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The EditorsSeptember 25, 2006

Opening Church Doors

One of the towering leaders of the church died on Aug. 24 at age 98, in the motherhouse of the Sisters of Loretto in Nerinx, Ky. Though Mary Luke Tobin, S.L., led a life described by superlatives, she may best be remembered as one of only 15 women, and the only American woman, to be invited to participate in the Second Vatican Council.

In an article published in America on Nov. 1, 1986, Sister Tobin noted that at the close of the second session of Vatican II, Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens of Belgium asked his fellow bishops, Why are we even discussing the reality of the church when half the church is not even represented here? That query, as well as further insights that if women were invited as auditors they should play a role in the committees formulating the documents, led to Sister Tobin’s historic work. At the time head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, she contributed to the commissions that drafted Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium. Only two other women would serve on such commissions.

The rest of her life was full, varied and exciting. She led the way to update religious life, advocated for peace and justice and worked tirelessly in the world of ecumenism. Her autobiography, published in 1981, was aptly titled: Hope Is an Open Door. Mary Luke Tobin, S.L., passed through church doors previously closed to women and helped to open them for those who followwomen and men alike, both halves of the church.

Let Them Eat Drivel

Last week Katie Couric took over as the anchor of CBS’s evening news. Critics stood waiting in the wings, complaints of fluff and a lack of seriousness in hand. Yet even if this should prove accurate, such a critique of network journalism seems old news. It has been 30 years since Happy Talk news programming began its slouching journey from local to national broadcasts, replacing hard-hitting journalism with focus groups and profit-driven values. And this style-over-substance approach continues, because American consumers are tuning in. CBS’s decision would appear to ring true: it is not Cronkite they are looking for, but Today.

What grows more troubling is the fact that Americans continue to accept the bite-sized, facile analysis they are spoon-fed on cable, local or network news as not only accurate but sufficient. Perhaps what many of us want from our news sources is 10 minutes of sound-bite stories, followed by celebrity baby pictures, information about our cholesterol and news of the latest shark attack or kidnapping. But this is certainly not what we need. Democracy requires of its citizens that they be well informed. Lacking that, they are easily manipulated by those in power, to potentially disastrous effect. Our country’s pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, grounded in Americans’ acceptance of the connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, is an example of the crises that come from an underinformed populace.

In the face of a starving French population, Marie Antoinette quipped, Let them eat cake. Our trouble is not simply that we are starving for good information; indeed, PBS, BBC and any number of print publications offer significant and substantial analysis. The problem is also that cake is all many seem willing to eat.

Onward, Charter Schools

Hurricane Katrina altered more than the coastline; it also refashioned Louisiana’s social landscape. The New Orleans public school system, for instance, after years of sluggish performance, has recently begun to look like a pioneer in education. When Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, New Orleans was a city of 460,000 with 56,000 students in 128 public schools. Last June, with its population reduced by half, the city had reopened 25 of those schools but needed a lot more if it was to accommodate the 22,000 students expected by summer’s end. Confronted with this shortage, the state and local boards of education, each of which runs some of the city’s traditional schools, made an innovative move. They licensed many charter schools to help meet the crisis.

Charter schools, which now number about 3,600 nationwide, are publicly financed but independent of public control. They are set up by individuals or groups, including for-profit organizations, to give families an option. They also promise to do a better job than the regular schools that are failing.

The teachers’ unions say they welcome these experiments but usually appear to have as much enthusiasm for charter schools as vampires have for holy water. A study released on Aug. 22 of this year by the U.S. Department of Education reported that in 2003 a sample of fourth graders in 6,700 traditional schools scored 4.2 points higher on a reading test than a comparable sample in 150 charter schools. Advocates of charter schools promptly claimed the study’s methodology had been faulty. Whatever the case, the word from New Orleans right now is that parents are eager to place their children in charter schools.

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