Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century

Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century

Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century

Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century


How did Catholic colleges and universities deal with the modernization of education and the rise of research universities? In this book, Philip Gleason offers the first comprehensive study of Catholic higher education in the twentieth century, tracing the evolution of responses to an increasingly secular educational system. At the beginning of the century, Catholics accepted modernization in the organizational sphere while resisting it ideologically. Convinced of the truth of their religious and intellectual position, the restructured Catholic colleges grew rapidly after World War I, committed to educating for a "Catholic Renaissance." This spirit of militance carried over into the post-World War II era, but new currents were also stirring as Catholics began to look more favorably on modernity in its American form. Meanwhile, their colleges and universities were being transformed by continuing growth and professionalization. By the 1960's, changes in church teaching and cultural upheaval in American society reinforced the internal transformation already under way, creating an "identity crisis" which left Catholic educators uncertain of their purpose. Emphasizing the importance to American culture of the growth of education at all levels, Gleason connects the Catholic story with major national trends and historical events. By situating developments in higher education within the context of American Catholic thought, Contending with Modernity provides the fullest account available of the intellectual development of American Catholicism in the twentieth century.


The aim of this book is to sketch in broad outline the historical development of American Catholic higher education since 1900, giving special attention to the institutional and intellectual dimensions of the story. Although I have attempted to combine analysis with narrative in discussing the organizational and ideological changes that define the major turning points in the story, my approach is basically narrative. The reason for that approach is my conviction that what the subject needs most at this point is intelligible form--a developmental pattern that makes sense, draws the attention of other scholars to problematic features of the story, and invites further work to confirm or correct the interpretation offered here.

The main reason the topic presently lacks historiographic form is that it has attracted virtually no attention from historians. There are, to be sure, studies of various Catholic colleges and universities that cover the twentieth century, but no previously published work has attempted to lay out the developmental stages of the larger phenomenon. Its being a first attempt has perhaps emboldened me to generalize more freely about matters covered in this book than might otherwise be the case, but the same circumstance also imposed certain limitations. I have not, for example, attempted to deal systematically with student life or other social-history dimensions of higher education. Nor have I made systematic comparisons with other sectors of American higher education, public or private. I have, however, dealt at some length with developments in the larger world of American higher education that had a direct impact on Catholic institutions, such as accreditation, and with more general societal influences, such as the two World Wars.

As the foregoing may suggest, the perspective adopted here is internalist in the sense that I have attempted to tell the story of Catholic higher education as I believe it appeared to those who were actors in the story. This is most notable in the amount of attention given to the ideological dimensions of the story, for without understanding Catholic educators' religious and intellectual convictions we cannot possibly understand what they did or why they did it.

Adopting an internalist stance of this sort runs the risk of appearing uncritical, although I hope I have avoided the reality. The risk derives from the fact that Catholic intellectuals have generally adopted the condescending view long held by most non-Catholic educators that the only thing to be explained about Catholic higher education is why it has historically been so weak in terms of academic quality. This negative view attained canonical status with Monsignor . . .

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