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The development of the parochial school system during the 19th and
20th centuries in the United States has got to rank among the most
impressive achievements in the history of Christendom. In no other
country, at no other time, has a greater number of Catholic schools
been established than between the 1850’s and the 1950’s in the U.S.

Of course, the earliest schools in what is now the
United States emerged centuries early, in New Mexico and Florida under
the tutelage of the Spanish Franciscan missionaries. In 1629, four
years before the establishment of the first schools in the thirteen
colonies, a census undertaken by the Franciscans indicates there were
already more than a dozen Catholic schools scattered throughout New
Mexico, the earliest one thought to have been established in 1598!
Unfortunately, a little known event in pre-U.S. history ensued–in a
native rebellion against the Spanish in 1680, most of the friars of New
Mexico were massacred; schools, churches, and convents were razed to
the ground. Everything was lost. It would take another hundred years
for Catholic life to be rebuilt in the desert southwest. Meanwhile, the
Franciscans had better luck establishing and maintaining schools in
Florida and Texas. And with the help of Blessed Junipero Serra, the
Franciscans established a number of schools throughout California
during the late 18th century. In the north, however, it was the English
colonists who established the first system of publicly-supported
schools, a system that was characterized by zealous Protestant
fundamentalism. Before the late-19th century the tiny Catholic minority was at the mercy of, more or less,
anti-Catholic educators.

The great Catholic immigration period didn’t begin
until the 1840’s, and it would be a few decades later before a rapid
influx of religious orders from Europe would provide the fledgling
Catholic school system with educated teachers who would lay the
foundation for the solid education of the next century. Catholics had
already tried –-unsuccessfully–-to reform the public schools; now they
were ready to establish their own; and in 1852, the Bishops’ Council at
Baltimore urged every parish in the U.S. to establish its own school.

The Catholic school system that rapidly developed following the
Council of Baltimore provided a much needed alternative to
government-run compulsory education. It allowed a diverse body of
immigrants to integrate into American life while maintaining their
Catholic faith and practice in a frequently hostile Protestant
environment. Although a number of religious teaching orders
“specialized” in running schools, the Jesuits provided the “jewel in
the crown” of Catholic education and remained a thorn in the side of
the anti-Catholic nativists, who thought the Jesuits were devils
enfleshed, perhaps because they understood exactly how influential the
Jesuits as an order were, even at this late date.

In fact, much of the success of the Catholic school system as
whole in the U.S. can be credited to the influence of the Jesuits and
their founder St. Ignatius. The Ignatian method, drawn from the ancient
world of Cicero and Tertullian, included a healthy respect for the
significant contributions of the past – not just the recent American
past, but those of the previous two millennia. Cicero believed there
were two main purposes of education: to train people to serve others
and to serve the common good (non nobis solum nati sumus: we are not
born for ourselves alone). The Jesuits maintained that Cicero’s modest
goals could be achieved by properly exercising the corporal and
spiritual works of mercy as educated and responsible citizens in a free
society, giving rise to the Jesuit concept of “Men for Others.” The
results of this approach to education were phenomenal. This basic
pedagogy, adapted at most catholic schools of the day, transformed
generations of young people into adults who could think critically, act
responsibly, and believe deeply. They were at once virtuous and
productive in both their public and private lives. One can make the
case that the graduates of these Catholic schools during this era were
in many ways the ideal American citizen.

Just as integral to this successful educational approach was
its particular emphasis on the importance of religion and the Catholic
faith in particular. This religious dimension permeated its whole
schooling, not by approaching the individual subjects with some narrow
“sectarian” focus. Rather, there existed the simple belief that God is
in all things. Moreover, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ was recognized
as the central event in the course of human history. It is no
coincidence then that Jesus of Nazareth was unabashedly held up as the
model of human life as students were encouraged and inspired to follow
the ideals of Christian perfection. This common Catholic heritage meant
that all followed a common way of life that recognized the objectivity
of truth and the universality of the Catholic Church, along with its
traditions, customs, and sacred patrimony.

As much as the religious ethos during this era provided a solid
grounding in religious and moral principles, its academic component was
classical in content. The historical substance of Catholicism and
Western culture, along with the major contributions of the Egyptian,
Hebrew, Greek and Roman cultures of the ancient world, formed the core
of the curriculum. Students routinely studied the Latin language (and
sometimes Greek, too) as well as the great works of Christendom and
pre-Christian masterpieces that influenced and inspired Catholic
Europe. In other words, they learned about themselves, their own
culture, their own heritage. Not all Catholic schools explicitly
expressed their educational mission in these terms; nonetheless, these
basic principles were given pride of place up to and during the great
post-war Catholic building boom of the 1950s and 60s.

This period of Catholic expansion in the U.S. coincided with
the rise of progressivist education theories even as the state
exercised more control over private schools. Consequently, moral and
intellectual errors crept into the curriculums of certain Catholic
schools, often in a misguided effort to “adapt with the times.” Not
wanting to appear outmoded to the state education authorities and
education “experts,” Catholic educators were too often willing to
exchange their highly successful and time-proven methods of teaching in
favor of the same faddish experiments that were already failing the
public school system. For example, the Jesuits of the late 20th
century, it is sad to say, largely disinherited the true content of
their legacy; its unique countercultural character was supplanted by an
affirmation of the American status quo; thus, the vast majority of
Jesuit secondary schools became virtually indistinguishable from public
high schools in some of the nation’s more affluent school districts.
The religious dimension largely disappeared, being relegated to
“religion” classes that too often teach dubious doctrine. Gone too was
the emphasis on Latin, Greek, and the classic works of Western
civilization replaced by agenda-driven fads, e.g., sex education,
feminism, homosexuality, often unbeknownst to parents, alumni, and
benefactors. In most circumstances, “tolerance” agendas have replaced
faith and morals, so much so that the curriculum at these schools is no
longer permeated by an authentic Catholic religious dimension, but by a
corrupt political agenda — a sad tale.

Fortunately, the tale doesn’t end there.
Unbeknownst to many, we are now in the midst of a budding renaissance
in classical Catholic education. The unique and long-successful
Ignatian method is already being quietly resurrected, not by today’s
Jesuits, but by lay Catholics dissatisfied with the state of the
nation’s parochial schools in the 21st century. In answer to this
deficit, a new crop of Catholic educators is founding privately-funded
Catholic schools. Rather than reinforcing the fleeting biases of
contemporary culture, these schools are offering a curriculum of
perennial relevance.

Just as important is the recent establishment of a new
educational accrediting body that recognizes the merits of the
Classical and traditionally Catholic approach to education. Founded by
lay Catholics who understand the many problems created by the current
state-certification and accrediting bodies, the National Association
for Private, Catholic, and Independent Schools (NAPCIS) provides
authentic support for the foundation of what amounts to a new,
nationwide school system, one that in no small way owes its origins to
the wisdom of the old-Jesuits and the Ignatian method of classical
education. The true measure of success of these counter-cultural
schools remains to be seen, but the hope is that this unique
contribution to contemporary education produces new generations of
cultured, virtuous and productive American citizens ad majorem Dei
gloriam.

 

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