Building Moral Bridges: The Childhood Experiences of Women Who Attended Parochial Schools in the 1950s and 1960s and the Role of the Theory of Care Which Shaped Families and Communities.

Author:Brevetti, Melissa


Moral education has a long history that is a major means of socialization, whether the community is explicit or not in passing down principles. Parochial education emphasizes, in particular, many specific practices and curriculum in order to develop moral behaviors. However, it is what specifically shapes women to focus on these moral commitments across lifetimes that is questioned. Childhood moral experiences can be one of the most enlightening ways to gain insight into a person's intellectual and moral development. Most interestingly, some research indicates that highly moral people do not necessarily have superior levels of moral reasoning abilities. (1) Yet there is little evidence about the moral shaping and commitment of women who have received specific training in virtue-ethics.

During the time period of the 1950s and 1960s, nuns and priests who taught young women in Catholic education prioritized two key factors from the universal school text, called the Baltimore Catechism: first, the students memorized and understood the doctrine, which consisted of a study manual of questions and answers; and second, they were guided to live the tenets of faith in order to pass down the practices. (2) This nature of Catholic schooling was promoted by the community, as the parents and parish members fully supported the clergy to instruct and instill principles so that the youth preserved this moral training. Therefore, this research study shows the relationship between women's moral development that relates to the ethic of care from their parochial schooling and long-term sustainability of virtues.

Contextualizing the Inquiry and Purpose

Because I am specifically exploring the moral experiences of women who went to traditional Catholic schools, much of what is called the "tenets of faith" are directly referring to the religious instruction from the Baltimore Catechism. Developed and patterned after Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theological, (3) this student text also involved questions with memorized responses. Historian and philosopher of education, Neil Gerard McCluskey contended that "since the time of Archbishop Hughes in New York and the controversial 1840s, the Catholic position on education has remained substantially the same." (4) Students are to study the sacraments, prayers, and principles. In sum, Catholic children learned from the Baltimore Catechism in schools from the time it was first produced in the 1840s until about 1970 as the primary resource to explain traditional beliefs and practices.

This oral history research is, I suggest, a poignant set of stories intended to gain cultural insight, rather than generalize, into the moral experiences of women who attended Catholic parochial schools during the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. Furthermore, as a qualitative research design, I will include the seven narrative summaries that show how the participants' lives which provide the context and connections. Theses backgrounds are critical stitches in the overall fabric to understand the collective, emergent themes. All of the life stories in this article illustrate a special linkage from their parents who advocated a Catholic education to the clergy who taught of moral consciousness in a didactic style to the participants' own deontological thinking and action as they created moral bridges between their childhood teachings and life experiences. The community adults viewed the parochial schools as a vehicle to transmit social and cultural beliefs to the next generation.

Historically, parochial schools emerged and flourished slowly but grew rapidly when millions of ambitious, albeit poor, immigrants established roots in the United States between 1820 and 1920. With an increasing Catholic immigrant population, by 1965, the Catholic parochial schools had reached an all-time high in enrollment, representing approximately 12% of American students at 5.6 million students. (5) Therefore, many immigrants and second-generation immigrants wanted their own children to learn and to live moral lessons in a safe space while their ethnic practices were passed down, they stressed assimilation into mid-1900s American culture without losing their Roman Catholic faith in the process. (6) Many community members of the Church saw this as a way to shape leaders of the future who would lead with principles--that is, memorized and practiced tenets from the Baltimore Catechism throughout their Catholic schooling--and would ultimately protect the praxis.

Most significantly, in contrast to male moral experiences, these storied interviews reveal experiences that put emphasis on the responsibilities, compromises, and opportunities that women were given at this point in time and place. A psychologist and innovator of moral-relationship research, Carol Gilligan critiqued the work of early moral development theories, which often used male subjects who adjusted rules and role-taking in order to resolve conflicts. (7) She noticed that "rather than elaborating a system of rules for resolving disputes, girls subordinated the continuation of the game to the continuation of relationships." (8) Her work challenged earlier studies, in which women frequently identify and judge themselves through other relationships and their nurturing. (9)

Gilligan's research is not without critics. (10) Yet her work demonstrates a clear intuitiveness about the situations and/or reasoning of women throughout history. Similarly, in Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, Nel Nodding extends this idea and thus develops the classic theory of care. (11) She explains that moral decisions are complex in a feminine way, because women "do give reasons for their acts, but the reasons often point to feelings, needs, impressions, and a sense of personal ideal rather than universal principles and their application." (12) Therefore, drawing on Noddings' thesis as a framework, this research study provides insight into the roles of women who were graduates of Catholic parochial schooling and their responsibilities toward family and community. That schooling traditionally served social and moral ends points us, as a result, to the way that this 1950s and 1960s parochial schooling holds a specific place in our culture, especially from women's perspectives on moral shaping. As Jane Roland Martin aptly explains, "The making of cultures and the making of individuals go hand in hand. Cultures are composed of individuals. Thus, when schooling makes and shapes an individual, it is also making and shaping the culture to which that individual belongs." (13) In this carefully designed study, the primary source for this inquiry was the oral history interviews, The interviews were conducted by the researcher, using the lens of the theory of care for analysis and interpretation. The purpose of this study is to understand how adult women perceive their moral experiences in Catholic parochial schooling during this time period, and how these situations--often involving social conflicts and introspective resolutions--shaped participants' lives.

Oral History Research as Methodology: Women Participants' Stories Shed Light on Moral Life Lessons

This section expounds oral history research as methodology by gathering participants' narratives as the data collection in order to most effectively elicit honest information and to share storied experiences. Seven interviewees (pseudonyms given) were contacted through the snowball method of connecting other participants who meet the eligibility criteria and met a few times for clarifications after the initial meeting with the signed consent form that was developed from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. This sample was purposefully chosen since the depth of responses would explain how participants themselves connected their moral life lessons to earlier Catholic tenets, whether they evolved, confirmed, or disagreed with those Baltimore Catechism principles. They were asked questions from an interview guide, which prompted them to explore their lives, in terms of family background, education, and profession, in addition to their most significant moral experiences in school. Past memories are the foundation of oral history investigations so that, moreover, these living testimonies are viewed, aggregated, and interpreted as data.

After in-depth interviews, participants read the transcripts and met again for follow-up clarifications. To explain their moral reasoning and action more fully, I asked these participants to highlight, in particular, their most influential moral experiences...

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