Book Learnin’

By way of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, I reviewed Kevin Myers’ memoir of the Northern Ireland troubles, Watching the Door, for Taki’s Magazine. (Review not yet posted.)

I noticed the following curiosity on p.159, though I didn’t include it in my review.

Within the Protestant folklore [i.e. of working-class Northern Ireland] Catholics were immigrants from backward, southern Ireland …  into Protestant Ulster. Catholics didn’t keep their word, and were lazy and ignorant; and indeed there were elements of truth in the broadstroke mythologies.

For there was a dysfunctional quality to Catholic education. Catholic schools did not teach engineering, metalwork, or mechanical drawing — and this in an economy which had been traditionally based on engineering. So, if a business was looking for a fifteen-year-old apprentice, which would it choose — the little Catholic lad with his Latin, or the Protestant boy with an entire array of technical skills?

To be sure, there was little enough evidence that engineering firms were thirsting to give jobs to Catholics: but the Catholic educational system actually made discrimination against Catholics wiser to implement. For Catholic schools had their eyes on the professions: low achievement for the unscholarly was a pathological norm within Catholic working-class society. One can loathe [Provisional IRA terrorist commanders] Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams and their deeds, yet at the same time recognize that they are men of extraordinary intelligence and talent. Both left school without a single qualification, McGuinness to become an apprentice butcher, Adams to become a barman.

This prompted a number of thoughts. There is, for example, the broad educational issue probed in Charles Murray’s recent book Real Education, about the overly academic emphasis of current U.S. public education, with its implicit assumption that every student is headed for law school — what Steve Sailer calls the “Yale or jail” approach. My son’s school has no shop classes.  This seems to be the same educational problem Myers is talking about.

Then I got to wondering if this a true thing about Catholic education in general. I have no clue, but perhaps readers with an experience of parochial education in the U.S. might offer opinions. It does seem to be broadly true, in my experience anyway, that there’s a sort of nit-picking argumentativeness that you find much more in well-educated Catholics than in others. Do Catholic educators spend so much time hammering grand metaphysical schemas into their students’ heads — the blessed Aristotle, the sainted Aquinas, and the rest — and training them in arguments they can use to confound heretics and unbelievers, they have no time for anything practical? It fits with the general high quality of Catholic intellectuals (assuming you like intellectuals …), but I’m really just curious to hear opinions.

Kevin Myers is himself Irish-Catholic, by the way, though he was raised in England.

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21 Responses to Book Learnin’

  1. Paul Casey says:

    In response to your query, two points:

    (1) Catholic intellectuals have to apologise not only for black-letter scripture (which would be challenge enough) but for the “vast, moth-eaten brocade” of church law, lore, regulation and dogma. Not only that, but they must prove – not least to themselves – that the one infallible church is correct in each and every respect. This exercise requires a great deal more skill and precision than merely asserting, as a good Muslim would do, that Mohammed ascended to heaven on a winger hourse because the Koran tells him so;

    (2) and relatedly, a good Protestant will take matters on faith. A good Catholic intellectual cannot: the church teaches that its doctrines are not only capable of, but actuallly grounded in, rational explanation. Hence the otherwise weird obsession with “proofs” with which Catholic literature is scattered – of Aquinas, of the Turin Shroud, of I.D., of unfeasibly early dates for papyrus fragments etc.

  2. Ploni Almoni says:

    Why do you accept Myers’ explanation uncritically? Sounds like a Just So story to me, and an especially dubious one at that. Look at the last sentence in his first paragraph, and ask how convincingly it’s explained by the second paragraph (“For…”), even assuming the second paragraph is factually true. Unless this Myers fellow gave some really strong evidence in support of his claim which you haven’t quoted here, my guess is that he’s just making it up as he goes along.

    Who knows why Catholics (i.e., Irishmen) were untrustworthy, lazy, and ignorant? I’m a little surprised that you ignore the possibility of genetic influence (Irishmen and Ulsterman are genealogically different, right?). Even if you look for strictly environmental explanations, there are a lot more likely suspects than Catholic education.

  3. Bradlaugh says:

    I’ve been reading Myers for 20 years, and found him a reliable reporter. (This means: when he’s writing about some topic I actually know well, he gets it right.)

    His second paragraph is an excellent hypothetical explanation of his first. If it is true that Catholic schools of that time and place concentrate on pounding away at Latin & apologetics — things few healthy boys can be interested in — the end product will be a large proportion of lazy (never having bothered to work at school subjects they find dull) and ignorant (none of it having soaked in).

    He then offers McGuiness and Adams as two bright lads on whom the Catholic education was utterly wasted.

    I have no idea if his general thesis is true. I posted it, as I said, to hear responses. I don’t see that he can be faulted on internal logic, though. And please show me where I “accepted it uncritically.”

  4. Jeeves says:

    Interesting speculation, Derb.

    I went to a college prep public high school in San Francisco. There was no football field, let alone shop classes. My acquaintance with parochial school graduates began after law school, when I discovered that most of my drinking buddies were Irish Catholic–surprise!–lawyers.

    My guess would be that you’re right about parochial education highly skewing toward the professions. But Ploni Almoni does raise a good point: couldn’t there also be a genetic explanation? At what point did the people of Ulster come to be known as “Scotch-Irish?”

  5. Bradlaugh says:

    Protestant Ulstermen are ancestrally (and so, genetically) border Scots. That would be a mix of old Celt (“Pictish,” related to the ancient British & modern Welsh, but only tenuously to Gaelic Irish, & perhaps including pre-Celtic “Attecotti” elements), English, and Norse, in proportions I’d guess at about 2-1-3. The Gaelic Irish are some primitive pre-Celtic population, I forget the details, with an overlay of continental Celt. So genetically, about as far apart as occupants of the same group of islands have any right to be (though nothing like as far apart as Japanese & hairy Ainu).

    It’s a commonplace in Ulster, btw, or at any rate used to be, that the two tribes (Johnny Prod & Micky Taig) knew each other on sight. I don’t know if this has ever been rigorously tested under experimental conditions, though…

  6. Sviluppo says:


    Re: Shop Class

    I went to a really amazing public high school that had a lot of vocational offerings, but the classes themselves were pretty useless and considered placeholders for kids that couldn’t sit still in some other elective. I’m not bashing shop–in fact, one of the best things I ever did was take geometry and drafting/mechanical drawing the same year. But the shop class itself mostly consisted of make work projects. Where did I get to do the cool, useful stuff? Theatre.

    When we built sets (and I did enough construction I had my own keys to the wood shop), they were for an actual purpose, and if the sets weren’t strong enough someone could get seriously injured, perhaps one of the cute actresses we were all trying to land. And even though the school offered auto shop, welding, and the aforementioned wood shop, there was no electrical program. But I also did lighting for the theatre, and learned a hell of a lot about the subject in a short period of time.

    The best thing about this is that there was very little instruction from the teachers, especially since so much of the work took place after school or in the middle of the night. It was more of an informal apprentice program, with the older students teaching the younger students and knowing that if someone lost a finger, there would be hell to pay. Granted, most of us already knew the basics due to our fathers, but we had pure neophytes that became great craftsmen within a semester.

    I didn’t go into any of the manual trades after school, but the hard skills I learned in theatre have served me well for the past fifteen years since graduation.

  7. Bradlaugh says:

    Sviluppo: You are quite right. I painted some scenery for a school play once, not much, but I do recall the people involved were INVOLVED in a way hardly anyone was in formal classes. It was a musical in fact (Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore”) so the school orchestra was out in front practicing at the same time. Real education.

    My favorite niece (sister’s daughter) is married to a lighting engineer for the National Theater over in London. Good job, lotsa travel, hobnobs with famous, etc. Damn sight better than being a lawyer.

  8. Danny says:

    “It does seem to be broadly true… that there’s a sort of nit-picking argumentativeness that you find much more in well-educated Catholics than in others.”

    This is definitely in accord with my experience as well. My mother, a Catholic convert from a wishy-washy Protestant background, found this quality to be exasperating in many of her newfound cradle-Catholic friends – and now in her children.

    I also agree that there is a lack trade-based training in Catholic education – and a strong tendency to enter the legal profession (which is unsurprising given that Catholic education in general places a strong emphasis on formal logic and rhetoric). This is something I regretted a bit awhile ago – I’m now in dental school and begrudged my Catholic education the 2 extra years it cost me (not having been able to complete the requirements in chemistry and biology at my undergrad school. The subjects were not entirely lacking but placed more of an emphasis on the ‘philosophy of science’ than in the intricate, memorize-the-krebs-cycle details necessary for a test such as the MCAT or the DAT) to get started with my career. Now that I’m in though, I am glad I had the opportunity to get exposed to the great Catholic intellectual tradition. Many of my friends who are just now graduating from law school (and realizing that there’s quite a bit of Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw drudgery in their futures’) are expressing regret at running to the quickest professional degree available to them.

  9. Tom Piatak says:

    My Jesuit high school did not offer shop, but our principal rival, a Holy Cross school, did, at least at one point: a close friend’s father graduated from there around 1960, took shop courses, and went on to be an electrician. My impression is that there have long been Catholic high schools in the US offering some vocational courses.

    I also think that whatever may have been true of Catholic high schools in Ireland in the ’50s has zero relevance for Catholic education in the United States today. I had no apologetics in high school, and my theology courses offered little on Aquinas or Aristotle. What was actually emphasized in theology was service to others, an emphasis that has only gotten stronger since I graduated. I wrote about this for Takimag:

    Ignatius did have a strong and popular classics department when I went there, offering four years of Latin and three years of Greek. About 80% of us, including me, chose Latin as our foreign language, a choice I have never regretted, since Latin greatly improved my English vocabulary and grammar. Indeed, most of my knowledge of grammar comes from my high school Latin classes. The public school I attended before going to Ignatius did not teach grammar at all, and Ignatius assumed that English grammar had been covered in grade school.

    The principal impression the school left on me, then and now, was of excellence. The year I graduated, we had the third highest number of National Merit Finalists in Ohio, and the Jesuit high school in Cincinnati had the highest number. Both the students and the teachers were there because they wanted to be, unlike the public school junior high I had left to go there. My high school history teacher, who remains a good friend, is the best teacher I have had anywhere, and most of my other teachers were first rate. There also was no nonsense in the curriculum: we were all required to take four years of mathematics, four years of science, four years of English, and four years of a foreign language. Many of us did become lawyers, but no one interested in a technical field would have been set back by going to Ignatius. My closest friend from high school has a Ph. D. in Fluid and Thermal Science and works at NASA, and several other good high school friends also got advanced engineering degrees.

    I don’t mean to suggest that all Catholic high schools in the United States are as good as Ignatius is, but the dedication of the teachers and students I found there is very common at Catholic high schools. There also is a renewed effort to bring Catholic high school education to inner city kids who are being horribly served by the public schools. In Cleveland, St. Martin de Porres High School was established for just this purpose, and its students regularly intern at corporate jobs during high school. My law firm has hired several students from St. Martin de Porres for such internships, and the experience has been a positive one. Here is the school’s website:

  10. John Scotus Eriugena says:

    Good sources: Joyce Among the Jesuits by Kevin Sullivan, Beyond the Melting Pot by Glazer and Moynihan, and some of the studies by Andrew Greeley.

  11. Mike says:

    I went to the Jesuit high school in Cincinnati that Tom referred to (Xavier), and there was definately an emphasis on academic excellence. It was a pretty selective school, and almost everyone went straight into college. It had a strong Latin program, but no Greek. We needed 4 years of English and math, and it had a wide variety of electives, including the sciences, but a lot of class time was taken by religion courses (one per semester).

    As for the religion courses, they definately had their own agenda they were teaching, but dissent was welcomed. I disagreed with a lot of what was being taught (I walked out of high school a libertarian deist), but if anyone disagreed with something, we were never told to shut up. We had valuable class discussions, and were expected to back our arguments with reason. We probably had more open conversations than students do at most public schools. Yes, we got too much propaganda about serving people “less fortunate”, but they get that at public schools, too. Overall, the faculty were excellent, and most students took things seriously.

  12. Ploni Almoni says:

    My apologies, Mr. Derbyshire, for saying you accepted it uncritically. That was my own misreading of your post.

    I stand by my judgment of Myers’ Just So story. Be suspicious of any supposed explanation – in this case, Catholic education – which could explain both the actual observations (Catholics untrustworthy, ignorant, lazy) and their counterfactual opposites (Catholics reliable, knowledgeable, industrious). In fact I’d say it even explains the counterfactuals better than the actual observations.

  13. Bradlaugh says:

    Tom:  I missed that column of yours at the time, just now read it. I must say, I think the pallbearers society is a terrific community-service idea. I never heard of that before. The best of it is, it requires no particular gifts or skills, just the ability to walk very slowly while bearing a weight on one shoulder. I never saw such a thing mentioned in my own church newsletters. I wonder how widespread they are, these pallbearers societies?

  14. John Farrell says:

    I can’t speak for Catholic education in Ireland, but as for my own family’s history, the Jesuits don’t seem to have dampened in any way our propensity for technical vocations: my father, top of his class in Latin and Greek (and German) at a Jesuit high school, trained to be a Navy pilot, while one of his older brother’s worked as a mechanical engineer on planes during the war–and then went on to run his own typewriter company. Another brother specialized in electrical engineering and still another taught himself to fly (all this right out of the depression era).

    This doesn’t mean there isn’t truth to the case Derb raises in Northern Ireland. But as Tom Piatek points out, RC education in the U.S. was and is definitely different….

  15. Tom Piatak says:


    The pallbearer societies aren’t widespread, but they are growing. When I wrote the piece, I found two Catholic high schools in Louisville, Kentucky doing the same thing, and I’m sure there are more. As you say, they require no particular skill, not even much emotional skill, other than an ability to be respectful, so even a shy high school student like me could have done the job. Interestingly, a well-known photo journalist (can’t remember his name) heard the NPR story and came to the school to do an article about the pallbearer society. But he couldn’t interest anyone in running the story, so it ran in our high school alumni magazine. Unfortunately, I can’t find it online. Here is an article that ran in the local Catholic newspaper in Cleveland:

  16. Thrasymachus says:

    Some disconnected observations-

    -My father went to a Jesuit high school and a Jesuit college. He has a Ph.D. in chemistry and a M.S. in computer science. One of his friends got a B.S. in chemical engineering but later went into the priesthood. A lot of his classmates did become lawyers though.

    -Nobody has mentioned the way that the Jesuits ran high schools for the college prep upper middle class, and the Christian Brothers ran high schools for the working class. Robert Hughes mentions this in his biography so I assume this was true throughout the English speaking world. I was talking to a coworker from Ecuador once about this who went to both Christian Brothers and Jesuit schools and he told me no such distinction exists there. My father came from a working class family, and his older brother attended the Christian Brothers high school for awhile but left after a dispute with a brother. My grandmother thus sent my father to the Jesuit school, where he was exposed to quite a different crowd. One of his classmates became governor of the state.

    -My parents’ Catholic education certainly didn’t make them inclined to argument or debate, quite the opposite. For them everything just *was*, and there was absolutely no argument or debate involved.

    -I read someplace years ago the Protestant youth resented the fact their Catholic counterparts in their private Catholic schools were being prepared for professional careers while they in the public schools were being prepared for the trades. I’m guessing the value of university prep has increased a great deal in the last 40 years.

  17. Andrew M says:

    Just to throw in my $0.02 (even if it seems late, I’ve been busy).

    As a product of Catholic education from Pre-12, I feel like I could make some valid comments on the subject.

    Elementary/middle school was more challenging than the local public schools, at least on average. There were a number of people who quit for public schools and their grades significantly improved. While this could possibly be attributed to teaching style or other unrelated factors, on average those public school students who went into the Catholic high school were at a small disadvantage, and not just in religion class (for the purpose of this I’m ignoring that issue).

    My Catholic schools were relatively small (2×15 person classes/grade, graduates ~50-60 from HS), so the class offerings weren’t up to the levels that the public schools could offer, at least in diversity. However, the classes that were offered very easily fulfilled the requirements for my engineering college and the law schools some of my classmates went in to.

    Looking at my HS class, 5 years out right now, well over half has finished undergrad, with a couple engineers, 3+ in pre-med, several in nursing, at least one lawyer, a couple graphic design/advertising, and a smattering of other professions. Our ACT scores were well above the national average (26+ compared to ~21), and though we had a few leave for public schools due to a number of issues (financial, disciplinarian, etc), I don’t think any dropped out completely.

    To sum up, I had a very positive experience with the Catholic education system in my town; it was minimally elite (my family is far from rich), and while it did have its shortcomings, especially with diversity of classes (and students, but that’s more a demographic issue than anything else), I came out very well prepared for college with nigh a semester of classes under my belt.

  18. Eileen says:


    It’s a commonplace in Ulster, btw, or at any rate used to be, that the two tribes (Johnny Prod & Micky Taig) knew each other on sight.

    I can spot the difference between one of “them” and one of “us” in NI and I was raised in the States! It ain’t that hard. In fact, in the part of Ulster that my family is from (not in NI, btw), the locals (and even myself to some extent) can spot which village or townland someone comes from. People married very locally until quite recently in Ireland.

    I went to an all-girls RC high school (mind you, this is 25 years ago we’re talking) and, while we didn’t have shop, we had lots of practical education like home economics and typing, short-hand — that sort-of thing. We also had the usual academic classes — maths, biology, chemistry, physics, history, etc.

    But, again, this was in the States. Might’ve (or might be) a very different story in NI or the Republic.

  19. Eileen says:

    Catholics didn’t keep their word, and were lazy and ignorant….

    Forgot to comment on this — don’t know about not keeping their word or being ignorant, but Catholics in NI and the Republic being lazy? Absolutely!

    I have to agree with Jeeves here — there’s probably some significant genetic differences between the two groups. I mean, the Protestant work ethic — “God helps those who help themselves” — just doesn’t occur to the average native Irish person. Sure, some amount of work is okay, if absolutely necessary, but there was never much need for it. You can always get by with a few head of cattle and growing a few vegetables in such a relatively mild climate (barring the odd potato famine in modern times). But the Germanic ancestors of the Scots-Irish? They had to plan for surviving harsh winters. Imagine what personality/intelligence qualities that must’ve select for. Or at least it would’ve select out the “carpe amárach” attitude that the Irish can afford to have.

  20. gene berman says:


    Regardless of what it’s due to, the “Protestant work ethic” is a chief feature of Anglo-Saxon culture and has proven, to a large degree, to be quite transmissable to many others of various origins, and of differing religions. I could not say in what the several components to that culture consist but can observe its excellence-eliciting characteristic throughout the “Anglosphere.” My very best guess would be that it is the “fairest,” least prejudiced of all major cultures and not only the one most worthy of emulation everywhere but also the one encompassing all of the most desired immigration destinations for those seeking
    “better.” Whether that will continue as the basic “Anglo” population, once a majority, becomes substantially diminished, is an open question; there is already evidence on which to base doubt.

  21. From this internecine journey into Catholic minutiae one would think that secularright is the chief beneficiary of Catholic expatriation.Bradlaugh has accidently discovered an atheist memory bank full of mixed feelings and interesting observations. Very enjoyable.

    I attended Catholic schools and lasted three years from K-2 because my brother’s vaccination scab was ripped off by a nun and our mother removed us to public schools in the blue collar heaven of Carteret,N.J. I recall only two other grand events:(1) I was nearly knocked out by an Irish kid who talked with his fists while in grade 2;(2)while in public school I had to fight an Polish Catholic anyway, another very tough kid whom everyone feared.After much rolling around and assorted punches, we decided to call it a draw and I went home feeling better than I did after the Irish failure.In Carteret you confronted tough kids everywhere you turned.

    I agree with all who found some real value in the academic side of Catholic education. It has filled an important need in American society and when I taught psychology at Seton Hall U., I found the nuns to be especially bright and able. Such dedicated teachers, while not quite the scholars found in the best public schools, have remained more than sufficiently competent over several centuries.After the priest sex scandal, one must wonder how much of a future Catholic education has?Ironically, most of our leading conservatives seem to have retained a strong moral sense from their Catholic upbringing.It can’t be all bad after all.

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