The Lessons of Catholic Education
Christine L. Kane
to the myth, you were in serious trouble if they sent for Brother Al.
Brother Al was a big guy: six feet tall, one-ninety, enormous gut.
He knew hot to handle the tough kids, the Italians from the Bronx who
were shipped off to New Rochelle to spend four years with the Salesians.
Brother Al would come into the room and say, "Stand up, Voltaggio,"
and Voltaggio would go with him. And the next thing you heard was BAM,
Voltaggio crashing into a locker. There would be a bit of silence and
then next thing you heard was BAM, Voltaggio crashing into another locker
farther down the hall. Brother Al took him up and down the corridor
like thatBAM slap his face BAM jerk his necktie BAM mess up his
hair. Every once in a while, a senior took a swing at the good Brother,
but for the most part you shut your mouth and took it because that was
considered part of the education. A little bit of rough stuff never
From the safe distance of adulthood, most initiates will tell you that,
yes, the stories are true and, yes, the rough stuff might have warped
a few kids along the way but, no, it certainly hasn't done them
any permanent harm, had it? Pressed further, they will enumerate the
crimesnonconformity, leadership, vanity, stubbornness, flippancy,
disrespectthat provoked the more complex rituals of humiliation
(humiliation being one of the traditional hallmarks of a Catholic education).
So, we see a frail, bespectacled Kathy being lowered into a cardboard
shipping carton that once held a refrigerator. We see David, a beefy
tackle on the football team, kneeling at the blackboard with his nose
pressed to a chalkdrawn circle. We see the class clown, Louis, tethered
to his desk by his necktie, which has been neatly stapled to the desktop.
Pam (whose mother is a Presbyterian) kneeling before her peers, blubbering
her way through the Act of Contrition, holding an empty chicken-pot-pie
pan under her chin to catch the tears. Lastly we hear but do not see
Voltaggio being pushed and shoved against the hallway lockersBAM
BAM BAMby Brother Al.
Teachers, administrators, students, parents, almost anyone familiar
with the Catholic schools today will say it isn't that way anymore.
Then, they'll express genuine bewilderment that the image still endures
"that's a myth from the 1930s and 40s," says George Elford, former director
of research for the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) and
now director of the Northeastern Regional Office of Educational Testing
Service (ETS). "I'm sure there are a few white- knuckle schools around,
but people should forget that stereotype because it simply doesn't depict
what's going on in the catholic schools today. They have changed in
many many ways."
Elford is right, of course. The largest private schooling system in
the nation (accounting for 65 percent of all private school enrollments
and 6 percent of total U.S. enrollments) has undergone a profound transition
in the last sixteen years, falling with remarkable speed and then rising
with remarkable energy, all the while shedding some of its musty trappings,
redefining its mission and, in a modest way, polishing up the image
it presents to a secular public long suspicious or even downright hostile
to Catholic schools. In better times, this odyssey would only be of
passing interest to anyone not involved. But with public schools heading
into an era of crisis that is sure to last many years, that fall and
rise of the Catholic schools bears study, for it offers insights into
the ways that institutions can and cannot expect to transform themselves.
In 1965, with enrollments at an all-time high, the Catholic schools
in the United States went into a tailspin. Within a decade almost 3,500
out of 13, 484 schools were forced to shut down. From a high of 5.4
millions students, the school population dropped by 2 million. Among
private schools the Church retained its top ranking in terms of enrollments,
but its chare of the total private school population dropped from 87
to 65 percent. At the same time, the financial bedrock of the schools,
the contributed services of religious personnel, began to erode as clergy
left the religious life in record numbers. As a result, the ratio of
lay to religious teachers began to rise. In 1955, lay teachers were
still a rarity. By 1968 they comprised 43 percent of all full-time teaching
staff. Last year, they outnumbered religious personnel by a margin of
73 to 27 percent. Despite the abysmally low salaries traditionally paid
to lay teachers, the change in staffing ratios created a staggering
new financial burden.
According to Richard J. Burke, NCEA's financial consultant to the Catholic
schools, "the cost of a Catholic education has shot up at a disheartening
pace. In 1969, it cost about $200 per pupil to run the elementary schools
for 3.4 million kids. Nine years later the number of students had dropped
to 2.4 million and the price had gone up to $548. The figures for 1980-81
aren't finished yet, but I expect the per pupil cost will be about $660,"a
300 percent-plus increase in 11 years.
The ongoing financial crisis was demoralizing. Eleanor Ford, the first
woman to run a major Catholic school system, recalls that when she took
over New York City's schools in 1972, many Catholics were predicting
the demise of parochial primary and secondary education. "Many people
felt we were just duplicating services already offered by the public
schools, so why not put the resources elsewhere? One reporter told me
I had probably been selected for he job because a woman would make a
more suitable undertaker for the schools than a man. I told him, 'Undertakers
need not apply for this job. As long as there's one parent willing to
support Catholic education, the system will survive.'"
Ford was right. In 1972, even as closings reached an all-time high509
schools, about 4.8 percent of the national todayclergy and lay
leaders at all levels of the system were vigorously attacking the two
major problems that plagued the Catholic schools: money and motivation.
The first step was to adopt more sophisticated management techniques.
In 1969, NCEA established a national data bank, the first service of
its kind, to collect and disseminate comprehensive statistical data
on trends and patterns in the Catholic schools.
"After the data bank was set up, NCEA began to offer financial counseling
to the schools," says Burke. "They started to run seminars on financial
management, and it made a big difference." Parishes across the nation
began to carefully coordinate school closings and consolidations in
financially troubled areas, to plan aggressive fundraising drives with
alumni, and to rely more heavily on the voluntary services of parents.
The hard times prove that the managerial overhaul worked. Between 1965
and 1972, roughly 20 percent of the schools closed, but starting in
1973, the closings slowed dramatically. During the 19801981 school
year only eighty-one schools, eight-tenths of one percent of the national
total, shut their doors. More importantly, enrollment declines have
slowed down to the point where they're now in line with the decline
in the number of school-age children in the United States.
Motivation proved a more complicated matter, one that took longer to
resolve. Until the early 1960s, few Catholic parents questioned the
raison d'être of the schools. The parents were expected
to send their children there. The children were expected to absorb a
no-frills brand of education. The education was supposed to prepare
them to g on to a Catholic college or, more often, to take their places
as conforming citizens of Church and State.
But this vision of the schools, acceptable as it was in conservative,
ethnocentric urban parishes, came under fire as Catholics moved up from
the working class and out to the middle-class suburbs, with their generously
funded public schools and relaxed attitudes towards child-rearing. The
Catholic schools seemed to lag behind their public counterparts, offering
a narrow range of academic courses laced with stale doctrine and taught
in an unimaginative style that was thought to be needlessly punitive
The big skid that began in 1965 brought all these issues into focus.
Suddenly American Catholics were asking questions that hadn't been asked
for hundreds of years. Why do the schools exist? What should they teach?
How and in what spirit should the most valued qualities of Christianity
be communicated to people who have been raised in a relentlessly modern
The Second Vatican Council, which had convened in 1962, provided some
answers. In that historic gathering, called by Pope JohnXXIII, the bishops
of the world committed the entire Church to a new and controversial
agenda. No longer was the institution to be primarily concerned with
self-propagation and protection of the faith. Instead, Catholics were
called upon to look outward, to devote themselves to the defense of
human dignity, social justice, racial equality and the eradication of
the causes of war. This theme of social justice repeats itself in the
Church documents that have addressed educational issues in American
Catholic schools. It is the centerpiece of a popular curriculum guide
used by parochial schools throughout the country and a common seminar
or workshop topic at gatherings of Catholic educators.
When sociologist James Coleman released his controversial Public
and Private Schools this past spring, the Catholic schools enjoyed
a moment of vindication. His studya report card on the performance
of American high schools, based on data collected from 1, 016 public,
sectarian and nonsectarian private schools-confirmed the feeling among
Catholic educators that they were on target with their reforms. Coleman
concluded that students at both Catholic and other private schools achieve
at higher levels than their public school counterparts; that in Catholic
schools, the achievement levels of black students are closer to those
of whites, and the achievement level of Hispanics are closer to those
of non-Hispanics, than in public schools; that Catholic school students
spend more time doing homework; that their level of school spirit is
higher; that Catholic students and administrators are more likely than
their public school peers to perceive discipline in their own school
as being fair and effective.
Coleman's findings also tend to support a growing belief that urban
clacks, Catholic and non-Catholic, have found in Catholic schools an
educational and environmental refuge from the chaos and deterioration
of neglected inner-city public schools. According to NCEA statistics,
between 1971 and 1981, black enrollments increased from 5.1 to 8.8 percent
of the Catholic school population. In Coleman's study, another startling
pattern emerged: At high and low income levels, and among Catholics
and non-Catholics alike, "blacks with the means to do so enroll in Catholic
schools at rates that are generally higher than rates for other groups,"
Hispanic and white Catholics included. And to no one's surprise, he
found that the private schoolsof which Catholic schools comprise
nearly two-thirds"provide a safer, more disciplined and more ordered
Public educators, who predictably protested both Coleman's methodology
and his findings were perhaps most painfully stung by his conclusion:
"The evidence is strong that the Catholic schools function much closer
to the American ideal of the 'common school,' educating children from
different background alike, than do the public schools."
through all the years of self-examination and change, the Catholic schools
still defended and fortified one of the oldest and most fundamental
prerogatives of their existencethe right to teach values to the
young. Ironically, at the same time, public educators were finally acknowledging
what the Catholics had claimed all along, that there is no such thing
as a values-free education; that the public schools' laissez-faire approach
to values formation simply made the educational experience values-random.
Students emerged into adulthood shaped by hodge-podge of forces that
had neither been interpreted nor evaluated.
It is, of course, in this realm that the public is most rightfully
suspect of the Catholic schools: Are the schools educating children
to be good Catholics, loyal to a narrow set of beliefs and behaviors?
Or are they educating children to be good Christiansin the classic
sense of that wordwho feel a deep and lasting responsibility to
the human race?
As unlikely as it may seem, in 1981, the answer to both of these questions
is "yes." And the explanation is that, despite t heir ultimate fealty
to Rome, the Catholic schools in this country are now and always have
been organizationally decentralized, financially self-supporting, independent
and diverse. Not even the most clear-cut teachings of the Vatican can
trickle down to the classroom level without being transformed first
by the biases of the intervening bureaucracy, then by the spirit of
the particular school, and, finally, by the personal vision of the classroom
teacher. For example, nothing could be more straightforward than Church
doctrine on sexualityabortion, birth control, homosexuality, premarital
and extramarital sexual relations. So no one is surprised when a mid-seventies
graduate of a suburban Catholic high school says that his "contemporary
issues" class had a discussion about abortionafter viewing a slide
show replete with enlarged pictures of bloody aborted fetuses. But one
might be taken aback to learn that a black student, a recent graduate
from an inner-city high school, took a course on women's issues that
included samples of birth control devices and pamphlets on where to
get more information.
Similarly, nothing could be more doctrinally explicit than the Church
hierarchy's commitment to racial justice in the schools. In Boston that
commitment expressed itself during the controversy over the city's program
of busing to achieve desegregation. In 1974, Boston's Humberto Cardinal
Medeiros suffered a predictable loss of local Catholic support when
he announced that the Catholic schools were not to be used as a haven
for whites fleeing the public school, and to this end ordered that enrollment
levels be kept constant at all Catholic schools in the affected area
until the conflict had subsided. Yet, in Holyoke, Massachusettswhere
a city-wide busing program was ordered and where the diocese followed
a controlled admissions policy meant to discourage white flightan
uproar arose last spring when the board of a parish elementary school
defied diocesan policy and loosened its admission guidelines despite
strenuous objections from the principal, members of the faculty, and
Outsiders suspicious of the Catholic schools are only dimly aware that
the structure of the schools is flexible enough to permit such conflicting
interpretations of the same doctrine. They find it hard to understand
why the school should exist at all if not to promote uniformly a set
of narrow-minded values, free from the dangers of open discourse and
the corrupting influence of a pluralistic "real world."
There are still millions of Americans who relish that old-fashioned
and simple-minded image of the Catholic schools. Chief among them are
Catholics themselves, who tell and retell their tales of crime and punishment
not because those stories represent the whole of the Catholic school
experience, but because they validate one's claims to an exotic childhood;
because they illuminate one's own attitudes toward authority; and because
Catholics, from the Buckleys and Haig to the Berrigans and Drinan, from
Mary McCarthy to Mary Gordon, inevitably define themselves through their
relations to authority.
The longstanding negative image of the Catholic schools also has historical
roots in the virulent anti-Catholic biases of Protestant-dominated Colonial
America; in the indigenous hostility to Catholics during the European
immigrations of the nineteenth century; and in the secular state's reflexive
hostility to perceived infringements on its self-proclaimed authority,
in this case the right to control the form and content of a child's
In one sense, the lingering negative image does more harm to the public
schools than the Catholic schools. The latter have faced their crisis,
emerged slimmer and smarter, and now go about their mission with a new
sense of purpose. But among public educators, the traditional wariness
of the Catholic system prevents them from acknowledging what Coleman
learned, that the Catholic schools must be doing something right.
If the public schools seriously hope to master the futurefilled
as it appears to be with school closings, funding cutbacks, staff morale
problems, and ever-growing disciplinary chaosthey might look to
the Catholic school as a model of what to do, and not to do, when educating
the young. <
Originally published in October 1981
issue of the Boston Review