I had 16 years of academically rigorous Catholic education… In high school we read all of Shakespeare’s major plays, many of the classics of world and English literature. Our history teachers expected us to read a daily newspaper; ignorance of what was happening in the world was not acceptable. I had six years of language study, three in Latin, three in French. There were no electives; everyone had four years of math, four of science. In grade school we had superb instruction in English grammar and surprising good lessons in American history.
I did not appreciate my good fortune. I was obsessed with the conformity imposed, with the nun’s puritanism about makeup, hair decorations, hemlines. My high school uniform was designed to remove all secondary sexual characteristics. I led a crusade against uniforms and fought for the right to wear political buttons. However, in grade school I was a good girl who did all the homework and was various teachers’ pets. My first grade and second grade teachers pasted gold stars on our foreheads. I have to resist the temptation to seek editor’s picks as the equivalent.
At Fordham everyone had to take 21 credits in philosophy, no matter what their major. So we all had a major and two minors. My four kids went to excellent universites, but they are totally ignorant of philosophy. What they know comes from Wikipedia articles on the philosophers Lost characters are based on:)
High school graduates, never mind college graduates, of Catholic schools were expected to have a broad general education. They understand the constitution; they woud have enlightened voters if they hadn’t had to wait three years or more to vote. They could quote many excellent poems and Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets.
The teachers didn’t give a damn about our social skills. Their one concern was that we didn’t fall into the clutches of a bad crowd of kids. Living up to your intellectual potential was their priority. Underachieving was how you got in trouble with Sister and it was extremely difficult to bullshit them about that. Cheaters and plagiarists faced dire consequences.
Going back three generations in my family, people are very intelligent, but socially shy and awkward. Boredom in school has been a persisting problem. Being the oldest in the class just exacerbates the boredom. School is for learning. Catholic schools were known for intellectual challenge, not social remediation. Socialization was what happened at recess and after school. It was not in the teachers’ job description. The nuns didn’t care if we liked school or had friends. They had no idea.They cared about how hard we worked, whether we were lazy and not living up to our intellectual potential. They had their priorities straight.
Looking back, I simply cannot understand how the nuns did it. Could the habit be that powerful? Do they bewitch us? In postwar suburbia Catholics schools could not be built fast enough. I never went to school in my hometown. For the first two years I went to a split session. The teacher had to teach 60 kids in each session. That is 120 students.Yet our first grade teacher taught us all how to read, to print, cursive writing. She worked with me separately. Now her brother owned a candy factory, but this does not seem humanly possible. Can wearing uniforms make such a difference?
My evaluation of my Catholic education as changed as I have grown older and students have become less educated. I never would have sent my kids to Catholic school–too strict, regimented, hostile to creativity and individuality. But my cousin’s children have gotten excellent educations in Catholic Schools, and my stereotypes are outdated.
My high school had an extremely active speech and debate club. Many of the top students belonged. Debate devoured your time as much as varsity sports does know. Extemporaneous speech was exalted. There was one debate topic annually. Debaters spent ten hours a week in the library. I was more knowledgeable than most members of the Senate are now. Twice a month we went to debate tournaments, mostly in Queens and Brooklyn, sometimes in Manhattan. It was the most academically challenging and competitive activity I have ever undertaken. My kids’ academically strong high school didn’t have a Debate Club.
What about socialization? That word didn’t exist. We had three, four, five siblings and dozens of cousins. Older brothers and sisters are excellent socializers. You weren’t allowed to play board games unless you could handle losing repeatedly. There were no handicaps. Younger kids would do anything to be included. I wonder why I did take advantage of my superiority in height, weight, education, and intelligence over my brothers. The one 18 months younger only reached my height the summer before I left for college.
Most of us spent thousands of hours in the backyards or basements of our neighborhood with only the bare minimum of adult supervision. Now kids are almost never that free. Their lives are completely regimented. I never knew anyone who had planned afterschool activities until they went to high school. Our parents, raising large families on one income, didn’t have money to spend on such luxuries.
In grade school we went outside and played after school–baseball, basketball, football, badminton, ping pong, knock hockey. We biked everywhere without helmets.. By 7 you were given free rein of the neigborhood. By 8 my best friend and I walked 2 miles to the nearest big town, disappearing for the day. We had to come home by dark. Our parents didn’t drive us places. We biked or took buses. By 12 my friend and I were taking the bus and subway to go to Manhattan. There were no cell phone.
At 12 I was babysitting at least ten hours a week. That financed the trips into Manhattan to see Broadway shows once or twice a month. This is why parents handled having 6 children better than people now handle having 1. We were all expected to figure out some way of earning money by the time we were 12. For my brothers, it was paper routes.
Now we come to the hard part, the explanation that severely troubles my feminist mind and heart. We all had mothers at home. Even lower middle class families with many children could bring up a family on one salary. By today’s standards our life was austere. We made our own fun. Cynics sometimes think feminism was the creature of late 20th century industrial capitalism. Why couldn’t one salary support a family when women went back to work? Did women’s joining the work force hide that salaries were stagnating. I realize things were different in African American familes where women always had to work. I led a sheltered life. The only single-parent families I knew were the result of widowhood.
I loathe the stereotype of 50s mothers presented in TV shows and movies. Long island had been farmland. Communities had to be created. There were not enough schools, few churches, community organizations, or libraries. Libraries were run by volunteers. My parents raised money for a Catholic school, church, rectory, and convent. There were few social workers. Churches took responsibility for the poor and the wretched. Women routinely took care of their sick and aging parents in their own homes.
I am not glorifying my past. But certainly the 50s and 60s were much better times to be a child. We didn’t go to day care, nursery school, or after school activities. There was a limit to how much trouble teenagers could get up to in homes where an adult was always there. Denigrating the 50s too often become a way of discrediting the tremendous contributions of those supposedly oppressed housewives, who raised 4, 5, or 6 kids, who gardened, canned the produce, sewed the family clothes, took care of aging parents, made every penny count. Mad Men and Revolutionary Road don’t portray any woman I ever knew.