When we were in eighth grade, one of us was laughing uncontrollably at the antics of a fellow student and was hit for it. The knuckle-rap was entirely deserved. Neither of us has ever felt any anger toward the nuns, then or now. At the time, it didn’t occur to us that the nuns were following the lead of Aristotle, who understood the value of a little discipline. Now, with some maturity, we recognize that this was an assertive teaching method that produced results.Their Catholic high schools, they write, were single-sex institutions -- all boys or all girls, but not mixed. One of the reasons for the separation, they point out, was the difficulty of disciplining boys. One headmaster, a priest, was heard to say that if they didn't have the nuns, they couldn't keep discipline!
We remember how the nuns prepared us for confirmation. Day after day leading up to the event, our entire eighth-grade class was directed to an assembly area, where we stood in formation in several rows, well spaced so the nun could walk between us, stand directly in front of us, or behind us. The nun would reach into her habit and pull out the Baltimore Catechism. We knew she would question each of us in order, but we didn’t know which question she would ask — we had to know the answer to every one!
It was the same for math and English: memorize the tables and the rules, diagram sentences, and be ready for a test. The slow learners were ordered to stay after school or to come to school an hour early the next day. The nun would line up these slackers along the side wall of the classroom and drill them one at a time. Those who didn’t catch on soon realized they’d never pass to the next grade; sometimes the nun threatened to take a poor performer back to a lower grade classroom that very moment! The kids quickly shaped up and applied themselves to learning in order to avoid the humiliation. It was an iron-fisted approach and it worked.
How can one measure the loss of the tiger Nuns, their productivity and accomplishments? The authors state that about fourty years after graduating from a Catholic high school, they sent questionnaires to every classmate, now living in 22 states, asking their opinions about discipline. Their unscientific independent survey elicited a 60% response from the class with questions and answers as follows:
- Q: We faced a lot of discipline in high school; at the time did you feel the discipline was oppressive, overdone, or too tough? A: Yes 5%; No 95%.
- QIf you answered no, how did you feel about the discipline at the time? A (typical answers): "Necessary extension of discipline of parents." "It was appropriate, fair, required." "Adequate and good for my future." "Without discipline other values erode." "Helped me for tough decisions in the work arena." "Matured me for life, taught me respect."
- Q: Looking back, do you think the discipline was good for you and for your development? A: Yes 98%; No 0%; N/A 2%.
- A: Do you believe that more discipline in high schools today would help make for better lives in the future? A: Yes 96%; No 1%; N/A 3%.
- Q: In general do you think that today's young family is as strong in basic beliefs and discipline as your parents' family when you were in high school? A: Yes 9%; No 84%; N/A 7%.
While we're at it, permit me to put in a plug for the schools run by the new order of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. I have the privilege of knowing some of those pictured in the photos on this site. Some of these are teachers and administrators in the school attended currently by my daughter. While I have yet to hear any horror-stories of ruler-weilding knuckle-rapping Dominican sisters, I know from first-hand experience that they know how to run well-ordered schools, with disciplined students, and an atmosphere pervaded by piety and joy. (See my review article, entitled "Great Catholic education" (Musings, February 11, 2011).