Toward More Catholic History in Our Schools

By Mazzenga, Maria | Momentum, November/December 2007 | Go to article overview

Toward More Catholic History in Our Schools


Mazzenga, Maria, Momentum


Using primary documents in the classroom develops skills in critical thinking and historical imagination-and fills in gaps in U.S. history textbooks

In a 1996 issue of The History Teacher, Historian Peter Boyer posed the question, "Is religion systematically excluded from United States history textbooks and survey courses?" His answer? Yes. Particularly at the high school level, the role of religion in shaping the American experience was downplayed in history courses. Boyer's essay showed that while many critics bemoaned the lack of religion in history courses for broader moral and ideological reasons, the criticism was in fact true on strictly intellectual and historical grounds and still is true today.

Textbook publishers and authors continue to neglect religion as a causal force in the history of the United States (Boyer, February 1996). Why this neglect of religious history in today's high schools?

Among the most important reasons are a confusion between advocacy and analysis, uneasiness with controversial topics, the prevalence of a secular perspective seen as incompatible with inclusion of religious topics, stylistic conservatism among textbook producers and an emphasis on change-driving events-as opposed to status-quo maintaining institutions. The result is students who come to believe in a "straight-line secularization" historical narrative, one in which religious activity is seen as anomalous rather than as integrated into the life of the nation.

Boyer's article focused primarily on textbooks and history teaching in public schools, but his analysis is especially relevant for Catholic high schools. If the aim of the Catholic school is, at its most basic level, to promote awareness of the Catholic Church, surely a clear understanding of the history of the church is part of that mission.

Until the 1960s and 70s, Catholic schools tended to use textbooks created by Catholic publishers, which incorporated Catholic history into broader United States history. By the 1970s, the older texts had become outdated, yet publishers apparently were not up to the task of the tremendous revisions that would be required to create new history texts for a changing Catholic educational audience.

Today, because most Catholic high school history teachers use the same history textbooks as their public school counterparts, Catholic school educators must work extra hard to impart the Catholic experience to their students in the context of the broader history of the United States, something that few teachers find time to do with already jam-packed curriculums (Walsh, 2003).

Theology is Not History

Some educators justify the scant attention to American Catholic history by pointing out that a general Catholic school curriculum includes courses on theology, history of Christianity, Christian ethics, Christian life, sacred Scripture and other classes related to Catholic life. The problem here is that teaching Catholicism on its own, or even in the context of broader Christian history, can create the impression that religion is divorced from everyday life, which has never been true.

Indeed, the exclusion of religion from the teaching of United States history makes religion-based movements (such as, for example, the 1950s and 60s era civil rights movement, which contained a strong Catholic as well as Protestant component) seem out of place in the broader unfolding of national history. Moreover, teaching about Catholicism in an exclusively religious context separates it from the broader history of the nation. The result? Catholicism may be understood in and of itself, but it seems oddly detached from the rest of the American experience.

Coverage of Catholicism in United States history texts tends to fall into three to four general topic categories familiar to every Catholic school history teacher: Catholics were among the early Europeans to colonize North America, though they had no real impact on the development of the United States' key social, cultural or political institutions. …

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