When the tiresome complaint arose again recently on a television program about the nuns of yesteryear hitting Catholic schoolchildren on the knuckles with a ruler, we undertook a nostalgic time trip back to the days when we sat in such nuns' classrooms.
We remember how the nuns prepared us for confirmation. Day after day leading up to the event, our entire eighth-grade class was directed to an assembly area, where we stood in formation in several rows, well spaced so the nun could walk between us, stand directly in front of us, or behind us. The nun would reach into her habit and pull out the Baltimore Catechism. We knew she would question each of us in order, but we didn't know which question she would ask — we had to know the answer to every one!
It was the same for math and English: memorize the tables and the rules, diagram sentences, and be ready for a test. The slow learners were ordered to stay after school or to come to school an hour early the next day. The nun would line up these slackers along the side wall of the classroom and drill them one at a time. Those who didn't catch on soon realized they'd never pass to the next grade; sometimes the nun threatened to take a poor performer back to a lower grade classroom that very moment! The kids quickly shaped up and applied themselves to learning in order to avoid the humiliation. It was an iron-fisted approach and it worked.
The Catholic high schools we attended were single-sex institutions — boys attended boys' schools; girls attended girls' schools. One of the reasons for the separation was the difficulty of disciplining boys. In one boys' school, the assistant headmaster, a priest, was heard to say, "If we didn't have the nuns, we couldn't keep discipline."
In light of the current debate over American versus Chinese teaching methods, borne in large part from Amy Chua's bestselling memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it seems only appropriate to christen the tough-as-nails, ruler-wielding nuns of the twentieth century "Tiger Nuns." They were not vicious, man-eating tigers but lovable tigers — though they were demanding and effective. In our comparison of the major differences between Chinese and American teaching styles, we found that a number of the Chinese approaches are strikingly similar to the methods used by the nuns who taught us.
More significant than the nuns' rulers was what they accomplished in teaching us. Up until the mid-1960s the Tiger Nuns told the students what they must learn. Contrast this with the "modern" approach, where it seems the students tell the teacher (or decide for themselves) what they want, think they need, or are willing to take away from the available material. Educators believe that the modern method, known as the "facilitator approach," helps build self-esteem in students and develops their thinking, reasoning, and creative abilities. But reasoning to what end — a conclusion arranged to meet the preferences of the reasoner?
Might the shift away from the teaching methods favored by the Tiger Nuns — not to mention the disappearance of the Tiger Nuns themselves from educational institutions — have something to do with it? It seems that the old rap on the knuckles has been replaced by a blow to the brain.
The nuns started teaching in Catholic schools soon after the founding of our nation. Their numbers grew slowly and steadily, peaking at 104,314 in 1965. But by 2002 that figure plummeted by a staggering 94 percent. The number of parochial grade-school students peaked at nearly 4,500,000 in 1965, but by 2002 had declined by 70 percent. In little over a generation, a magnificent educational edifice collapsed, and a way of religious life all but disappeared.
The total effort and results of the work of the Tiger Nuns contributed immeasurably to the steady growth of Catholicism and the development of our country. In one community after another, individual stories of incredible resourcefulness and creativity in the building of schools, curricula, and convents; the recruiting of more nuns; and, often against great odds, the raising of money to repeat the process over and over can be found in John Fialka's book Sisters. It is a moving account of the ingenuity of nuns throughout America in their determination to pass along the faith.
How do we measure the loss of the Tiger Nuns, their productivity and accomplishments? About forty years after graduating from a Catholic high school, we sent questionnaires to every classmate, now living in 22 states, asking for their opinions about discipline. Our unscientific survey was undertaken totally independent from the school, yet 60 percent of the class responded. Some questions and answers were as follows:
None of the respondents mentioned fear of the ruler or any excessive disciplinary measures. The class appreciated what the nuns did for them. By and large, the class bemoaned the absence of strong discipline today: "No more nuns or priests" (in the schools); "Lack of values, loss of virtues"; "Parents' poor attitude"; "Not enough attention of parents."
In the world today, China and other Asian nations consistently turn out the best-educated students. In 2007 the U.S. education system ranked a dismal 14th in reading skills, 17th in science, and 25th in math among 34 countries (not including China). Yet there is still considerable debate about which system is best — theirs or ours.
Recently, we went back to our eighth-grade classrooms, located in two cities 100 miles apart. The schools are still in operation but, save for a single exception, the nuns are gone. In today's educational, spiritual, and cultural malaise, we sorely miss the Tiger Nuns. They didn't teach for money; they didn't teach for retirement benefits; they didn't teach for an easy life. They taught in poverty; they taught for the love of God; and we, their students, benefited. Imagine how different our nation would be today, imagine the strengths the Catholic Church would enjoy, if the Tiger Nuns' single-minded dedication to strict and effective education had carried forward into the present.
Requiescant in pace.
This article is reprinted with permission from the New Oxford Review.
The New Oxford Review is an orthodox Catholic magazine that explores ideas concerning faith and culture. The New Oxford Review was founded in 1977 as an Anglo-Catholic magazine in the Anglican tradition, taking its name from the 19th-century Oxford Movement. Like the Movement’s leading luminary, John Henry Newman, the NOR converted to Roman Catholicism in 1983, inspired by the dynamic, thoughtful papacy of John Paul II.
Richard & Elizabeth Gerbracht, who have retired after operating their own research and consulting firm, write from Hudson, Ohio.
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