Monday, June 27, 2011

Legionary schools: contrasting opinions

Over at the Red Cardigan Blog "And sometimes tea", I came across a posting date Wednesday June 22nd, 2011, entitled "A Legion Affiliated School: Advice to a Reader (input welcome!)".

Red analyzes the reader's letter and highlights three areas of concern about  the unidentified school:

1. Cost

2. Level of Legion involvement

3. Too perfect

4. Physical correction

She concludes with a request - " I'm especially interested to hear what those who have experience with the Legion, particularly Legion-run or Legion-affiliated schools, have to say."

Readers of this blog know that I was very involved with the "Irish Institutes" of Mexico City and Monterrey (Mexico) which were set-up under the direct guidance of the Legion's founder, Marcial Maciel. With the except of point #4 "Physical correction", over the years I heard similar objections. So, my interest was piqued and I read the ensuing comments.

As far as I could tell only three respondents had personal experience with LC schools. One of them claimed "to have helped start the first LC school in Texas... can state with absolute certainty that anyplace is better than the LC...the list of abuses, even criminal abuses, that goes on in the Legionary schools is staggering."  Wow! That seemed a bit over the top to me.

Only one commenter seems to have actually attended a Legion-run school.

I myself studied all my life in a LC school and from my own experience (and that of my siblings and classmates) I found the educational model rather positive... Despite all the negative comments I’ve read. I talk to you from my own experience of being a student at their schools, from first grade to 12th grade. 

Another comment suggested

Why not ask giselle, over at Life after RC? I know you'll get a negative response, but she - as well as her readers - might be able to give you more exact reasons why. I know there are readers there who worked for LC schools; I bet they can give you harder facts, instead of generalized warnings.

In general, readers responses were negative about LC-run schools. However during my time as a Legionary in Mexico I got to know hundreds of families who were by and large very happy with the education their children received in Legionary schools. LC graduates have, by now, a long history of acceptance into some of the best post-graduate college programs in the world. It seems to me that a majority of the graduates send their own children to LC/RC schools. Of course, I could write a long list of what is "wrong" with LC schools. But anyone familiar with the world of education could do the same about practically any any educational system because, in the heel of the hunt, we want a system that conforms to our personal and family values.

So, I posted the following comment on Red's blog:

.... I am a former LC who helped start the first "Irish Institute" school in Mexico City (1966) and later another one in Monterrey. For many years I was closely involved with the Anahuac University in Mexico City. Eventually, after ordination, I served as principal at the Irish Institute (Mexico).

I wrote a book about my experiences ("Driving Straight on Crooked Lines: How an Irishman found his heart and nearly lost his mind", available on Amazon.) I mention this, not for crass commercial purposes, but because I think the book provides some valuable insight into the evolution of LC schools.

Back in the sixties, our [LC] credo was: parents should choose a school that is most in accordance with their family values; our education should include the whole person and not be limited to "technical skills;" LC schools should excel in performance, have the best teachers and prepare our students for the business of life.

Maciel had creative, valuable and entrepreneurial insights. However, the educational "system" was totally refined by the lay teachers (not RC) hired in the early years. We brought a group of top notch Chilean educators to Mexico (after the Allende debacle) who helped refine all LC educational systems. At that time it was against the law in Mexico to teach religion; clerical garb was forbidden and no religious symbols were allowed. Schools were set up as private companies in order to avoid expropriation by the lay, anti-clerical state. Mexican elementary education then - as in many other countries - did not focus so much on "critical thinking." In my experience, students from the LC schools that I knew did extraordinary well and went on to the very best universities in the world.

Then the laws changed in Mexico and RC was founded. In the States the LC attracted extremely conservative (by my standards) Catholics which lead both it, and RC towards a very traditional and conservative approach to the Faith. Of course schools were expected to encourage priestly vocations (later to RC) and the recruiting aspect became quite pronounced. In my time, only a relatively small percentage of students ended up as committed RC members and even fewer as priests.

In sum, I think there is another side to LC/RC education as is depicted in this thread. It is not as bad as portrayed (in my experience) and it offers a host of redeeming features for committed Catholics. Kids do get an excellent, well rounded education, very different from our public school model. (This is not a criticism of public schools - where I sent my 4 kids.)

The main concern at the moment is the internal turmoil within the Congregation as they try to come to terms with the awful scandal of the founder and the need to undertake significant reforms. I don't think these reforms will need to address their approach to education. Most reform relates to internal governance and a healthier understanding of the evangelical counsels. The vast majority of LCs are excellent, well-intentioned men caught up in a situation not of their own choosing. In my international travels I meet many former students of LC schools and the majority seem to look back fondly on their experience. Apart from all the considerations mentioned in other comments, I would check out the "spirit" of the school with other parents and trust my intuition - with the caveat that the LC is now going through difficult difficult times which must have consequences on their short-term performance. Maciel's influence on the LC schools philosophy was not, I think, substantially flawed. His problems were deeper and in another realm. Hope this helps!

My comment generated a response which reads in part

I too was involved with the Legion and in your "history" you conveniently ignore the fact that Legion, from the beginning, was a cult of personality founded by Maciel to serve his raging, out of control narcissistic need for validation and adulation.  Everything the Legion touched was directed towards one end, that is, to add to the numbers of slavish followers of this monster. Church law, rubrics, personal dignity, honesty, and commandments were routinely ignored, broken, and flaunted in service of Maciel and his needs.

This last response is not entirely untrue (much of it referenced in my book) - however, generalizing about the many hundreds of good Legionary priests and seminarians who believed in the good works they were doing and whose daily work was largely unaffected by the scandals of the founder is quite an exaggeration. Not to mention the numbers of intelligent and committed Catholics who choose to collaborate with the LC (and the reform process) while continuing to avail of LC schools and universities which are not quite as bad, in my view, as the naysayers would have us believe.

The Legion is in dire need of reform - and, so far, the process is underway albeit slowly. There is much to criticize. And the founder was a monster. However, Pope Benedict insists he believes the Congregation can be "fixed" and I suppose he doesn't want to lose the educational network created by the LC. Time will tell.


Anonymous said...

Monk: Your experience is too far away in time. Nowadays Legionary schools are planned to give money and relationships to the Legión. Academic level is fair but not excellent, they are doing away with legionaries inside the schools and leaving everything to the laity, so LC schools right now are just a phanthom of what they were, and they will suffer badly the lack of personnel in future years

The Monk said...

Anonymous - I agree completely that my "original" experience is far away in time. That said, I did experience what it was supposed to be about in its pristine form. LC schools in Mexico have always been highly regarded - and still are today.

I travel to Mexico very frequently on business. Many of my friends send their children to LC schools and, in general, I only hear good things. Note that these friends, by and large, are not RC.

No doubt there is a huge difference between Mexican (and perhaps Spanish) LC schools and the ones remaining in the United States. Obviously the LC has to do some downsizing - especially when further away from their strongest bases of support. Maciel always envisaged the schools being run mostly by lay people (RC affiliated) - in part, just like Opus Dei, that was an appealing part of his "vision" and his solution for the diminishing numbers of clergy. I suspect most LC would agree that qualified laity can do a better job. LCs were never "trained" or specifically educated to manage schools.

Finally, I don't think most LC schools excelled to a great degree in "academics". What they do bring to the table (very welcome by my standards) is a holistic approach: academic, sports, character-development, a focus on integrity and social responsibility.

I give classes in a NYC university so I have some experience of the product of other schools and I've seen my kid's (parochial and public) schools up close and personal... and let me say that I think it would be great if the LC could get back to the "pristine" idea, straighten it out per the Vatican's directions and deliver. Their original "product" is much needed in the Church. (And, yes, of course, in order to do so they must reform... and I hope they can.)