model. They are the gatekeepers.

Once we can start imagining education without the insane graded classroom model, we can start imagining true Catholic education.

Leet Leet Skilz: The Parish Ale

Mentioned last post that I’d whiled away a little too much time clicking links and doing the whole ‘hmmm – that looks interesting’ thing while digging a bit into the history of ‘quiet enjoyment’. The internet is like having a drug dealer in your home – as a child, I’d have to go to a physical library to waste this kind of time, wandering through the stacks, pulling books that looked interesting, sitting on the floor skimming them until my legs fell asleep.

Now? That kind of high is just a click away! WEEEEEE!

Ahem. Anyway, quiet enjoyment lead to courts leet, which it turns out were a flavor of courts baron, or manorial courts, which lead to parish ale. No, really. A ‘leet’ seems to be an area that comprised the lands governed by a baron, so that a court leet was a manorial court for that area. English law, growing from feudal, ecclesiastical and tribal roots, as well as a heavy dose of Danish and Norman influence, had a variety of courts with equally varied jurisdictions. Courts leet generally handled criminal cases up to a certain level of seriousness, with the most serious cases kicked up to aristocratic or royal courts. There was also a sense of group responsibility in the subgroups within the leet. Hundreds and tithes would be responsible for the duties and crimes of those within them. Like all things feudal, layers and layers of relationships, duties and rights.

There’s some relationship between a parish and a leet, but it’s not clear exactly how that worked, unless the lord in the manor house had an area of rule that happened to correspond to a single parish – easy to imagine that being the case at least some of the time, but I don’t know.

File:Teniers Elder Village Feast.jpg
Village Feast by David Teniers the Elder circa 1640.   Panel Accademia Carrara, Bergamo     Source: http://gallery.euroweb.hu/html/t/teniers/jan1/index.html Paineted a century or so after the Middle Ages are supposed to have ended. Like the barrels – we will conclusively assume they are ale barrels for the purposes of this post.  

Among the layers of relationships, rights and responsibilities (hey – a feudal 3 R’s! Wouldn’t it be nice if our current comparatively trivial 3 R’s took place within those medieval ones? Might even work better…) was a responsibility for upkeep of the parish church. One way this was handled was with parish ale. The word ‘ale’ when tacked onto the end of another word tended to mean party or feast, as ale is of the class of substances known to bring joy, and a readiness to party, to a man’s heart.

A parish ale was a generally annual feast or party celebrated with ale, as a fundraiser for the parish. Food, music, dancing held in the parish yard or a nearby barn. Money was charged for the ale, at least, with the proceeds going to church maintenance and the poor box. All in all, a charming example of local people taking care of local issues in the most Catholic way possible – duty, charity, and a party all rolled into one!

The oracle Wikipedia has this to say:

These parish festivals were of much ecclesiastical and social importance in medieval England. The chief purpose of the church-ale (which was originally instituted to honour the church saint) and the clerk-ale, was to facilitate the collection of parish dues and to make a profit for the church from the sale of ale by the church wardens.[3] These profits kept the parish church in repair, or were distributed as alms to the poor.

The churches must owe, as we all do know,
For when they be drooping and ready to fall,
By a Whitsun or Church-ale up again they shall go
And owe their repairing to a pot of good ale

— “Exaltation of Ale”, by Francis Beaumont[3]

In the gallery of the tower arch of St Agnes, Cawston in Norfolk is inscribed:

God speed the plough
And give us good ale enow …
Be merry and glade,
With good ale was this work made.[4]

On the beam of a screen in the church of Thorpe-le-SokenEssex, is the following inscription in raised blackletter on a scroll held by two angels: “This cost is the bachelers made by ales thesn be ther med.” The date is about 1480.

The parish ale being local, fun, and traditional, the English Reformation was of course opposed to them. Over time, they were restricted and largely faded away, but a few persist to this day.

No other reason for this post than that I found the idea of the parish ale delightful.

Putting Up With the Modern World

There is no such thing as complete tolerance. It’s not that complete tolerance, however defined, is desirable but difficult, or impossible in practice but a worthy ideal to measure our efforts against. Rather, it is a thing like sola scriptura, contradicted and revealed as impossible by the simple act of stating it. (1)

For toleration exists when a consensus on certain foundational matters allows people and ultimately a culture to put up with behaviors that that same consensus considers wrong. If they did not consider the tolerated behaviors to be wrong, what we’d have isn’t tolerance, but acceptance – conformity to the consensus. Acceptance and tolerance are mutually exclusive.

What we had here in America was something like a consensus around what C.S. Lewis infelicitously called ‘mere Christianity’ – an imagined (and imaginary) agreement on certain fundamental principles rooted in the stories and teachings found in the Bible.

Once came across a letter from the early part of the 19th century, wherein a Presbyterian Calvinist (I think – the exact denominations of the people involved isn’t important to the point) wrote expressing his despair over the impending marriage of a family member to a Methodist. Didn’t they realize that was the road to perdition? Today, it is somewhat startling to think there were people who didn’t think that the grey goo that runs from liberal Catholicism through Episcopalians and Lutherans and then on down through Presbyterians and Methodists all the way to the higher-church (if that’s the right term) Baptists and ending in Universalist Unitarians isn’t one big happy, if terminally vague, family. Outside this pale in either direction lie the Catholics, readily identified by their failure to reflexively buy into all liberal positions as a matter of identity, and the Evangelicals, identifiable by their insistence that there are things one must simply believe that precede and supercede politics. (It was in highschool that it dawned on me that Evangelicals and Catholics have way more in common than either has with mainline Protestants. It’s gotten more pronounced since.)

Along the way are the occasional reformed this and orthodox that flavors of mainline Protestantism, which tend to be sort of wannabe Catholics or Evangelicals or some mix. And, of course, the Jews, Muslims, and Orthodox don’t exactly fit anywhere here, let alone Hindus and atheists. This is all very rough, but I think it roughly true.

What we had at our country’s founding were, generally, Calvinists in New England  and Anglicans in much of the rest of the 13 Colonies, with some Catholics in Maryland and other oddball sects spread liberally all around. Later, after the Revolution, we had the mushrooming of more or less uniquely American varieties of Christianity from the Burned Over District (making them morel mushrooms, I suppose), but those new sects were not part of the consensus except accidentally, but rather more often a challenge to it.

All these sects at the nation’s founding shared a couple things. Perhaps most important and certainly the most persistent, was that the Catholic Church was the wrongest wrong ever wronged. Right behind that was the idea, greatly to their credit, that Christians of whatever non-Catholic flavor should live together in peace, using a sort of 10 Commandments + Christ’s Commandments as a baseline. Quibbling over what, exactly, Christ commanded was bad form, at least during the Revolution, Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention. Insofar as a consensus existed, that was it – that some sort of ‘mere’ anti-Catholic Christianity, based on the Bible and a moral tradition defended from scripture was the baseline from which what qualified as tolerable dissent could be defined.

Image result for american country church
An American church, out standing in its field.

The idea of tolerable dissent is key. Dissent which threatened the consensus could not be tolerated. We have little problem when the violation of the consensus is, say, murder. Action must be taken. We have more problems when the dissent is sexual. We want to think sex a merely private matter, but it’s very nearly true to say that all of morality is about sex. We have property rights – thou shalt not steal – because we need to hold property to fulfill our duties to our families, which were always understood as the fullest expression of human sexuality. Family life, and thus culture and society, are built on Commandments 4 – 10, and express our moral duties to our brothers and sisters. Thinking we can unhitch sex from moral duty is starting a brush fire in high winds. Lies? False witness? Coveting spouses?  Have these these not become characteristic of our age?

I mention all this, which is basic logic and American history, because, today, as the Protestant churches dissolve all around us and the Sexual Revolution assumes its intended place as the moral foundation of all that is right and just, the pseudo-consensus that could tolerate, for example, the Sexual Revolution, is being replaced by one that cannot tolerate opposition to the Sexual Revolution.

The consensus upon which cultural (and, by extension, political and legal) toleration can be built must also be able to say what cannot be tolerated. The ‘mere Christianity’ consensus was never quite real, sustained as it was by good intentions where logic failed, and in any event waged intermittent war against Catholics, who were never fully embraced as Americans. (JFK taught the still-valid lesson that a Catholic can be an American as long as he’s not much of a Catholic.)

The thought that won’t go away today: we can’t hope and long for the reinstatement of some past ideas of tolerance under which Catholics would be free to practice our faith without state interference or surveillance. That ship has sailed, and in any event was more illusion than reality. Broadly-supported anti-Catholic movements include the public schools, ‘no Irish need apply’, the Klan, the Masons – these all lie close to the core of American history, and have not so much gone away as changed form. The tight-laced Puritan who hated Catholics has been replaced in stages by the broad-minded Unitarian who hated Catholics and finally the secular atheist who hates Catholics. And, I suppose it should be noted, the secular liberal Catholic who hates Catholics.

I can’t help but think it’s not going to be pretty. We Catholics strongly suspect and see evidence all around us that the currently forming consensus is imploding as its internal contradictions cause structural failure. At the same time, our enemies have long been able to rally around their shared hatred of the Church, postponing their own purges and civil wars long enough to beat Catholics down. These times are far too interesting.

The historic rise of a strong man (and, no, Trump is only that guy in the fantasies of the losers. I’m thinking a Napoleon) can in some ways be seen as the inescapable imposition of a standard plugged into the lacuna left by a failed consensus.

Let’s hope we don’t go there. I fear, however, that we can’t go back to the way things were, that the illusion of a consensus under which we lived for 200+ years has been shattered into too many pieces.

  1. Not to beat a dead horse, instead I direct you to the hundreds of comments in this post on Ed Fesser’s blog, and the hundreds more on the followup posts. Dr. Fesser summarizes the state of the argument occasionally over the course of the series, if your eyes start getting crossed trying to follow the comments. The gist is that those who put their faith in sola scriptura, if serious,  will, when pressed with interpretations that contradict their own, eventually whittle down the true hermeneutic to ‘agrees with me and my friends’. That’s certainly what Luther meant by the term. That plowboy in the field, let alone the Jehovah’s Witness at the door? They’ve got it all wrong, somehow, although how they came to have gotten it so wrong seems to require a bit of extra-scriptural magic. It is breathtaking to see how often Luther lies at the root of poor habits of mind in the modern world.