By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
S.M. writes to recommend a book to our readers: Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America by Steve Kellmeyer. S.M. describes the book as a “chronicle of the development, the purpose, and (primarily) the absence of formal schools during the first 1,500 years of the Church’s existence”; education for the most part took place during those years in the home, under the direction of parents.
S.M., paraphrasing Kellmeyer, writes, “Mass public education became a part of our life only after American educators adopted the Prussian model during the 19th century. These schools promoted a Protestant view of morality and the role of the citizen. To counter this influence, Catholic bishops in the United States established the Catholic school system.
“But this did not prevent dramatic changes in society encouraged by the public schools. Compulsory mass public education created a social caste system, artificially stratified by age and test grades. It took the youth out of the workforce, eliminated their income contribution to the family, separated them from their parents, made them dependent on non-familial authority, and, most importantly replaced the parent with the teacher and removed the child from traditional family guidance in transition to adulthood.”
S.M. calls our attention to the impact of compulsory public schools. He argues that they disrupted the “natural flow of transmitting the faith and the Catholic teaching on issues such as contraception and abortion. The public school teacher and sex education programs were cast as legitimate alternatives to parental authority. Through the grace of the sacrament of marriage, parents receive the responsibility and privilege of evangelizing their children. Parents should initiate their children at an early age into the mysteries of the faith. This became difficult to do when the ‘experts’ in charge of our schools teach a conflicting message.
“In other words, the public schools separated parents from their children. Pius XI instructed us in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno that the proper role for schools and governments is one of support of the parents as first teachers in true subsidiarity. ‘Contracepting’ parental teaching authority has led to adolescent parents. Parents cannot reach their full sacramental potential, if they are prevented from exerting their responsibility to teach the faith to their children. Parents are the first teachers, not bishops, not grade school teachers, not CCD teachers or directors of religious education.”
S.M. is not happy with the state of our current parish schools:
“The bishops routinely subsidize grade school tuition these days. Parish schools should exist as the center of parish life, but unfortunately many Catholic schools have evolved primarily to support athletics. Academics then become secondary, while the school absorbs 50-80 percent of parish resources. As a result, adult formation is woefully underfunded and under attended to. But adult formation must be the center of parish life, if adult faith is to be effectively transmitted to children.”
S.M.’s recommendations? “Change parish culture to focus on building and completing adult formation, even if at the expense of parish schools. Parents with an eighth-grade education in the faith cannot transmit the faith effectively. Close the schools, as resources become too limited. Subsidize parents, not schools, and encourage home groups to provide the support needed to make proper adult formation a real possibility.
“We cannot teach what we do not know. Require adult catechesis for all parents with children in school. Offer catechesis to all adults. Re-establish parents as first teachers. Let them realize and achieve the fullness of their true vocations for their sake and for that of their children — and for the ultimate good of society.”
Another reader, D.V. from Minneapolis, calls our attention to an article by Devin Foley from the September 18 edition of the website intellectualtakeout.org. Foley writes of going through “some old, family documents” and stumbling upon a clipping from Harvard Magazine that reproduced the address given to the school’s graduating seniors in 1982.
We often hear of how our Ivy League universities were founded in the 17th century with a Christian sense of mission. Those who point this out usually are making the point that these schools have long deserted their founders’ vision, and that it is a lost cause to brood about that turn of events. Well, it turns out that as recently as 1982 there were those at Harvard who were still fighting the fight to restore the original sense of purpose.
The 1982 address was given by a professor of Christian morals at Harvard Divinity School and an ordained minister in the American Baptist church. What struck Devin Foley is the extent to which the address “recognized that the university was failing to educate students on a certain topic. The speaker stated, ‘…Let me speak to an aspect of your education here at Harvard that I suspect has been sadly neglected: virtue’.”
Writes Foley, “Here we are thirty-three years later and many Americans would argue that we have a deficit in character in the nation’s leaders, both political and business. Harvard’s graduating classes of that era, as well as those of other Ivy League schools, now make up a large portion of our country’s leadership. Should we care that the graduation speaker worried that Harvard neglected to promote virtue? I think so. If very smart people have been given the skills to be great, but not the moral compass to use those skills justly and wisely, there is a danger to society. What will be their fruit and who do they serve?”
Foley quotes the graduation speaker’s’ admonition that the “good life has meant for so long for so many the means to indulge one’s wants,” but that in truth the “good life” has to do “not with the quality of your possessions but with the quality of your person.”
The speaker calls the graduating class’ attention to where their commencement is taking place:
“There is a reason why you are here in church before the altar of God, where generations before you have acknowledged their needs and prayed to God for strength and courage to meet them. Harvard has given you much and you much to her, but the one gift we most need to exchange, for the welfare of your future and ours, is what the poet Theodore Morrison calls ‘virtue of soul.’
“You are too proud, and so are we, to acknowledge our needs to the waiting world; but in the privacy of this service and in the presence of God, in these last moments together, we dare to do so, in the fervent hope and firm belief that by His grace our lives might show forth virtue in the meekness of wisdom. If only we all strove to show our works in the meekness of wisdom, how different our country and culture would be. Godspeed.”
Folks, this commencement speech was from 1982, not 1882. It shows that there were traces of Harvard’s Christian roots still evident at that time — and how fast things have devolved since then.
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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is email@example.com, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford, CT 06492.