Monday, December 26, 2011

Public Education and Catholic Schools in the 19th Century: A Historical Reflection

A couple of years ago, a bill was introduced in the Texas Legislature to approve a public voucher program for the state’s five largest metropolitan areas. Had it become law, low-income families could obtain vouchers for their children to attend the schools of their choice—including Catholic schools. The Texas Catholic Conference supported the bill and Catholic leaders testified in its favor at a legislative hearing. Nevertheless, the bill failed to become law.

Public funding for religious education is a contentious subject in the United States—even among Catholics. Some argue that a voucher program like the one that was recently introduced in the Texas legislature would allow families of modest means to obtain a religious education for their children, regardless of their ability to pay. But some people are concerned that voucher programs could undermine public education.

The debate about public funding for religious schools dates back more than a century and a half to when the nation first began experimenting with the idea of “common schools”—free schools paid for with public funds and available to all children, regardless of economic or social status. Historians agree that these early public schools often taught religion as well as the rudiments of a secular education. In general, the public schools of the early 19th century promoted nonsectarian mainline Protestant religious values, with prayer and Bible reading being part of a normal school day.

Today, accustomed as we are to public schools that are rigidly secular, it is difficult to imagine how sectarian the public schools were in the United States during the nineteenth century. In Catholicism and American Freedom, Historian John McGreevy tells the tale of the “Eliot School Rebellion,” which illustrates the Protestant dominance of public education in one American city during the 1850s--Boston.

On a March morning in 1859, a teacher at Boston's Eliot School ordered Thomas Whall, a Catholic school boy, to read the Ten Commandments from the King James Bible. Whall refused, having been instructed by his father not to do so. An assistant to the school principal then stepped into the classroom and informed the class, “Here's a boy that refuses to repeat the Ten Commandments, and I will whip him till he yields if it takes the whole forenoon.” The administrator then beat Whall severely with a rattan stick for half an hour.

At the conclusion of this beating, “the school principal ordered all boys not willing to recite the Ten Commandments in the King James version to leave the school, and about one hundred Catholic schoolboys were discharged.”[1] On the following day, three hundred Catholic school boys were turned out of school for the same offense.

The Eliot School rebellion was not an isolated incident. In Maine, Bridget Donahue, a fifteen-year-old Catholic girl, was expelled from school for refusing to read the Protestant Bible. Catholics sued over the matter, but Maine’s highest court ruled that requiring a child to read the King James version of the Bible at school was not an infringement on religious freedom.[2]
School textbooks during this period often contained blatantly bigoted references to Catholicism and Catholic immigrants. For example, one book said that Irish immigration would make America the “common sewer of Ireland.”[3]

In New York City, Catholic families, led by Irish-born Bishop John Hughes, objected to Protestant themes in the city’s public school curriculum, to the reading of the King James Bible in the classroom, and to anti-Catholic bias that appeared in some school texts. In the late 1840s, Catholics used the political process in an unsuccessful attempt to get a share of public education funds for Catholic schools.[4]

Eventually, Bishop Hughes gave up efforts to obtain public funding for Catholic schools and turned instead to the task of building a Catholic school system. “How are we to provide for the Catholic education of our children?” Hughes asked in a public letter. “Not by agitating the questions of the constitutionality, legality, or expediency of state schools. Let us leave these points to be settled by politicians, legislators, political economists, philosophers and denominations outside of the church . . . . Let us then leave the public schools to themselves.”[5]

Thus, the Catholic Church in the United States turned away from efforts to reach a compromise with Protestant-dominated public schools and began developing a system of parish-based Catholic schools. This was a long and arduous process. According to one historian, parochial education did not exist on a large scale until 1870.[6] By the end of the nineteenth century, Catholic parochial schools were flourishing in urban America, and the Catholic school had become “the hallmark of American Catholicism.”[7]

Today we are seeing a return to a controversy that first arose in the early nineteenth century on the issue of public funding for religious schools. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that a publicly-funded voucher program may constitutionally include religious schools,[8] voucher opponents have persuaded some state courts to strike down various voucher programs on state constitutional grounds.

No matter what position we take on this divisive issue, let us remember those nineteenth-century figures from our American Catholic heritage who fought to uphold Catholic values against public school systems that were blatantly hostile to Catholic interests: Bishop John Hughes of New York; Bridget Donahue of Maine; and Thomas Whall, the quietly defiant school boy in Boston’s Eliot School.

[1] John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom (New York: W. W. Norton & Co.), 8.
[2] Joseph Viteritti, Choosing Equality: School Choice, the Constitution, and Civil Society (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999), 150.
[3] Carl F. Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983), 163.
[4] Diane Ravitch, The Great School Wars: The History of the New York City Public Schools (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 33-45.
[5] Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The National Experience, 1783-1876 (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 168.
[6] Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic, 171, quoting James Burns.
[7] Jay P. Dolan, The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1975), 100.
[8] Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002).

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