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Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century.

Philip Gleason is the historian of American Catholic higher education. Academics, their appetites whetted by a steady stream of brilliant articles, eagerly awaited this history. They will not be disappointed. Gleason knows the material, blends it into a dramatic success story and provides some answers to the how and why questions.

He begins at the turn of the century with the gradual modernization of previously mixed secondary and post-secondary colleges and academies, partly under pressure from graduate and professional schools looking for evidence of undergraduate quality. He ends with Vatican II and provides a brief overview of the revolution that followed, as Catholic institutions, once the work of religious orders, passed to the control of independent boards of trustees and an increasingly professional faculty.

It is a success story at several levels. Institutions offered education considered acceptable by professional accrediting bodies while retaining a clear sense of their distinctive identity. They struggled financially, then exploded in size and diversified their offerings after World War II, when the G.I. Bill of Rights brought a "voucher system" to American higher education. Throughout, the religious orders that ran the schools did their best to respond to the changing needs of their aspiring Catholic constituencies. On the eve of Vatican II, these flourishing campuses stood with the church's bursting elementary and secondary schools as the brightest achievement of a prosperous, confident American Catholic community.

Several points may be of particular interest to readers of NCR. First, Contending with Modernity makes an ideal companion piece to George Marsden's excellent and widely discussed The Soul of the American University (Oxford University Press, 1994). Marsden documents the process by which religion was driven from the campus and lost its place in American intellectual life. Gleason demonstrates that, for these years, the Catholic experience was different; he specifies and explains that difference. His book will reinforce, unfortunately, the arguments of critics who believe that, in recent years, Catholic higher education has repeated the process Protestant schools went through many years ago, losing the religious commitment that made them different.

Second, we learn from Gleason that until the 1960s it was philosophy, more precisely scholastic philosophy, that provided the unifying cement and intellectual rationale for Catholic higher education. Theology came later for priests and was not considered appropriate for lay people. Michael Harrington once described the unified scholastic system he learned from the Jesuits and how, when one string broke, the whole ball unraveled. Gleason hints at a similar image for the whole enterprise of Catholic higher education; with "the splintering of the scholastic synthesis," the success ends at the edge of a new era. The combination of events associated with the 1960s, fueled, as Gleason sees it, by the "contagion of liberty," destroyed the coherence of the enterprise, leaving the identity of Catholic colleges and universities uncertain.

Third, Gleason reminds us that Catholic colleges and universities, with few exceptions, were founded, directed and financed by religious orders of men and women. Each has its own unique history as each particular order responded to its particular community. Alumni and friends, drawn by priests and sisters they new personally, supported the school as Catholic, to be sure, but even more as Jesuit or Ursuline or Franciscan. Catholic colleges and universities mediated between their constituencies of ambitious lay people and ecclesiastical authorities, guiding their students into the center of American culture, to take their place as intelligent professionals, loyal to their church, competent in their work, reliable in their politics. In philosophy and catechetics (not theology), they learned how to defend the church and refute the church's enemies, but in the end they were necessarily Americanists, promoting assimilation and good citizenship in a pluralistic society.

At the end of Gleason's book is a startling surprise. Beginning in 1967, the religious orders that owned and operated the schools gave them away to independent boards of trustees, usually with a majority of lay members. It was quite remarkable and made - indeed still makes - the hierarchy very nervous. One wonders what might have happened if, to take just one example, bishops had risked a similar sharing of ownership and responsibility in Catholic elementary and secondary education. Some, and I am afraid Gleason may be among them, now wonder if that shift to lay control was a good idea, because they worry that the colleges and universities may no longer be really Catholic. But it is possible to argue that the bold venture initiated by the gift to the church of the accumulated capital of generations of priests, brothers and sisters made these schools more authentically Catholic than ever before. That debate is an important one, with vast implications for the meaning of faith for lay Catholics. From now on, reading Contending with Modernity should become a requirement for participation in the dialogue.

David J. O'Brien is Loyola professor of Roman Catholic Studies at Holy Cross College, Worcester, Mass., and author of From the Heart of the American Church Catholic Higher Education and American Culture.
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Author:O'Brien, David J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 27, 1996
Words:831
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