The Catholic bishop of Harrisburg, Pa., Bishop Joseph McFadden is being criticized for comments where he compares American public schools to the system that Hitler and Mussolini sought to create. I actually think that part of the criticism of McFadden is misplaced, though he is certainly worthy of criticism. McFadden’s controversial statements follow a call for Catholics to organize against President Obama and his health care program by leading Catholic leaders.
In an interview with the ABC affiliate in Harrisburg, McFadden was objecting to the lack of school vouchers in Pennsylvania and the lack of choice for many parents: “In the totalitarian government, they would love our system,” McFadden said. “This is what Hitler and Mussolini and all them tried to establish — a monolith; so all the children would be educated in one set of beliefs and one way of doing things.” The Anti-Defamation League has condemned the statement and said “he should not be making his point at the expense of the memory of six million Jews and millions of others who perished in the Holocaust.”
I understand the sensitivity to such a comparison, but I do not think that the Bishop was referring to the Holocaust. People should be able to make comparisons to aspects of prior totalitarian regimes without fear of being call insensitive to the Holocaust. The Nazi regime was a worldwide tragedy with many aspects and precursors that are the subject of historical and political discourse.
Where McFadden is wrong is that the comparison is wildly misplaced. First, Hitler was raised by a devout Catholic mother and many Nazis were taught in religious schools. Indeed, the Vatican was criticized by some for not doing more to confront the Nazi regime. Second, the fascists sought to use schools to indoctrinate children to accept narrow values to the exclusion of other values and the objectification of other people. American public schools do the opposite. They are motivated by pluralistic principles to help shape citizens who are tolerant and well-rounded. They are the antithesis of what fascists want from education.
Finally, this is about vouchers and whether the people of Pennsylvania should subsidize alternative schools, such as Catholic schools. With the church experiencing severe shortfalls in attendance and donations, they need more from the state more than ever. However, there are very good reasons for opposition to vouchers. I attended Catholic schools for part of my earlier education and I am very thankful for the education that I received in those schools. However, Leslie and I are committed to the model of public education. While we can afford a private education, we have kept our children in public schools where they are taught in a more diverse class. I have long been an advocate for public education, particularly in the elementary and middle school levels, as a critical part of shaping good citizens. While I have often been critical of the curriculum particularly on civics, I believe that the public schools have always been the key to maintaining a citizenry that is educated and tolerant.
The comparison to Hitler and Mussolini reflects less disrespect on the part of Bishop McFadden than it does a lack of understanding of the fascistic agenda on education: dogma and exclusionary learning. While I believe Catholic schools are excellent choices for learning, it is outrageous to compare fascistic systems to our public schools. Hitler and Mussolini would find our current curriculum in public schools to be a threat to their type of indoctrination model for children.