GOD & MAN AT PREP SCHOOL : Can Religion & Elite Education Still Mix?

By McGough, Michael | Commonweal, May 19, 2000 | Go to article overview

GOD & MAN AT PREP SCHOOL : Can Religion & Elite Education Still Mix?


McGough, Michael, Commonweal


Shady Side Academy is the preeminent private school in Pittsburgh, long viewed by the parents of Ivy League-aspiring boys as a hometown alternative to the famous boarding schools of New England. Established in 1883 as a Christian school, it would have been so recognized as late as the 1960s, when the headmaster presided over chapel services of a palpably Protestant character.

Today, Shady Side is a different place, most obviously in being coeducational but also in its religious demographics. Thirty-five percent of the students at the school are Jewish and 35 percent Catholic, according to the president of the school, Peter Kountz, a Ph.D. in the history of culture from the University of Chicago, a Thomas Merton scholar, and the first Roman Catholic to head Shady Side.

Unlike his Protestant predecessors, however, Kountz does not preside at chapel. There is no such thing. And that bothers him. "We're really lost without religion," says Kountz. "Shady Side should not, cannot, become a denominational school; that's fine. I can deal with that. But the fact that we don't have a way for our kids to find themselves spiritually, that's very ugly. More and more, schools have to pick up the slack that parents drop, but we can't do it completely if we don't have some sort of chaplaincy program."

After becoming Shady Side's president, Kountz decided to try to revive the chapel tradition. What he had in mind was not the old chapel service, with its overtones of Protestant privilege, but a program modeled on an arrangement at Wellesley College "where you have a director of chaplaincy services and then you have a chaplain for every world religion." The ethos would have been not Protestant or Catholic or Jewish but "truly ecumenical." Yet when Kountz floated the idea with school trustees, he recalls, the reaction was "remarkably unenthusiastic." To his dismay, some trustees worried that a chapel program would lead to Christian proselytizing. The idea was shelved.

The Shady Side saga speaks volumes about a little-noted corner of the continuing conversation in America about the relationship between education and religion. That debate has played out most conspicuously in the tiresome quarrels in Congress and the courts about prayer in public schools, but it resonates even in private schools to which the Supreme Court's writ does not run.

Many private (or, as they prefer to be known, independent) schools have abandoned mandatory chapel services, abolished the position of chaplain, and replaced muscular Christianity with multiculturalism. These days supporters of a religious dimension in private education are scrambling to justify the ways of God not to a secularist Supreme Court but to the schools' paying customers.

The irony is that many of these schools were founded on the rock of religion. In a 1996 essay in the American Scholar titled "The Strange Fate of the American Boarding School," David V. Hicks, the former rector at Saint Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, recalled the days when the typical elite boarding school "profoundly adopted the Christian faith as its organizing principle. This provided ritual, ceremony, and a coherent set of norms, although it seldom invited a confession of faith or inspired a conversion."

Even Hicks's restrained tribute to prep-school religion would strike some "old boys" as excessive. Tim Oppenheimer, a 1963 graduate of Shady Side Academy, recalls that chapel services were "something of a joke." When Oppenheimer and his wife were looking at schools for their children, he said, they were not interested in a school that "had much religious content or compulsion." It's a common attitude among parents of private-school pupils, and one that independent schools can't ignore. Just ask Peter W. Cobb.

Cobb is the executive director of CSEE, the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education, an Atlanta-based organization that helps its 400 member schools, 26 of them Catholic, encourage spiritual development, the study of religion, and community service. …

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