Parochial and Private Schools
Parochial and Private Schools
Catholic Influx. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the number of Catholics in the United States barely exceeded 100, 000, a negligible percentage of the total population. This changed with the mass immigration of Irish Catholics into the cities of the Northeast that began in the 1830s and accelerated greatly after 1845. By 1850 the estimated American Catholic population was 1, 606, 000. In New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, Irish immigrants formed distinct communities within the larger population, complete with their own taverns, clubs, newspapers, and churches. Many nativeborn Protestants saw in the growing numbers of Catholics an economic threat and a cultural danger and looked with deep suspicion on the Pope and his followers. Such fears led to nativist and anti-Catholic sentiment that manifested itself in the burning of Catholic churches, the formation of an anti-Catholic political party (the Native American Party, or Know-Nothing Party), and hostile literature. One of the most dramatic points of confrontation, not surprisingly, involved schooling.
Catholic Protest. Most Americans regarded public schools as the main conduit for the transmission of the national ethos. They counted on the public school to develop a unified national character as well as to inculcate a single set of moral and spiritual values among all the nation’s children. But within a universal public school system open to all children, not all subscribed to the Protestant values that characterized common schools of the period. As immigration swelled the ranks of American Catholics, an increasing number of them objected to the Protestant teachings and derogatory references to things Catholic that dripped from the pages of textbooks in the publicly funded school systems. Such anti-Catholicism led individuals such as Bishop John Hughes of New York to seek state funds for separate Catholic schools. He argued that Catholics could not in good conscience attend the public schools, but the state denied Hughes any funding. Out of frustration Catholics felt compelled to organize their own separate (parochial) school systems.
Parochial Schools. Catholics felt it necessary to establish separate schools to preserve the faith of their children, even at the cost of asking Catholic parents to pay twice, once to support the public schools and once to support the private schools they had created. Nor were Catholics alone in their determination to develop alternative systems of schools. The Presbyterian Church, for example, expressing concern over the general secularization of the public schools and the aggressive determination of the Roman Catholics to build up their own parochial school system, also established a substantial system of parochial schooling during the 1840s. The place of religion in public schools remained a controversial issue through the first half of the nineteenth century; in 1842 a heated debate over Bible reading and religious exercises in the public schools of Philadelphia captured headlines. Such controversies and their legacies, both in terms of the secularization of public schools and the funding of private institutions, continued long into the next century. The experience of Catholics, Presbyterians, and other religious groups led to sharper distinctions between public and private education and pointed to the many problems of creating a school system common to all children in a country becoming increasingly more diverse by the decade.
Frederick M. Binder, The Age of the Common School (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1974);
Carl F. Kaestle, The Evolution of an Urban School System: New York City, 1750–1850 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973);
Michael B. Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968).