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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

‘No Excuses’ School Discipline–The Roman Way

Sister Mary Francis was the enforcer of St. James parish.  Father Brophy in his fiery sermons put the congregation on notice – the Devil was among us and only through the intercession of Christ could he be exiled forever – but Sister Mary Francis beat the fear of God into us. Knuckles were whacked at the slightest infraction, a sign of disrespect to her and to Our Lord and Savior. Our heads were to be bowed in abject devotion and kept still and unmoving during the Lord’s Prayer.  The Sign of the Cross was to be made slowly, deliberately, and honorably. No quick touching of the bases.  The forehead, the center of the soul, the temple of devotion.  The heart, the symbol of Christ’s love and His own Sacredness.  Finally the shoulders, symbols of Christian strength, devotion and duty and reminders of Christ’s Passion.

“Who made you?”, asked Sister Mary Francis, opening the Catechism lesson. .

“God made me”, we responded in unison.

“Who is God?

“God is the Creator of Heaven and Earth and all things.”

“Why did God make you?”

“God made me to show His goodness and to make me happy with Him in Heaven.”

Everything in the question-response session was controlled by Sister Mary Francis – tone, modulation, volume, and emphasis.  Any slacker was pulled aside and thwacked. All pupils had to pull together on God’s ship.

Each week we studied a different section of the Catechism from the basics to No. 86, Prayer Before A Crucifix.  We repeated The Ten Commandments, learned about the Sacraments of the Church, and most importantly heard about sin.

“When is a sin mortal?”, asked Sister Mary Francis, finally getting to the only part of Catechism study that interested us.  We had been told by older brothers and sisters that the nun talked about sex, and that whatever we did, we should not miss ‘The Sunday of Sin’ lesson.

“A sin is mortal when:

1. The sin is big.

2. I know it is something big before I do it.

3. I want to do it.”

The Baltimore Catechism moves right along with Venial Sin, Penance, and Confession; but Sister Mary Francis could not let an opportunity like this pass.  She knew that we all – especially the boys – were headed straight to Hell, but if she stood in the Devil’s way did we might have a chance at Heaven.

“Does anybody know what a mortal sin is?”, she asked.  If Father Brophy had come down into the church classrooms at that moment, he would have been outraged.  No one, let alone a nun, was to vary from official Church doctrine, or to ad lib, especially with children.  And especially when it came to mortal sin.  That was his job.  But Sister Mary Francis knew that when she started in on mortal sin Father Brophy was celebrating High Mass and wouldn’t be down to bless the children for an hour.

“Mortal sin is a sin of the flesh”, she started, and all of us boys squirmed in our seats.  We were too young to know exactly what she meant, but Billy Reilly’s older brother had given us a good idea when he showed us pictures from magazines he had stolen from Jimmy’s Smoke Shop.

Sister Mary Francis had become practiced at walking the fine line between prurience and decorum when it came to sins of the flesh; and her indirect references to ‘passion’, ‘abandon’, and ‘release’ were far worse than anything more explicit.  Pre-pubescence is a period of sexual twilight.  We are happy enough imagining.

None of us could imagine what she looked like under her habit. As far as we were concerned nuns did not have bodies, so we could not even begin imagine tits or bush hair.  Besides, she was too scary with her starched white bib and blinders, long black robe, clacking rosary beads, and three-foot hard wooden ruler.

After her one Sunday of sexual indulgence, she went back to the brass tacks of Catholic instruction.  We learned and learned well, not only the fundamentals of our religion, but about respect, discipline, obedience, and hard work. There was no question of slacking; and absolutely no consideration given to race, gender, or ethnicity.  First of all, there was no such thing in the Fifties; and second, even if there had been, unison meant unison. 

The only diversity we had in New Brighton in 1950 was smart and dumb; and the slow learners were afforded no space nor given any leniency.  They simply had to work harder. Respect and obedience were non-negotiable because they were Biblical principles. ‘Honor thy father and mother’ was not a suggestion but an injunction. Disobey and the fires of Hell awaited.

The nuns at St. James were not unique. The same moral principles were taught and enforced everywhere. Discipline, obedience, and diligence were encouraged at both public and private schools. Aside from the official curriculum, there was a civic and moral code to which students, parents, and teachers subscribed.

Adherence to the norms of honesty, respect, and honor are of course nothing new.  In fact they have been the guiding principles of every civilization.  Cato the Elder was a Roman philosopher and educator who devised a course of study for young aristocrats, the future leaders of the Empire.

The Distichs are a series of austere imperatives in verse couplets handed down from Cato the Elder: ‘Practice your art, whatever profession you choose/As diligence fosters talent, so work aids experience.’ ‘Since in your student days you suffered the master’s blows, put up with a father’s rule even when in his wrath he moves beyond words’… As they reproduced the stern decrees, students absorbed the art of the grammatical and political imperative…(Tim Whitmarsh, The London Review of Books)

True leaders, Cato said, not only mastered the arts of oratory, governance, management, and war; but were compassionate, showed respect, and acted honorably and with courage. Cato knew that leadership was a matter of moral rectitude as well as technical mastery.

These educational principles were kept alive in Europe, and especially in Britain.  Classic education there has always been based on learning and right and moral behavior. Until recently, America followed Britain’s secular tradition, one which combined religion, morality, and academic content.  

               Eton College Chapel

Inclusivity and diversity were the rallying cries of political activists in the 1960s. Remediation of exploitation and prejudice and the resetting of the scales of justice were the principles of social revolution.  In order to reestablish the democratic equilibrium envisioned by the Founding Fathers, ground had to be given.  Intolerance had to be met with tolerance.  The oppressed needed a helping hand. Strict adherence to Cato’s social norms was considered impossible and was given a pass.  How could a second-generation freed slave possibly conform to an alien, white system of community structure and values?

Unfortunately this ethos of tolerance and moral passes has become the hallmark of a new industry – social liberalism.  Refusing to take off the patriarchal mantel of moral and social arbiter conferred on them in the 60s, American progressives have contributed to the continued erosion of the standards of social and individual propriety set forth by the Greeks.

Schools like the Carver Collegiate Academy in New Orleans have adopted a ‘No Excuses’ brand of education, a deliberate attempt to address the social dysfunction of inner city youth in New Orleans and to educate them in the principles and values that will enable them to join the majority white culture. As Sarah Carr writes in The Atlantic:

From the moment Summer Duskin arrived at Carver Collegiate Academy in New Orleans last fall, she struggled to keep track of all the rules. There were rules governing how she talked. She had to say thank you constantly, including when she was given the “opportunity”—as the school handbook put it—to answer questions in class. And she had to communicate using “scholar talk,” which the school defined as complete, grammatical sentences with conventional vocabulary. When students lapsed, they were corrected by a teacher and asked to repeat the amended statement.

Predictably there has been liberal backlash. “Some [critics have argued] that those taped lines point the way to prison rather than to college—that the harsh discipline is a civil-rights abomination, destined to push too many kids out of school and into trouble with the law.” Others have noted that without significant structural change in family values and behavior, the gains made by Carver may be very short-lived indeed.  Similar to the criticisms of Head Start, the Carver-style education may produce immediate and early returns which erode quickly over time.

There is also a tendency to overreact; and it is no surprise that Carver to some resembles an educational gulag.  Yet parents are pleased that finally the public schools (Carver is a charter school) are taking discipline seriously.  While they can be criticized for not doing the job of moral upbringing themselves and leaving Carver to act in loco parentis; they should be listened to.  Schools like Carver will always be criticized by progressive malcontents who see racism everywhere, unfair persecution of minorities, and harsh treatment of the ‘otherly advantaged’; but the minority – as always – must contribute to the success of the majority.  Those students who cannot abide the discipline, rules, regulations, and moral injunctions of Carver must leave.

Most of us who were taught by the Sisters of Mercy are still afraid of nuns.  We never took Father Brophy and his apoplectic sermons about hellfire and damnation seriously.  He was a carnival act, a master of melodrama, and a wonderful orator.  The nuns on the other hand had little to say; and when they did it was only to signal the whooshing thwack of the ruler.

China and Japan have often been criticized for their slavish Confucianism.  All this bowing and respect, obedience and loyalty to State, family, and heritage inhibits creativity.  Chinese Americans who outperform all other ethnic and racial groups are ridiculed as nerds, geeks, and products of obsessive Tiger Moms.  Far from it. Chinese Americans are no different from the Jewish Americans who preceded them.  Study, obedience, discipline, and hard work were the bywords of both communities.  If some measure of individualism and creativity suffers at the beginning of the social curve, so be it.

Cato the Elder is remembered because he put Greco-Roman educational philosophy into practical form.  He codified moral principles into a curriculum; and in so doing assured that future Roman leaders would operate from a moral as well as an intellectual base.  These principles, however, far predate the Romans. The Ten Commandments I had to learn in Sister Mary Francis’ Catechism class were not new at all.

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