Catholic Higher Education in Protestant America: The Jesuits and Harvard in the Age of the University

By Massa, Mark | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Catholic Higher Education in Protestant America: The Jesuits and Harvard in the Age of the University


Massa, Mark, The Catholic Historical Review


Catholic Higher Education in Protestant America: The Jesuits and Harvard in the Age of the University. By Kathleen A. Mahoney. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2003. Pp. xi, 348. $42.95.)

Kathleen Mahoney has undertaken the challenging historiographic task of answering the call issued by Martin Marty several decades ago to "fuse l'histoire de mentalité with narrative line" in American religious history, and she has admirably succeeded in her well written and engaging monograph. The narrative focus of Mahoney's study is the 1893 decision of Harvard's president Charles W. Eliot to bar graduates of Jesuit colleges from regular admission to Harvard Law School. The tension generated by this decision erupted into a full-blown, nationally publicized controversy, marking (among other things) the Gilded Age transition from the era of the denominational college to the "age of the university," as well as highlighting the surprising (and, in the view of the Jesuits, disturbing) fact that already, by the 1890's, the vast majority of American Catholic college students were enrolled in non-Catholic institutions, leaving Catholic colleges under-subscribed.

The l'histoire de mentalité opened up by this important but surprisingly under-studied historical event is the conjunction of two very different understandings of "higher education" that clashed in Gilded Age America: the Jesuit pedagogical ideal embodied in the famed Ratio studiorum, a plan of studies formalized by the Jesuits in 1599 privileging the Renaissance ideals of classical-language training, rhetoric, and moral formation, and the new ideal of the modern "liberal" university privileging scientific reasoning and the "elective" system of undergraduate education, allowing each student to create an individualized course of study. As Mahoney so elegantly shapes her story, the Jesuit devotion to the Ratio in fact becomes the embodiment of a much broader Christian ideal of college education that had led the Congregationalists to establish Williams College, the Baptists to sponsor Colgate, and the Methodists to support Wesleyan University. Over against this quite revered "denominational" ideal of a moral formation dedicated to shaping a "Christian manhood" trained for service in church and state, President Eliot of Harvard-in conjunction with other educational giants like Daniel Coit Gilman of The Johns Hopkins University and William Rainey Harper of the University of Chicago-came to see "traditional" liberal arts education like that embodied in the Jesuit system of higher education as being "rooted in the past and thus irrelevant to the wants of the day in modern, Protestant America" (p. …

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