Half a century ago, members of the Class of 1957 received their undergraduate degrees and set off in many different directions. So, in preparation for our 50th reunion this past June, we created a wide-ranging survey of 101 questions to find out more about the pathways our classmates chose.
To judge by the response, Notre Dame alumni are eager to share their experiences, life choices and opinions. Some 900 of our original 1,150 classmates are living, and of the 425 class members whose email addresses we had, more than 300 responded. This was a phenomenal return of 75 percent of those queried. Altogether, these represent approximately a third of the surviving members of the Class of ’57.
Here are some highlights from the survey, which may well reflect the attitudes and experiences of other classes who attended Notre Dame in the 1950s.
What is your marital status?
married to first wife—79.1%
divorced and remarried—8.9%
divorced not remarried—2.7%
widowed and remarried—3%
widowed not remarried—3%
never married—1.7 %
in domestic partnership—1.7%
Today, are your children practicing Catholics?
Family and faith
In the ’50s, Americans had more children per family than at any time before or since. Our class appears to have followed that trend. A plurality (47 percent) reported siring three or four children. Another 32 percent had five or more. While 5 percent were childless, 6 percent begat Biblically, reporting eight or more progeny.
Ninety-three percent of the class report they raised their children as Catholics. The remainder raised them in another Christian faith and a handful in none at all.
The ’50s witnessed the peak in Catholic education. In that decade, half of all Catholic kids attended parochial schools. Today, there are 4,000 fewer Catholic schools, and, while the number of Catholics in the United States has doubled, just half as many students attend them. So where, a generation later, did the Class of ’57 send their kids to school?
Massively, they abandoned Catholic elementary education, consistent with the national trend. Fewer than 10 percent of the respondents sent their children to Catholic elementary schools. Rather more (28 percent) sent them to Catholic high schools, and another 35 percent reported that their children attended a mix of Catholic, pubic and private institutions. Nearly one in four (24 percent) educated their children exclusively in public schools.
At the university level, an impressive 39 percent of our class had one or more children who also attended Notre Dame. On the other hand, half had no children who attended any Catholic college or university. It seems reasonable to conclude that, apart from Notre Dame, enrolling in Catholic colleges or universities was not a major priority for our children.
Of those who sent all their children to Catholic elementary and Catholic high schools, just 29 percent report that all of those children are practicing Catholics today. Of those who sent all their children to public grade and high schools, the figure was measurably lower at 17 percent. The impact on faith was much greater at the college level. Only one in 10 of those who sent all their children to non-Catholic colleges reported that all of those children are still Catholics. By comparison, the figure for those who sent all their children to Notre Dame or some other Catholic college was 42 percent.
What is you political party?
Have you changed your political outlook since graduation?
yes, more liberal—16%
yes, more conservative—36%
yes, more middle-of-the-road—17%
Politically conservative . . .
Politically, the Class of ’57 turned out to be a surprisingly passive bunch. Two of three say they have never actively participated in a political campaign. Nonetheless, they are as a group overwhelmingly conservative in their politics. Assessing the 10 U.S. presidents since their Notre Dame days, the class by a wide margin ranked Ronald Reagan highest, Dwight Eisenhower a strong second and John F. Kennedy third.
Some commentators believe that the United States has become a highly polarized society in which quite a few citizens listen only to the news—and to commentators—they agree with. The Class of ’57 fits that model. When asked, “Which television network do you most trust for news?” nearly half (45 percent) chose the conservative Fox News, while a third preferred the comparatively liberal Public Broadcasting System (PBS, NPR). In our time, ABC, CBS and NBC were the only game in town and largely trusted. But in our survey the three major networks combined drew a paltry 22 percent.
Is the solution to the priest shortage?
allow priests an option to marry—27%
Should the Church ordain women?
probably should not—19%
definitely should not—16 %
. . . with some surprises
Like other Catholics, the graduates of 1957 are concerned about the decline in the number priests. And, for an overwhelmingly conservative cohort more than 70 years of age, they are surprisingly open to change. For instance, 70 percent believe celibacy should or probably should be optional for Catholic priests, 57 percent think the Church should ordain women and 56 percent assert that “gay men should be ordained provided that they are and remain celibate.”
One of the most notable changes in the church in our time is the switch to the vernacular Mass. And one of Pope Benedict’s recent changes was an edict that widens the opportunities for celebrating the old Tridentine Mass in Latin. How do our classmates feel about these moves? Nearly two-thirds of the ‘57 Domers like the Mass in English “very much,” 30 percent “somewhat” and less than 1 percent “not at all.” Moreover, nearly 80 percent indicate that they don’t want regularly scheduled Masses in Latin.
Which comes closer to our view of abortion?
should be generally available to those who want it—10.5%
should be available but under stricter limits than it is now—16.2%
should be against the law except in cases of rape, incest and mother’s life—40.9%
should not be permitted at all—32.4%
Should laws be changed to permit “physician-assisted suicide” for the terminally ill when they want it?
With an estimated 15 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States, we asked which of two positions on this issue most resembled respondents’ views. A plurality (44 percent) believes those already here and working should be allowed to stay and gain U.S. citizenship, while 19 percent think there should be “a general crackdown on illegal aliens and they should be sent home.” But 36 percent found neither alternative acceptable. On this hot political topic, our avowedly conservative classmates depart from the mainstream hardline conservative view of the illegal immigration issue.
An overwhelming majority of the survey respondents—86 percent—did not approve of stem cell research if it involved the destruction of human embryos. However, about two-thirds of those who objected to such destruction of human embryos said they “do approve of extracting stem cells from surplus human embryos that will otherwise be destroyed.”
On one other hot-button issue, that of laws permitting civil unions for same-sex couples, our class is opposed to them by a margin of 60 to 40 percent.
A capsule view
In such an exercise as this, there are issues we wish we had addressed. We’d like to know, for instance, how often our classmates pray or read a book or attend a cultural event. We might well have added a question on the death penalty or on the reaction to the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Church in recent years . But our main oversight may have been birth control, an issue at once personal and public that all of us and our wives—especially as Catholics—had to face while we were still in our prime reproductive years. On this we can only say we goofed, perhaps because those years are so far behind us.
So what does the survey, only parts of which are detailed here, tell us? In general, it says that the graduates of ‘57 are a remarkably satisfied cohort. They are satisfied with their education at Notre Dame, their career choices, their Catholicism and their health. They are not satisfied with the changes in the nation’s moral climate, which have indeed been massive, and this may partially account for their marked preference for conservative politics and media. As Catholics, they are open to changes in the composition of the priesthood but do not favor a return to the Latin Mass. And despite some heroic service by individuals in our class, as a group they are not at age 70-plus compelled toward volunteering their time and talent.
Thus the survey of the Class of 1957 is just a snapshot. Although not a full portrait, it does offer a capsule view of where we’ve been and where we are, 50 years later.
The survey and its designers
Ken Woodward is a contributing editor at Newsweek, where he was religion editor for 38 years, and the author of several books. Richard V. Allen, a senior fellow at The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University, has published several books and was national security advisor to President Reagan. Graduate sociology student Brett Lantz assisted with the data compilation. Tom Schriber ’57, a professor of business information technology at the Ross Business School, University of Michigan, helped guide the survey process, and Washington public opinion professional Mark C. Allen, president of AmericanPublic, served as a consultant. The survey responses were anonymous and the survey remains independent of the University and its alumni association. Survey results were presented during a special session at the 50th class reunion.