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Schools and Education

Illiteracy

The roots of Irish deficiency were that great numbers could neither read nor write. A RR contractor told Horace Mann, Sec. of the Mass. Board of Ed., that within a period of 10 years he had employed about 3,000 foreigners, mostly Irish, of whom only 1 out of 8 could read intelligibly. It was estimated in 1845 that probably 20,000 immigrants lived in Boston and vicinity, of whom about 8,000 were reckoned as permanent residents. About 4,000 were above the age of 18, of whom perhaps 7/8 lacked the lowest degree of common-school education. "The present generation of Irish emigrants still feel the effects of these penal laws," an Irishman told the Mass. Board of Ed..
- G. Patton, To the Golden Door, p. 435

Parochial schools (New York)

The common school system of N.Y. City was unacceptable to Catholics. Until it was superseded in 1842 by an elected school board, the administration of these schools had been in the hands of the Public School Society, a state-chartered, private philanthropic body founded by Quakers in 1805; its members decidedly Protestant in their views. Catholics objected to daily Bible readings from a translation which the Church condemned. They complained that the Protestant teachers commented upon the scriptures in a manner derogatory to Catholicism, & that school textbooks "abound in false & contemptuous passages respecting the Catholic Church."
The Catholics organized a separate parochial school system. The clergy conducted classes in church basements & other modest locations but the shortage of adequate school buildings & competent teachers handicapped their efforts. The parochial schools were crowded to capacity, yet accommodated less than 1/2 the Catholic children of the city. Bishop Hughes estimated about 1840 that Catholic institutions provided for only 4,000 to 5,000 of the 9,000 to 12,000 Catholic children of school age. In the next 15 years the number of Catholic school children tripled, yet teachers remained scarce. In 1856 the parochial schools, convents, & seminaries averaged one teacher for every 60-75 pupils.
- Robt. Ernst, Imm. Life in N.Y. City, chap. XII

In New York City in 1840 the schools were under the control of the Public School Society, a benevolent assoc., formed in 1805 to care for the instruction of children financially unable to attend religious or private schools.
Catholics had a just cause for complaint against this monopoly. The King James version of the Bible was read daily in the schools, & regular prayers, singing, & religious instruction were not in accord with Catholic belief. History books emphasized the corruptions of Catholicism. The presence of these books in a public school system receiving support from the state was rightly resented by Catholics.
In 1840 Gov. Wm. H. Seward pointed out that many immigrant children were kept out of school because of the sectarian nature of the instruction. Bishop Hughes asked that public funds be given Catholic schools. His request was refused by the Common Council in 1841. The fall election was hard-fought on this issue. Hughes urged political action & called Catholics to political rallies. His move for a separate party brought about the defeat of the Democrats.
In January 1842 a bill was introduced to the legislature which would reorganize N.Y. City schools, eliminating the Public School Society and putting control in the hands of commissioners elected in each ward. The bill passed in the Democratic legislature. On the night the bill was passed the N.Y. streets were filled with mobs which pursued luckless Irishmen & stoned the windows of Bishop Hughes' home, forcing the calling out of the militia to guard Catholic churches.
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(New York City) Many children of foreigners were completely untouched by the public school system, which was ill-equipped physically & ideologically to accommodate the youth of the slums... The sons & daughters of impoverished newcomers augmented the ranks of the uneducated, some working in shops or at home to help support their families, others walking the streets as newsboys, peddlers, beggars, & vagrants...
In 1852, in the 11th Ward, with a large foreign population, only 7,000 of the 12,000 children between the ages of 5 & 16 attended school. In 1856 a census of the area east of 3rd Avenue in the 18th Ward showed that nearly half the children between the ages of 5 & 15 did not go to school. Half of these were immigrants & undoubtedly many of those born in the U.S. were of foreign parentage. In the entire city between 1856 & 1863, at least 30,000 to 40,000 children were untouched by any schools, public or private, secular or religious. The proportion of children attending school actually dropped 10% between 1850 & 1856.
- Robt. Ernst, Imm. Life in N.Y. City, chap. XII
There were public evening schools authorized by the state legislature in 1848. Each year hundreds of foreign-born working people, both male & female, learned the English language or received vocational training in these schools.

- Ibid.