(Reprinted with permission from the Harvard Educational Review, written by Mildred Carstensen.)

Philip Gleason’s Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century reveals the extent of change that has taken place in Roman Catholic universities and colleges since the turn of the century. Writing from an “internalist” perspective, Gleason describes the transformation of Catholic universities in the context of the emergence of the modern American university, two World Wars, and the social and political upheavals of the 1960s. Gleason reveals how Catholic educators and intellectuals in the United States made the transition from a “cold war” struggle that challenged modernity to an accommodation and acceptance of it. He considers how that transition influenced the growth of research and graduate training, university prestige, curriculum and classroom instruction, student activism, and academic freedom for faculty.

In Part One, Gleason outlines the organizational “revolution” that arose at the turn of the century in response to Catholics’ aspirations for economic and social mobility and to competition from rapidly developing and, in the public mind, “superior,” public high schools and state universities. Catholic educational reformers developed a comprehensive professional association, the National Catholic Educational Association, to address the extensive institutional fragmentation that some Catholic observers described as similar to a “boiler explosion.” These educators fundamentally reformed the articulation between secondary schools and colleges, clarified the relation between colleges and universities, and, stimulated by progressive developments during and after World War I, established principles of accreditation in line with national norms, as well as ideas of research and faculty dedication to scholarship.

In Part Two, Gleason turns to ideological challenges. Here he describes the congruence between conservatism in Catholic higher education and the intellectual revival of scholastic philosophy and theology. Gleason argues that subsequently, between World War I and the Second Vatican Council, neoscholasticism in Catholic higher education raised educators’ hopes that they could create within their colleges and universities a culture that would overcome the flaws of secularism and the culture of modernity. Colleges and universities became centers for the diffusion of this countercultural perspective among Catholics and in American public life.

In Part Three, Gleason asserts that Catholic educators of the thirties were convinced that advanced study and research could continue to grow within the framework of a Catholic worldview. Nevertheless, Catholic educators continued the challenge to modernity unabated into the 1940s and 1950s. This challenge found expression in critiques of scientific naturalism, reaffirmation of agitation against birth control, involvement of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae in Legion of Decency film boycotts, and the suppression of academic freedom.

Gleason concludes his narrative with the transition to a new “era.” As reasons for the shift, he names an emergent Americanism (an enthusiasm for national values) among younger scholars, increased Catholic receptivity to charges of anti-intellectualism, “backwardness,” and ghetto mentality in Catholic higher education, and the dismissal of a desiccated and formalistic Thomism as the center of liberal arts education. Turning points include the defeat of a speakers’ ban at the Catholic University of America in 1963 and academic freedom cases at St. John’s University, the University of Dayton, and Catholic University (the Curran tenure case) [In Trust, Spring 1996, pp. 16-17]. Freedom manifested itself in the laicization of boards of trustees and the “Land O’ Lakes Statement” proclaiming that a Catholic university must enjoy “true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” Thus, according to this author, we have witnessed the end of an era. The final chapter, Gleason suggests, is yet to be written by Catholic educators. Their challenge now is the “lack of consensus as to the substantive content of the ensemble of religious beliefs, moral commitments, and academic assumptions that supposedly constitute Catholic identity, and a consequent inability to specify what that identity entails for the practical functioning of Catholic colleges and universities.”

The question Catholic educators have yet to answer as our century closes is whether they will be able to forge and build upon a new rationale for their existence as a distinctive element in American higher education.

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