Friday, May 04, 2012

In praise of knuckle-rapping nuns of old

Richard and Elizabeth Gerbracht, who have retired after operating their own research and consulting firm, have recently authored an article, "Requiem for the Tiger Nuns," New Oxford Review (April 2012), pp. 32-34, responding to the "tiresome complaint" on a TV program about knuckle-rapping nuns of decades past, and taking a nostalgic time trip back to the days when THEY sat in such nuns' classrooms:
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.

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.
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!

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%.
The authors add: "None of the respondents mentioned fear of the ruler or any excessive disciplinary measures>" By contrast, they seemed to appreciate what the nuns did for them. On the whole, the class lamented the absence of strong discipline today: "No more nuns or priests" (in the schools); "Lack of values, loss of values"; "Parents' poor attitude"; "Not enough attention of parents."
* * * * * * *

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).


Alan Aversa


Could you please provide a link for that survey? Did you get it from the NOR article? Thanks

I taught at a diocesan co-ed high school, and—being a young first-year teacher who looked no older than his students and who had no degree in education and who came from teaching well-motivated students at the college-level—I was very unprepared for disciplining my high school students. It certainly did not help to have boys and girls in the same room. Looking back on that experience, if I were to do it again, I would try to segregate the boys and girls as much as possible, putting the girls on the left side and the boys on the right. I think co-education is the #1 disciplinary issue—a lack of strict, habit-wearing nuns certainly coming in at a close #2.

Coeducation any earlier than the college-level needs to end in Catholic schools. Pope Pius XI, in his 1929 encyclical on Christian education, Divini Illius Magistri, wrote about it:

"68. False also and harmful to Christian education is the so-called method of "coeducation." This too, by many of its supporters, is founded upon naturalism and the denial of original sin; but by all, upon a deplorable confusion of ideas that mistakes a leveling promiscuity and equality, for the legitimate association of the sexes. The Creator has ordained and disposed perfect union of the sexes only in matrimony, and, with varying degrees of contact, in the family and in society. Besides there is not in nature itself, which fashions the two quite different in organism, in temperament, in abilities, anything to suggest that there can be or ought to be promiscuity, and much less equality, in the training of the two sexes. [Viz., Pope Pius XI knows that boys and girls learn differently.] These, in keeping with the wonderful designs of the Creator, are destined to complement each other in the family and in society, precisely because of their differences, which therefore ought to be maintained and encouraged during their years of formation, with the necessary distinction and corresponding separation, according to age and circumstances. These principles, with due regard to time and place, must, in accordance with Christian prudence, be applied to all schools, particularly in the most delicate and decisive period of formation, that, namely, of adolescence; and in gymnastic exercises and deportment, special care must be had of Christian modesty in young women and girls, which is so gravely impaired by any kind of exhibition in public.

Pertinacious Papist


Mr. Aversa,

There is no online link directly to the survey, but only the summarized results I quoted directly from the article, which can be found at the NOR website to which I linked. Thanks for your thoughtful observations. --PP

Ralph Roister-Doister


I was educated by nuns of the third order of St Francis in a four room schoolhouse. Boys and girls together (including an astoundingly gay fellow, "Ken"), and very few disciplinary problems beyond the usual pre-teen hijinks. The nuns were not particularly fast draws with their rulers, but they packed them, and used them, like Chuck Connors in The Rifleman, when order needed to be restored.

I believe that the bad rap against nuns originates almost entirely with gay boy Broadway playwrights, Hollywood script writers, and the usual gaggle of preening malcontents. Catholics could buy into it a bit, if the jokes were based in nostalgia and fond remembrance. But after a while the hatefulness behind the "jokes" became obvious. And it seems obvious to me that much of this venomous sprewing came from sexual deviants.

"Ken" was, in retrospect, piteously "gay" in his speech, his mannerisms, and his interests. He was a living, breathing exmple of the stereotype which gay wags tell us does not exist in real life. But even in the eighth grade, the brains of properly raised Catholic children were not so pickled in the brine of sexual awareness that they had any serious notion of what Ken's budding deviancy was. Ken was weird, "queer" at most. He suffered for it, to be honest -- ridicule, ostracism -- but not at the hands of the nuns, who were his protectors, and who probably prayed special prayers daily for his deliverance.

In any public school of the day, Ken would have been beaten to a pulp for his weirdness, and no bulls**t about it.