Schools at the Crossroads

Author, editor, and educator, GEORGE N. SHUSTERtook his B.A. from Notre Dame in 1915, and after service in World War I returned to Notre Dame to teach English. The writing of books, the editing of the COMMONWEAL, and a profound study of contemporary Germany occupied his middle yeurs, and in 1950 he became president of Hunter College, where for twenty years he extended the scope and improved the standards of a great city institution.


CATHOLIC education has a long history because Christianity, with a mission to teach built into it, has a long history. Werner Jaeger recently traced it back to St. Basil, churchman and author of the fourth century, who he thought had written “the charter of all Christian higher education for centuries to come.” But for us of the United States, accustomed to thinking of systems, enrollments, budgets, armies of teachers and buildings, it is one of the most surprising creations of American private initiative.

A hundred years ago, a handful of schools and colleges were taught by members of religious orders. Since that time the total enrollment in Catholic educational institutions of all kinds has grown until it is well over the six-million mark. Because the population is increasing by leaps and bounds, it is likely enough that, granted adequate resources with which to make the development possible, there may be still another million in the foreseeable future.

Nothing grows without the pertinent pains, and Catholic education has suffered its share. There was hostile criticism, often acrimonious, usually from without the fold but sometimes also from within. Poverty remained for the most part its lot, and of sacrifice there was no end. Virtually all the money for it came from the collection box. Until quite recently ihere were no major college or university endowments. Sometimes the lower schools could charge tuition, but in most cases financial solvency was the responsibility of the parish or the community. The heaviest burden was borne, however, by men and women who renounced the world, accepted individual poverty within a collectivist religious society, and took more or less in stride work schedules which would have fomented revolution in public education. During the early years of the venture, even the layfolk employed lived like cenobites, and pocketed a dole by way of salary.

Such an enterprise would be utterly inconceivable were it not for the motivation which underlies it. What has Catholic education been designed to do? Why have people been willing to make heavy sacrifices for it? In earlier times, there were two principal answers to these questions. First, the religious orders, coming for the most part from Europe, were dedicated to the educational mission.

The second answer is to be sought in the history of immigration. Sometimes the incoming group spoke a foreign language and wished to conserve this and the culture it enshrined for their children. Thus, Germans settling in Wisconsin brought over nuns and built parochial schools, maintaining them even under the oratorical fire of a great prelate, Archbishop John Ireland, who had his own plan for what the education of Catholic children ought to be. The Poles, whose schools had for the most part been fashioned according to Austrian and German models, later on did likewise.

Far more important, however, was the fact that in Catholic eyes the public schools had been set apart from the Protestant Church, but not from the ethical and spiritual convictions of Protestantism. And, indeed, the United Stales was a Protestant country and did not always view the Catholic with a friendly eye.

Meanwhile, paradoxically enough, a long stream of Catholic teachers entered the public school system. Catholic girls and boys who had been trained at St. Rose’s Academy or a state normal school looked upon employment in the schools as a genteel boon. This side of the story of American education has not been written and might be interesting. Many years would pass before there would be a Catholic professor at Yale. But in Connecticut’s New Haven and Torrington, Bridgeport and Stamford, the school faculties were often rosters of the names of Irish clans. In such circumstances there was bound to be a measure of reluctance among clergy and laity alike to subscribe to the belief that every Catholic child should attend a Catholic school. Indeed, some dioceses lagged far behind. None ever reached the goal.

The earlier religious communities had brought from Europe a genuine love of learning and of culture. Classical languages and literatures were widely taught in secondary schools and colleges by men and women who combined rigor with abandon. The atmosphere of their elementary schools was prevailingly that of the Volksschule of Germany and Switzerland. The goal was to teach at least the rudiments of what Christopher Dawson has called Christian culture, and to append thereunto the equivalent of the three R’s. But when expansion started with a mighty surge after the close of the third decade of this century, largely in response to a papal encyclical on education and to hierarchical fears of what was thought to be a rising tide of secularism, the character of the teaching orders had to be modified if they were to increase adequately in numbers and serve the new educational mission.

Here is to be found, I think, the core of the present Catholic school problem. Had the orders been able to recruit the teachers needed and to train them adequately for the manifold tasks of education at all levels, there is little doubt that every Catholic child could now be in a Catholic school.

The explanation is fairly obvious. Religious can live on low rates of pay; their dedication knows no limits save physical and intellectual fatigue; and they can in general be expected to accept every task assigned. While the comparative costs of Catholic and public education cannot at present be established, owing to insufficient data, a sampling indicates that the difference is quite startling whenever the supply of teaching religious is adequate. Although the bill for new school construction is always a sizable one, the subsequent operational costs are those which truly matter. But when the supply of religious is inadequate, there will assuredly be trouble.

And very serious trouble there is, partly as a result of the population explosion and partly for other reasons. Among these are the drying up of the recruitment of religious in Europe; the raising of educational standards, coupled with the impact of the new knowledge on teaching; the increase of disciplinary problems, especially in urban areas; and perhaps a waning attraction to the life of the teaching religious.

THE contribution made by the religious to American education as a whole is certainly very impressive. I am not thinking now of heroic sacrifice, worthy of esteem though that is. These men and women have elected to think of the Church in this life and the next as one; and Lhe achievement of a measure of holiness must therefore be their major reward. It is impossible not to reverence that decision, however erroneous a skeptic may beiieve it to be. One must consider rather what was done in the schools, and here it will be helpful to differentiate between the several educational levels and discuss them in order.

Insofar as the secondary schools are concerned, the religious began with institutions which were oriented to the study of the past. But a notable cultural change had soon to be reckoned with. The United States, spurred on by the social conscience and by awareness of the constant change which was seeping through every pore of the body politic, moved educationally toward that commitment to present time — as distinguished from past time — which now so sharply differentiates our schools from those of the Old World. The social conscience bred the social sciences, and from the laboratory it was always only a step to the technological revolution, computers, automation, and man in space. And so, when slate and regional accrediting agencies, which were inured to the new outlook, exacted of Catholics conformity with standards established for the public schools in the realm of teacher training and other forms of academic enterprise, it was inevitable that the majority of Catholic secondary schools would also move toward making present time their major concern.

Often they did so reluctantly, or creaked a bit as they moved. One may argue that they ought not to have done so. Some of the more aristocratic private establishments, notably those under Jesuit auspices, did not. But in general, save for emphasis on the teaching of religion, the curricula of Catholic secondary schools tended to become more and more like those of the public schools.

In short, though the fact is not generally recognized, owing to an unfortunate dilatoriness about lifting the veil of secrecy from around what Catholic schoolmen are doing, the character of the American high school is today virtually the same regardless of who operates it. For, although Catholic teachers greet their charges with prayer, they struggle to meet the same Regents or College Entrance Board demands. For them, too, National Merit Scholarship awards are the elixir of life. And while the research findings are too limited to be conclusive, it would surely seem that, granted comparable conditions, there are few differences either in aptitude or performance between pupils taught in the two systems. The high school generally is a problem child, but under whose auspices it is conducted seems to matter little. There are, to be sure, great differences of quality between one school and another, and it is also possible that Catholic institutions generally fall somewhat behind in the social and natural sciences.

THE elementary school, however, presents the gravest challenge to Catholic educational ingenuity. Here, first of all, the various difficulties encountered by those who are in charge of educational administration in urban communities are concentrated. There is overcrowding, very serious, though no one really knows what the optimum class size ought to be. Motivation and discipline are frequently lacking, with the result that the rate of dropouts and dismissals is high. School buildings become antiquated by comparison with new public schools, and other facilities, including recreation grounds, libraries, and audiovisual equipment, are often not available. It is no wonder that in the admittedly tentative opinion of many observers, it is the elementary school part of the Catholic system which has lagged.

True enough, there are admirable teachers here, some ol the best, in the common opinion, that the nation knows. But overburdened though they may be, they cannot suffice to take care even of the numbers now enrolled, and it is in the elementary school that the recruitment of lay teachers is most difficult. The burden to be borne is onerous at best; and so, if the staffing is to be provided, it will undoubtedly prove necessary to raise the salaries paid to lay teachers to the level which has been established for the public schools.

There is another and possibly even greater difficulty. I think everyone who has had some experience with teacher training will agree that as standards both for admission to college and for qualification as a teacher are improved, there is an inevitable drift toward seeking to be identified with secondary or higher education. This the teaching religious also experience. The problem is one that plagues the American schoolman no matter where he may be. But the situation is particularly acute where Catholic education is concerned, because the hard choice is between cutting down the enrollment and adding to the teacher’s burden.

Many argue, therefore, that sooner or later Catholics will cease to add to their elementary school commitments or will abandon them entirely. The suggestion has come, is coming, again and again, from within the religious communities themselves. It is certainly arguable that turning secondary or higher education conducted under their auspices over to lay people to an ever-growing extent while carrying the impossible burden of the elementary school under existing conditions makes little sense to them. But how can the original religious commitment be abandoned?

The answer will depend to a very great extent on whether forms of religious instruction to be given outside of the elementary school can be devised which will meet the exacting Catholic standards. Today no one knows. A number of possible solutions are being discussed, among them shared time and released time. But the research done to date does not provide a basis on which to reach a conclusion. Perhaps the study of Catholic education now being undertaken by the University of Notre Dame will throw light on the matter.

I shall venture a very tentative conclusion by saying that since the dimensions of Catholic education in the future have not been accurately computed, a realistic appraisal of the costs involved is as yet out of the question. But it seems to be quite reasonable to say that these costs will be beyond the ability of the Catholic public to bear unaided if the number of well-paid lay teachers is to be augmented to the point which now seems necessary to achieve and maintain good standards.

Moreover, the enrollment of Catholic young people in institutions conducted by the state will expand, and the problem of how to care for their religious instruction, at every level, must be faced and financed. It is already true that Catholic higher education is in part maintained by grants from the public treasury, in the form of research subsidies or scholarships, and by assistance given by the private foundations. But can something comparable be hoped for insofar as secondary and elementary education are concerned?

Approached from one point ol view, the answer seems simple. If Catholics did turn their elementary school population over to the states, these would be confronted with a whopping additional bill. Why, then, not simply say, it will probably cost less if the parochial schools are continued with the help of public funds?

Unfortunately, the matter is not a simple one. A long series of constitutional and other legal provisions, at the state and the federal level, draws a clear line of demarcation between religious and other schools. I am not a lawyer and so can speak with the nonchalance of ignorance. On the one hand, these provisions undoubtedly exist and mean what they say. On the other hand, one cannot any more take as an infallible guide what the Founding Fathers or state legislators of yore had in mind when they vetoed giving any kind of aid to religious schools than one could when there was question of segregation. Certainly no one who was present when the pertinent constitutional language was written had the faintest inkling of what the Supreme Court would be thinking about these issues during the middle years of the twentieth century.

It therefore seems realistic to suppose that if the American people wished to divert money to the support of Catholic education, ways and means would be found for doing so. and the legal barriers of the past would be removed — with extreme difficulty, to be sure, but nevertheless with characteristic American pragmatism. But the fact is that the American people do not wish to. and the reason why is that, by and large, they object to what are thought special favors for the Catholic Church. This is a quite natural caveat, in terms of historical and sociological verities, and the only way of doing anything about it is to persuade America to disavow it. This will not be easy to accomplish.

IT WOULD be futile to discuss the problem in vague, general terms. What might the goals be, and what would attaining them involve? First, there are palliatives, such as tederal loans for school construction, which very likely amount to little more than giving an arthritic patient a shot of cortisone.

Then there is the idea that educational facilities might be shared with the public schools. The trouble with this idea is that it resembles an accordion, in the sense that it can be stretched or contracted. But if one includes science laboratories, centers for remedial work in speech and hearing, playgrounds, and library facilities, the sum total of possibilities is impressive. The legal obstacles to be surmounted are formidable, but they could perhaps gradually be leveled out.

The third solution would be to induce the people of this country to follow the British pattern and grant public support to all schools conducted under religious auspices. There is no denying that this is the target which friends and abettors of Catholic education will keep in the forefront of their minds, no matter how fervently they may argue in favor of this or that halfway measure. And, of course, reaching it will be as difficult as getting to the moon. But it is not impossible.

What endorsement is American public opinion in the long run likely to give to any of these proposals? In all probability, more than at present appears likely, assuming that no new storm of intergroup animosity is created. First, the American people seem to agree that brains are the most important of our resources, and that Catholic brains are as useful as any other kind. The day has passed when the immigrant groups which bred the present Catholic generations were dubbed inferior. A constant stream of competent and reasonably well-educated German, Irish, Polish, Italian, and other kinds of Catholics flows out of all the major universities, with a cargo of the requisite degrees. Virtually every research institution now numbers Catholics on its staff; and thirty years from now the disparity which once existed will have vanished.

This means a relationship on equal terms which the older among us cordially welcome without finding it entirely believable. Moreover, it signalizes the creation inside the Catholic lay public of a highly critical group of educated parents. Some of these turn away from Church schools by reason of their real or alleged weaknesses. Others, though noting defects, resolutely keep their allegiance to Catholic education and seek by every possible means to bring about improvement. While the statistical basis for asserting that the second group is much larger than the first is flimsy, the evidence favors that assertion. Catholic teachers and school administrators may meanwhile find the critical remarks quite unpalatable, but there can be little doubt that the group in question will over the years prove a highly effective ally. Spokesmen for it will be adroit and literate. They will cheerfully make sacrifices for what they believe. They will have as their slogan equality for Catholic brains, regardless of the schools in which they are trained.

This variety of Catholic opinion will come of age in an atmosphere unfavorable to older forms of interreligious tension, distrust, and hatred. These persist but have lost a great deal of momentum. The dialogue now taking place among religious people the free world round has captured a foothold in our America, too, which, as Mr. Justice Douglas says, is a religious country, however strongly the objective observer may upon occasion doubt it. In terms of education, the discussion is turning more and more around religion. There exist at the present time an impressively larger number of schools conducted under Jewish or Protestant auspices than were to be found twenty years ago.

The reasons why are probably two — religiously motivated dissatisfaction with the enforced absolute neutrality of the public schools, and fear of juvenile lawlessness. In all likelihood also, the South will continue to dot the landscape with denominational schools in order to escape the rigors of the ban on segregation; and, though one may deplore the motivation, the fact is undeniable.

At the present time there is virtually no desire on the part of Jewish and Protestant educators to seek assistance from the public treasury. The idea is, indeed, generally repudiated. Yet even a decade ago, practically no spokesman for the Catholic Church thought of requesting such aid, apart from items like bus service and free milk. If the Jewish and Protestant school systems grow in size and complexity, they may also be heard from. Should the day ever dawn when there will be a joint Jcwish-Catholic-Protestant demand for public support of religious education, the nation will be in for a resounding debate.

There is a very powerful segment of public opinion, to which relatively radical Catholic citizens also belong, which considers the religious school “divisive” and therefore opposes it. This term of opprobrium no longer holds the connotations of yore. It now means that, whereas it is desirable to apply the university rule of impartial and disinterested research to the whole of life, the religious school indoctrinates. The charge is leveled especially against Catholic education.

Christian churchmen accuse those they call “secularists” of having carried the principle of disinterestedness to calamitous conclusions. They have, it is alleged, denuded the obscenity statute of all meaning, have identified morality with consensus, and have sponsored a doctrine of separation between church and state which, if rigorously implemented, would strip every spiritual accent from public utterance.

The alleged “secularists” stoutly resist the imposition of religious norms on civic and intellectual conduct. Every form of censorship fills them with abhorrence, and they are likely to sniff the Inquisition whenever a prelate speaks. And perhaps they are right in saying that Catholic education generally has been too little influenced by university tradition. The road from opposition to evolution to the espousal of a spurious St. Philomena is a long and stony one which can come to a turn only when great universities have imposed their authority. Nevertheless, there would seem to be limits to free and untrammeled inquiry which the religious mind has every right to impose.

I do not believe that in the long run the outcome of the educational debate will depend on which one of these two antagonists succeeds in converting the other. Perhaps, rather, one side will shout the other clown. But it is to be hoped that before this happens each will have learned something from the other.

WHAT the Catholic school certainly needs to do right now is to open all the windows so that its servitors can look out while other people look in. The servitors have sometimes been paralyzed by fear lest they might not be offering educational goods of the same quality as those made available in public schools, and that the average citizen, if he took a good long look, might find this out.

This anxiety seems quite irrational: first, because the said citizen knows that the public schools are also a blend of good and bad, as all human enterprises are; and. second, because if he did learn to know the Catholic school he would be amazed at the amount of love and sacrifice expended on it. Of course, if he had never spent much time thinking about religion, he would find a good many things he saw and heard rather odd or even unintelligible. Indeed, some of them might well be so to Catholics themselves. But why a faith with a built-in-missionary motor should wish to conceal from view one of its greatest missionary enterprises, the American parochial school, is very hard to understand.

It is, of course, true that this school, even when it is not overcrowded or meagerly equipped, needs a great many things. But how shall the fact get sympathetic attention unless it is judiciously advertised? Surely no one will expect that those outside the fold who may wish to help make Catholic education effective will actually do so unless they are given an opportunity to find out what it is, what it is doing, and what it hopes to achieve.

If the windows were opened wide, the gust of fresh air which would sweep through the premises would also have an invigorating effect on Catholic education itself. What it needs above all, perhaps, is planning. One might suppose, in view of the assumed monolithic character of the Church, that Catholic schools are all as alike as kernels of corn in a popper. They are uniform as to the doctrinal content, but not the method, of religious instruction. They all, likewise, desire to conform with state requirements. In every other respect they suggest the relative anarchy which prevails in small business. Not only does each diocese have its autonomous system, but many of the schools conducted by religious orders are freewheeling enterprises. Sometimes a local institution is answerable to no one except the pastor of the pertinent congregation, and yet there are others in which a pastor has absolutely no voice. In a given community Catholic schoolmen may foster close, cooperative relations with their neighbors in public schools, while in another something like a Berlin wall may separate the two. Moreover, in spite of a number of valiant efforts, little lias been done to standardize school instruction, cost accounting, or statistics.

It is apparent that so marked an absence of planning must result in not a little waste of money and personnel, no matter how dogged the pennypinching may be. More notable still is the fact that a number of basic educational services are not provided in a comparable way. In some dioceses good testing procedures are routine, but in others there is a different story to tell. Teacher recruitment is sometimes carefully studied and plotted out, but again, it can be startlingly haphazard. There are places in which the highly important problem of population projection is diligently considered, and others where all that is done is to guess. There would seem to be little doubt that until sound planning is the rule, it will be quite impossible to tell what the future may permit in terms of growth and improvement.

But the most difficult, and yet unquestionably most necessary, aspect of planning is to determine the relative roles of the religious communities and the laity inside the Catholic school system. Great strides forward have been made during the past fifteen years in education at the university level. Tenure rights and a large measure of academic freedom are assured in the better institutions. The freedom allotted is, to be sure, circumscribed by the nature of the religious commitment. Some scholars could not remain happy on a Catholic campus for twenty-four hours, but the number of non-Catholics of genuine integrity who find the climate entirely satisfactory is impressive and is increasing. In the lower schools, however, the situation is still unclarified and greatly in need of revision in order to attract and retain the best lay teachers.

One may conclude by saying that the United States has a great stake in Catholic education. Six million of its young people are being reared by it. The Church, for its part, has a huge investment in this education, not so much in terms of money, for the whole plant could be liquidated without impairing the financial structure of American Catholicism, but in the infinitely more precious commitment of its most devoted sons and daughters.

It is manifestly impossible for anyone who has not lived close to the scene to realize what, for example, the teaching sisterhoods have accomplished, not merely in the quantity of work performed but also in the quality of their own pedagogical preparation. They have, I think, moved ahead intellectually faster than has the American Catholic community as a whole, and it may well be more rapidly than has the nation’s teaching profession in its entirety. The representative nun of today, regardless of her fidelity to a rule of life which most of us would find extremely confining, is by and large down-to-earth, surprisingly familiar with the ways of the world, and under no illusions about the limits of what education can really do. There are exceptions, of course, and a serious study of the typology of the religious communities would doubtless reveal great differences of preparation and orientation.

But the teaching sister can do only her best, and this no longer suffices to get the job of Catholic education done. This simple fact at present breeds so many problems that a sort of crisis has arisen. Beyond that, however, is the situation in which American education now finds itself. On the one hand, the quite incomprehensible development of the resources made available to the human intelligence makes the training of that intelligence more imperative than ever before. On the other hand, the widespread collapse of norms in American life threatens to engulf still more young people in the ruins of the family and the community. I shall not add more words to the library available about juvenile delinquency. As a matter of fact, I happen not to be very greatly impressed by what I read in that library.

The truth is rather that the American people have been quite unrealistic about what education can actually accomplish. It can help a gifted youngster who does not shy away from work to get into a good high school and qualify for admission to an equally reputable college or university. But it is wholly unable to substitute for the family, to compete with the mass media, and to change the urban community into an idyll of virtue. Catholics have probably sinned more than others by expecting the nun to assume duties which they themselves should perform. In the process they have all but worn her out, and it is high time that someone should issue a stern warning in her behalf.