The Department of Education Battle, 1918-1932: Public Schools, Catholic Schools, and the Social Order

reviewed by Benjamin Justice - 2006

coverTitle: The Department of Education Battle, 1918-1932: Public Schools, Catholic Schools, and the Social Order
Author(s): Douglas J. Slawson
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN
ISBN: 0268041105, Pages: 332, Year: 2005
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Traditionally, research on the relationship between religion and public education in the United States has brought with it an unusually strong sense of passion. Histories of Catholic education through most of the 20th century resembled promotional literature—defensive, parochial, and oversimplified.  They argued that despite overwhelmingly hostile public schools, Catholics united to preserve their customs and faith, emerging as champions of traditional American values. Histories of public education were similarly myopic, ignoring nonpublic schools and denying the role of religion in the development of supposedly neutral public education. Revisionist scholarship from both perspectives has challenged these notions, questioning the unity of Catholic attitudes toward education; challenging the religious neutrality of public schools; and suggesting ways in which Catholics, Protestants, and other religious groups settle their differences at the local level.

Douglas J. Slawson's book, The Department of Education Battle, 1918–1932: Public Schools, Catholic Schools, and the Social Order (2005), contributes to this growing body of revisionist scholarship. Most major studies of religion and public education focus on the 19th century, examining the common school reform period before the Civil War and the emergence of religion and education in national politics in the 1870s and 1890s. Slawson's narrative picks up where these stories leave off—at the close of World War One, when progressive reform profoundly reshaped all levels of education in the United States. Historians who do study this period typically gravitate to two issues—the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Supreme Court decision in Pierce vs. Society of Sisters (both in 1925).   Slawson chooses to follow a different path: the long, sustained, and ultimately unsuccessful effort to establish a Department of Education at the federal level. From 1918 to 1932, leading “administrative progressives” attempted to nationalize public education, lobbying for the creation of a Department of Education, national standards, a massive federal aid package, and—Slawson suggests—compulsory public education. Looking at historical failures can be every bit as useful as looking at successes, and this book on legislation that didn’t happen adds a new dimension to our understanding of the Pierce decision, the NEA, the development of a national Catholic lobbying organization, and the religious dimension of Progressive reform in education.

The Department of Education Battle is a straightforward political history, organized chronologically, and built primarily upon an analysis of four national organizations: proponents of federal involvement, including the National Education Association (NEA) and its odd bedfellows, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) and the Southern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite (a masonic organization), and the main opponents of federal involvement, the National Catholic Welfare Council/Conference (NCWC), a lobbying arm of the Roman Catholic Church in America. The NCWC figures most prominently in the analysis, and generally Slawson's narrative is from the point of view of that organization as it struggled to formulate a coherent public face to Church policy in opposition to the NEA’s legislation. As Slawson shows, mistrust, misunderstanding, and (of course) self-interest influenced the protagonists on both sides of the debate, though Slawson suggests that the mistrust on the part of fearful Catholics was well placed. Ultimately, he argues, both sides fundamentally misunderstood each other because they had different definitions of what it meant to be an American.

The great strength of this book is in its details. The author is an able writer, and backed by an impressive array of archival sources, he shows a nuanced portrait of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in America that was anything but the menacing and monolithic regime that paranoid Protestants feared. Church leaders, lay Catholic politicians, and Catholic newspapers expressed many different reactions to nationalizing education.  Slawson’s analysis is especially adept at piecing together the development of a coherent public face for the Church from among many different opinions and at blending his analysis of the four main groups into scholarship on national politics. At times Slawson also reveals important ironies. For example, while the NCWC struggled to argue that the Catholic Church upheld the American ideals of democracy and localism, it suddenly found itself dissolved by papal fiat, only to be reinstated much closer to the Vatican's heel (p. 100–105). In a similar irony, Progressive administrative leaders in the NEA employed “top-down democracy” in their efforts to reorganize American education in order, they argued, to preserve American democratic ideals. Democracy in education, like other beauties, was in the eye of the beholder.

On the level of explanation, however, The Department of Education Battle is not quite as satisfying.  Throughout the book, Slawson argues that the differences between the aims of the Catholic Church and its opponents amounted to cultural pluralism versus cultural monism.  Of the proponents of federal action, including compulsory schooling, Slawson writes,

For Klansmen and Masons, the matter had nothing to do with religion as such; rather, it was a campaign for 100 percent Americanism and traditional Anglo-Saxon culture. Viewing political Romanism as tyranny and therefore antithetical to democracy, supporters believed that parochial schools were seedbeds of foreignism, nurturing children on principles antagonistic to true Americanism. (p. 109)

This is an adept summary of the heated rhetoric of Klan and Scottish Rite publications, but it is also a caricature. Slawson leaves important questions unanswered: Into what broad intellectual and political context did these notions fit? What were the central tenets of freemasons who, during the Know Nothing era of the 19th century, were persecuted together with Catholics as being un-American? What did Scottish Rite and the KKK mean by “political Romanism"?  Slawson begins to explore some of these questions, but not with nearly the depth and agility that he treats the NCWC's inner workings.

Of Catholics, Slawson writes,

[They] viewed their schools as bulwarks of democracy and traditional values. For them, the secularization rampant in public education represented the abandonment of the founding fathers' vision of America as a Christian nation and the forsaking of their understanding that religion formed an integral part of schooling. As Catholics saw it, the nationalist philosophy of education propounded by the NEA, the Southern Jurisdiction, and the Klan made the child a creature of the state, a theory that undermined both parental rights and the freedom of education. Considering this philosophy un-American—out of harmony with America's educational past—Catholics viewed themselves as defenders of the nation's educational tradition. (p. 109)

This summary reflects the rhetoric of Catholic Church school promoters, but deserves closer analysis as well. George Washington, himself a freemason, would have ground his wooden teeth to learn that the Roman Catholic Church—which the founding fathers generally viewed as an agent of political repression and antirepublican sentiment—would someday claim to represent his aims for the American republic. The Roman Catholic Church in the United States of the 1920s was indeed a pluralistic and socially conscious organization within limits, but Church leaders at the time (straight up to the Vatican) had a troubling penchant for fascism and an intolerance for criticism within the church, not to mention religions outside of it.  A closer examination of these issues would shed more light on the politics beneath the rhetoric. Candid remarks by Cardinal O'Connell (p. 174) for example, reveal the “Romanist” orientation of key figures in the American hierarchy and a deep distrust of American government that deserves further analysis. In short, the traditional defensiveness of Catholic educational histories still lingers in this narrative.

Opening up a broader political investigation could lead to a more satisfactory understanding of the NEA's position on parochial schooling as well. Slawson cautiously argues that the NEA sought to eliminate nonpublic schools altogether, either through compulsory public education or through competition with better funded public schools. (p. 245–246)  Slawson bases this theory on guilt-by-association. Because of the views of a fey key progressive leaders and because the Scottish Rite and the Klan supported the same measures as the NEA, he argues, the NEA largely endorsed their desire to outlaw private and parochial education. The evidence in this volume is suggestive and important, but by no means conclusive.

Finally, the author's choice at the outset to focus on the reformers whom David Tyack has called  “administrative progressives,” while abandoning “pedagogical progressives”  such as John Dewey and “social reconstructionists” like George Counts, is a reasonable choice, but a limiting one (for categories, see Tyack, 1974). Were the intellectual traditions and teachings of the Catholic Church compatible with the views of leading progressive educational thinkers? Scholarship by John McGreevey (1997), for example, suggests not. A broader intellectual context would add considerably to the story that Douglas Slawson tells.

In any event, however, the fine book that Slawson has written makes a significant contribution to the history of American education in the early 20th century and will serve as an indispensable resource for researchers interested in progressive educational reform, church and state issues in education, and federal involvement in education. It raises important questions and provides a solid framework for further investigation.


McGreevey,  John T. (1997). “Thinking on one’s own: Catholicism in the American intellectual imagination, 1928–1960,” The Journal of American History (June): 97–131.

Tyack, David B. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 877-881 ID Number: 12130, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 6:59:56 AM

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