In Layman's Terms - Bob Sullivan

Catholics and education - Part I

By Bob Sullivan

Before discussing Catholic schools as they exist today, which comes in part five of this five-part series, it may help to have a very brief overview of the history of education (K-12) in the United States. I’ll leave out a lot, but hopefully it will include enough to give some perspective to the issues facing the Church in Catholic education today.

Catholic schools have existed on North American soil for over four centuries. However, they could not be considered a “system” for well over a century after the first Catholic explorers made landfall at St. Augustine, Fla., in 1606. Over that same period of time, the public-school system was also finding its place in American culture, most significantly through Horace Mann. Mann grew up in a Reformed Calvinist family and converted to Unitarianism as an adult. After law school, he grew to political prominence in Massachusetts and became very active in education reform. Mann set out to design the “Common School Movement,” so every child could receive a basic and free education funded by local taxes.

This was to include a fairly superficial non-sectarian instruction in the Bible. Over time, public schools came to insist on using only the 66-book King James Bible as the accepted textbook for religious education. The King James version often included commentary which was specifically written to counter Catholic dogmas such as the Eucharist, the pope, the priesthood, etc… In a nutshell, the non-sectarian model of Horace Mann turned into a distinctly Protestant model.

Mann’s approach to education was flawed. Mann believed that political stability and social harmony depended on schools, not families. In a speech to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Mann stated: “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.” While true, Mann overlooked the central role of the family as the primary educators of their children, giving rise to a public-school system which today replaces the family in many respects, though inadequately.

Catholics believe (as most Christians did in Mann’s day) that family is the first, the most efficient, and natural society as well as the vital building block of civilized society. When the family is functioning as God designed, less government and fewer government services are necessary. When the family does not function as designed, more government oversight, intervention, and control is necessary.

Mann’s ideas on public education, as well as the religious education within the public schools, became the model countrywide. On the surface, Mann and others talked about the need to know God in order to receive eternal salvation, but the purpose of public education was to create hard-working, morally upright, assimilated citizens. It was actually a social reform through education which disregarded the beliefs and practices of Catholic families, as well as other ethnic and religious groups. At the center of Mann’s plan was the creation of a national culture which was controlled by the state. Catholics were seen as a major threat to the accomplishment of this program of national unification through common socialization for many reasons, including the anti-Catholic belief that we pledge our allegiance to the pope and will betray our country if the pope requires it. Mann’s model proved very effective at assimilating millions of immigrants and their children into the melting pot of the United States.

Toward the end of Horace Mann’s life, the potato famine hit Ireland and Ireland’s poor peasantry began to immigrate into the U.S. The English had finished their ethnic and religious “cleansing” of Ireland by then. The English had taken all the good land, positions of power, and opportunities for success, and had awarded them to those who were loyal to the King and/or Queen of England both politically and religiously. The Irish immigrants were not the wealthy, middle class, or educated people of Ireland, because the wealthy and educated Irish had either become Anglicans or had been impoverished for their refusal to do so. The poor Irish Catholic immigrants were not welcomed by the Protestant American people.

The potato famine had an obvious impact on Ireland, but it also had a very large impact on the education system in the United States. While Ireland lost about 50% of its population, up to 5 million Irish Catholics immigrated to the U.S. from 1845 to about 1900. As a result, cities in the northeastern U.S. had enormous numbers of Catholic children attempting to enter into the Protestant-influenced public school system or the fledgling Catholic schools in some cities.

The bishops in New York, Boston, and elsewhere quickly realized that they were given an enormous opportunity and at the same time, they were charged with an incredible responsibility. The Catholic population was growing in leaps and bounds, but these new Catholics were highly susceptible to being proselytized by the highly Protestant American culture, including the public school system.

By this time, anti-Catholicism had become mainstream in American politics with movements and organizations such as the Know Nothing Party which counted men like Ulysses S. Grant in their membership.

The Catholic bishops were unsuccessful in reducing the Protestant religious leanings in public schools. Therefore, the bishops increased the development of Catholic school systems in their dioceses. As a result, the Catholic school system in the U.S. owes its existence to two opposed views, Catholics who wanted a faithful education for Catholic children, and people like Horace Mann, the Know Nothings, and others who wanted to assimilate immigrants by teaching them a non-sectarian but Protestant view of the world. 

Next time, we’ll move from the East Coast to the plains of Nebraska and other Midwestern states, where circumstances required a little more tolerance of Catholicism.

Southern Nebraska Register:

Site by Solutio