Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

"People Are Suffering; People Are Christ, and We Are Responsible": Sister Mary Emil Penet's Campaign for Social-Justice Education in the 1950s

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

"People Are Suffering; People Are Christ, and We Are Responsible": Sister Mary Emil Penet's Campaign for Social-Justice Education in the 1950s

Article excerpt

Early on the morning of July 14th, 1956, Father Neil McCluskey, S.J., the education editor for the Catholic weekly America, arrived at a quiet campus in Everett, Washington, to visit sixteen Catholic sisters engaged in an ambitious-and unusually well-funded-effort to improve teacher education for the 93,000 sisters who served in U.S. Catholic schools.

Sister Mary Emil Penet, I.H.M., the chairman of the national Sister Formation Committee (SFC), had invited Father McCluskey to serve as an advisor for the sisters at Everett as they developed a new, "model" bachelor's curriculum intended to strengthen sisters' academic preparation for teaching elementary and secondary school. The SFC planned to recommend the new curriculum as the new gold standard in sisters' education to all 377 U.S. teaching orders. Sister Mary Emil and a group of like-minded sisters in the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) had established the SFC in 1954 to help religious orders catch up with U.S. states' recent upgrades in degree requirements for public-school teaching. The SFC's initial focus had been to help orders meet the new state standards (requiring pre-service bachelor's degrees, rather than bachelor's degrees earned-while-teaching), by persuading bishops, parishes, and sisters' superiors to commit more resources to sisters' education. By 1955, the SFC had succeeded in their lobbying effort. The majority of women's orders had committed to educating their young sisters in fulltime pre-service bachelor's degree programs, abandoning the longtime practice of sending sisters into classrooms after only a few semesters of college and having them complete their degrees part-time over the course of many summers.1 Sister Mary Emil subsequently turned the SFC to a new project, one that she was even more passionate about: strengthening the content of sisters' education in the liberal arts.

With a PhD in philosophy, Sister Mary Emil was one of a small minority of U.S. sisters who had earned any kind of advanced degree. She recruited fifteen other sisters with graduate degrees to spend the summer of 1956 in Everett designing a bachelor's curriculum "by Sisters and for Sisters" that would, in her words, "update and liberalize" education for the tens of thousands of sisters who made the enormous network of U.S. Catholic schools possible.2 This unprecedented effort to strengthen the academic content of sisters' education in all 377 U.S. teaching orders was Sister Mary Emil's brainchild, but was entirely funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation.3 In a move widely celebrated in the Catholic press, Sister Mary Emil and her assistant on the project, Sister Xaveria Barton, I.H.M., had, in the fall of 1955, secured a $50,000 grant from the Ford Foundation's Fund for the Advancement of Education to underwrite a two-part initiative to strengthen liberal arts education for sisters. The first part was a nine-month study of current education in a large sample of orders; the second, and culminating, project was the 1956 summer curriculum-writing workshop at Everett.

The Ford Foundation had launched The Fund for the Advancement of Education (TFAE) in 1950 to support programs in the liberal arts, especially for future teachers. In an early statement that revealed the TFAE founders' Cold-War related concerns, they argued that the liberal arts, in contrast with mere "technical" studies, nurtured democracy by teaching critical thinking and humanistic values (and inoculating against passive acceptance of authoritarianism). "Perhaps the greatest single shortcoming of our school system," the founders had assessed, "is its tendency to concern itself almost exclusively with the dissemination of information." Curriculum for democracy needed to do more; only the liberal arts, in their view, honored the universal human potential to "achieve a satisfactory personal philosophy and sense of values" and to "analyze problems and to arrive at conclusions on the basis of rigorous thinking. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.