The Demonization of Parochial Schools

Published May 1, 2000

In his 1979 book, Schooled to Order: A Social History of Public Schooling in the United States, David Nasaw recounts how the textbooks used in the common schools in the mid-1800s were “viciously anti-Irish and anti-Catholic.” A widely used textbook published in 1837 described the Irish as a “poor, ignorant, and wicked” people who drank too much and worked too little.

“The Catholic church was condemned as not only un-American but subversive of all forms of government, civilization, and morality,” wrote Nasaw. The Pope and his “popish” clergy were condemned throughout textbooks of the period as corrupt, greedy, debauched, and immoral. While the common schools were viewed as quintessentially American, “parochial schools were accused of being subversive of the civil order and by their very nature profoundly Un-American.”

The demonization of parochial schools continued in the early part of the twentieth century, with the anti-Catholic educator John Dewey advancing the view that religious schools were politically and socially divisive. But, as author Joseph Viteritti points out in his recent book Choosing Equality, while Dewey condemned religion in parochial schools, he championed the “religious work” carried out in the common school.

“Our schools in bringing together those of different nationalities, languages, traditions, and creeds, in assimilating them together upon a basis of what is common and public in endeavor and achievement, are performing an infinitely significant religious work,” declared Dewey.