Letter: Religious instruction fine, assuming it isn't imposed

To the editor:

I read with nostalgic interest Tom Birmingham's Dec. 15 commentary, "The case for a Catholic education." In the second paragraph, he recalls that "even in the public schools our teachers marched us down the street in the middle of the day to the nearest Catholic school for religious instruction."

When he says "us," could Mr. Birmingham possibly mean ALL the kids in his public school classroom? Since I am Jewish, I assume that if I were his classmate in the Chelsea public schools, I would not have been forced to go on that march. He probably meant the Catholic kids in his class. In that case, I wonder what I and his Protestant classmates would have been doing while Tom and his friends were escorted by our teacher. What would we have been learning while he was receiving religious instruction?

I grew up in Newark, N.J., during that same era. Like Mr. Birmingham, I would also say that the education I received was an "inescapably moral endeavor for passing along knowledge, wisdom and history" to my generation. I would also say that the Newark public schools offered us, as he reports of Catholic school, the "liberal arts to imbue their students with character and moral education" — yet fully separate from any particular faith.

As I remember, on Wednesdays, the Catholic kids in our class were dismissed early so they could go to Catechism. They left class, a nun picked them up downstairs, and my education went on uninterrupted. Since I went to Hebrew school from 4 to 5:30, I understood where my Catholic classmates were going, and I respected their religious instruction. However, their religious instruction was not imposed on me nor did it take time away from my own instruction — as Mr. Birmingham would lead us to assume from his account.

I agree with the author's preference for "values-based instruction," which my public school education in Newark provided at the time. That was the pedagogical purpose of our traditional, secular liberal arts and sciences curriculum.

I'm glad that I went to school with Catholic kids and Protestant kids, rather than exclusively with Jewish kids. My education with them was all the better because I learned reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, wood shop, gym, music, art, and — most importantly — the American values that we all shared in common.

Howard Martin Katzoff,

New York, N.Y.

The author is a retired Springfield teacher.


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