Bishop Joseph McFadden of Harrisburg, PA made this regrettable statement recently with regards to the public schools in his diocese.

“In totalitarian governments, they would love our system,” McFadden said to during the interview. “This is what Hitler and Mussolini and all those tried to establish a monolith so all the children would be educated in one set of beliefs and one way of doing things.”

And there wasn’t a person in the diocese who thought that this was a bad idea? Who reviewed this? And why wasn’t their response, “I get your point, Bishop, but that’s not the way to say that. You’re going to offend people if you write or say that.” It seems the communications department is asleep at the wheel.

This is beside the fact that the statement is not accurate. Public schools (of which I am a product–elementary and high school) are quite diverse in their thinking. They teach many ways of looking at a problem, not a monolithic way. Being at a public university where that kind of diversity is valued has furthered my thinking in this area. Openness is of the highest possible value it seems on public campuses be they High School, College or even grammar schools.

Now that being said, I’m not opposed to school vouchers or in disagreement that people can choose to send their kid to whatever school they choose. I would say that that choice includes public schools and in promoting education, Catholic Schools shouldn’t have to put public schools down, by comparing them to fascism in order to lift themselves up.

Some additional thoughts on public vs. Catholic or private schools.

From Kindergarten to 6th grade I attended Public School in Yonkers, P.S. #23 to be exact. I got a phenomenal education there. My two favorite teachers were Mrs. Balassi and Mrs. Richter–two old school style teachers who expected much and still kept a gentle hand.

When I got to “Middle” school, my parents decided that I should attend our parish school instead of Enrico Fermi Middle School, our local public school. Fermi had a bad reputation. It was a wild place, as any place with a large number of teens, a lot of experimenting was happening. I remember finding two of my childhood friends smoking at 13 on my walk home. I’d hear stories of people getting drunk. One of my classmates got pregnant that year and despite being in a public school (gasp! #sarcasm), she had the baby, raised it well and sacrificed much for her child as a single mother.

Meanwhile, I attended Mt. Carmel-St. Anthony School. The school day itself was probably more sedate than what you’d find at Fermi and we were loaded up with homework every night, but the teens were no less wild than anyone else. Girls flirted and hiked their skirts up often higher than the public school girls. We found one girl smoking just off school grounds. There were drinking parties and sexual hijinx all around us then and the nice quiet little school did little to protect us from those things. Moreover, I think I received more abuse there from kids than from other schools. Apparently, I was the nerd and that gave others carte blanche to take aim at my awkwardness. More bullies existed there than anywhere else. And there was certainly plenty of trouble just beyond the school gates.

What protected me from finding that trouble often? I really was a good kid and even when friends would smoke or experiment, I didn’t find myself even wanting to at that age or even through high school. (My first beer was at Clarke’s Bar at Fordham!) What protected me was the rational guidance of my parents. We lived in a neighborhood that wasn’t always great, drugs were around, alcohol use was fairly pervasive amongst the families of my friends. Domestic violence, arson, and even a murder–all occurred in the neighborhood of my youth. Some parents are indeed heroes. And mine were certainly heroes for me. They had expectations of how I would behave and while I don’t remember ever being seriously punished for anything, I thought there would be repercussions for my actions if I stepped out of bounds.

High school had me return to public school and while the ship was run bit looser there, by no means was it a zoo. Could it have been better? Certainly. But did I get a good education there? Absolutely. It was there I learned to write well (Thanks to Mrs. Gladys Stein). Coaches began to take in interest in my gift for broadcasting and for sports. I honed speaking and science skills. I became a student leader despite nerdy-ness. And my parents kept me out of trouble, by demanding curfews, an adherence to homework and an expected respect for others.

And they did it all without cable TV–because they didn’t want to pay the $21/month for it. No internet either. I did have a sleek Atari 2600 though.

So when a Bishop says essentially that public schools are akin to fascism, I cry foul! Parents are not merely responsible for the choice of school their child attends–they are even more responsible for the values that they instill in their child, so that the school might enhance those values and the student might appropriate both the school’s values with what they’ve learned from their parents.

So Bishop, no offense, I get your point, but maybe the time has come to take a look at what kinds of lives the students in your diocese are leading outside of the classroom. And talk about that–if you can.