In November 1884, America's Roman Catholic bishops assembled in Baltimore for a series of meetings. They debated topics ranging from the appointment of church leaders to the burial of members of their flocks in non-Catholic cemeteries.
But none of the questions raised at what was called the Third Plenary Council seemed more urgent than how best to educate the next generation.
Public education, the bishops feared, was becoming increasingly secular. Once public school primers had begun lessons on the alphabet with "in Adam's fall, we sinned all." But in the church leaders' judgment, it appeared that many educators saw intellectual and religious development as separate matters. "If ever in any age, then surely in this, our age," the prelates warned, "the church of God and the spirit of the world are in a certain wondrous and bitter conflict over the education of youth."
Thus the bishops decreed that every parish in the country that didn't have its own parochial school would establish one within two years. Catholic parents were not just exhorted, but commanded, to seek out a Catholic school education for their children.
In fact, the ideal of having every Catholic student in a parochial school would never be met. Even at its peak around 1960, the proportion of Catholic children in parochial schools stood at about 50 percent. But the plenary council's decrees were important for the angst they expressed. The apprehension was not over academics, which the clergy believed the public schools could readily provide. Above all else, the bishops wanted Catholic children in Catholic schools to instill in them Catholic beliefs and values.
Whether Catholic, Jewish, evangelical Christian, or Muslim, it has largely been such concerns that have led parents to help establish and send their children to private schools. Even where a school doesn't profess a specific faith, it usually holds fast to an explicit worldview.
"Education is inevitably a value- laden enterprise," says James C. Carper, an education professor at the University of South Carolina. "It deals with questions of the nature of the cosmos, of the moral foundation of right and wrong, and of the appropriate roles of men and women. People of goodwill differ radically in their answers to those questions, and so it's extremely difficult for a government institution to package a particular set of beliefs and values to suit everyone."
Not surprisingly then, religion has been one of the few constants in private education--by its very nature, a world of diversity within diversity. In 1999, as in 1900, the vast majority of U.S. students in private education attend religiously oriented schools. And the overall proportion of American children in private schools has remained fairly steady as well, never rising above 15 percent nor dipping below 7 percent.
In the nation's early years, privately organized and operated schools represented not an alternative, but the prevalent form of education. The modern sense of the words "public" and "private," in fact, had yet to be formed. The thousands of fee- charging academies that had flourished briefly before the advent of the tax-supported high school were often called "public" because they were seen as serving the public good.
"What counted as public was much less rigidly defined than it is today," says Thomas C. Hunt, an education professor at the University of Dayton. "Instead of public control and support, a public purpose seemed to be what was most important."
That view changed with the rise of the "common school," which not only indelibly affixed the label of "private" to all alternatives, but also gave new impetus for religious minorities to establish their own schools.
Horace Mann, the 19th-century father of state-supported universal education, saw moral instruction as an essential element of the common school. The school system Mann envisioned was one based on a kind of nondenominational Christianity that he believed all Americans could accept.
But not everyone did. Despite the increasing popularity of public education, the 19th century saw the founding of new schools by Calvinists, Presbyterians, and Seventh-day Adventists, to name a few. For some of those faiths, the watered- down religion of the public schools represented too great a compromise. Others recognized an opportunity for their churches to evangelize and serve the broader community through their schools.
No religious minority, however, was more concerned about the tenor of the new common school than Roman Catholics. Though Mann believed the common school espoused a broadly inclusive form of Christianity, in practice it was a distinctly Protestant institution. When students read from the Bible, it was from the King James version.
A generation before the Third Plenary Council, then, Catholics weren't concerned that the public schools were too secular; they worried they were too Protestant. This clash of values had occasionally boiled over. Riots erupted in Philadelphia in 1844 during a dispute over which translation of the Bible Catholic children could read in the public schools.
The push to set up a separate school system gained steam.
From the very beginning, these new religious schools were met with suspicion. If the common schools promoted unity and patriotism, many public education supporters reasoned, then any other form of schooling was divisive and un-American.
As with the fears raised by earlier influxes of Irish, Germans, and other groups, the turn-of-the-century tidal wave of immigration posed deeply emotional questions about the changing character of American society. Largely because of the newcomers, the U.S. Catholic population grew from about 6 million around 1880 to more than 14 million by 1910. While many political and opinion leaders viewed public education as a way to assimilate the foreign- born into American society, some Catholics saw it as the tool that could destroy their faith and culture.
By then, many Catholics had become more concerned that public education no longer seemed to be stressing religion--Protestant or otherwise. Several legal challenges to mandatory Bible reading in schools had been initiated in state courts, and theology apparently played no role in the nascent but growing progressive education movement.
The turn of the century also marked the founding of many private schools that appealed less to parents' religious values than to their concerns over conditions in the public schools, especially in the cities.
Those in the nation's growing number of upper-income families became increasingly interested in boarding schools. Even more popular among this group were the somewhat less expensive day schools that began flourishing in the first decades of the 20th century. Governed independently of any church, many nonetheless did have some religious orientation, such as Quaker or Episcopalian.
While many of the most famous New England residential high schools were established during this time, a handful of older academies--including Andover and Exeter--were transforming themselves from comparatively informal philanthropic ventures into some of the nation's most prominent boarding schools.
Among Protestants, the Germans who founded the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod were especially adamant about wanting their children's faith and education interwoven. Its founding constitution mandated that members operate a school if they wanted to join the synod.
"The Missouri Synod had a great deference for doctrine," says R. Allan Zimmer, a former dean of the college of education at Concordia University in River Forest, Ill. "And in order to teach doctrine, you needed a systematic manner and approach, and a great deal of time."
As important, the Synod's schools also provided German instruction. At a time when most of the group's religious services were held in their native language, it was essential that their children become fluent.
"Culture and religion and language were all interconnected," says the Rev. Jon Diefenthaler, the pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Laurel, Md., who has written on the history of Lutheran schools. "People felt that if their children started speaking English or if they ventured out into the wider world of American culture, critical elements of their faith would be diminished in some fashion."
Many Lutherans never saw the need for separate schools. Still, interest was intense enough that enrollment in Missouri Synod schools rose from about 30,000 in 1872 to roughly 75,000 by 1900.
As fears of foreign influence were kindled by immigration and brought to a roaring blaze by the First World War, those schools found themselves the targets of nativist fervor.
"If you tended to hold on to old-world customs like religion and language, your patriotism could be questioned," says Hunt of the University of Dayton.
The prejudice against foreign cultures seeped into state laws. Around 1890, Indiana and Wisconsin mandated that core subjects be taught only in English in all schools. Both measures were repealed within a few years following intense lobbying by Lutherans and Catholics. Some Catholic schools taught classes in families' native languages, too.
Such victories were quickly forgotten, however, as the Great War brought back the campaign against old-world customs with a vengeance. Nineteen states enacted foreign-language restrictions the year after World War I ended, according to William G. Ross, the author of the 1994 book Forging New Freedoms: Nativism, Education, and the Constitution, 1917- 1927.
Nebraska passed the so-called Siman Act, which forbade the teaching of any foreign language before the 9th grade.
Some Lutheran schools dodged the measure by teaching German only during extended "recesses." But a teacher named Robert T. Meyer refused to resort to such a subterfuge, and when a county prosecutor walked in on his class, the educator continued teaching in German. He was convicted and fined $25, about the equivalent of his monthly salary.
At the time, Ross says, rumors abounded of Lutheran students saluting the German flag and singing the German national anthem. In truth, by World War I, many of those schools had largely dropped the use of German.
Meyer lost the fight against the Siman Act in his state's highest court, but his fortunes changed in 1923 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the law violated the 14th Amendment. The justices said it interfered with "the calling of modern-language teachers, with the opportunities of pupils to acquire knowledge, and with the power of parents to control the education of their own."
By suggesting that the U.S. Constitution protected numerous rights not explicitly spelled out in the document, the high court in Meyer v. Nebraska also set the groundwork for many later civil rights battles. And it laid the foundation on which private schools would win their greatest legal victory.
Throughout the early 1920s, nativist sentiment prompted attempts not just to control the content of private education, but to wipe it out. An unsuccessful campaign to force all parents in Michigan to send their children to public schools took the slogan "One Language, One Flag, One School."
A similar measure narrowly passed as a ballot measure in Oregon in 1922, with heavy backing from the Ku Klux Klan and a coalition of organizations called the Oregon Federation of Patriotic Societies. Throwing his own support behind the measure, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Walter M. Pierce said, "We would have a better generation of Americans, free from snobbery and bigotry, if all children ... were educated in free public schools."
The law required that every child between the ages of 8 and 16 who had not completed the 8th grade attend public school. But far from ridding the state of private education, it brought together religious and secular private schools in a unified opposition. An order of nuns, the Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, joined with a nonreligious military school in mounting the legal challenge.
In arguing Pierce v. Society of Sisters before the U.S. Supreme Court, lawyers for the state often invoked the prevailing alarm about left-wing revolutionaries. If the law were struck down, they warned, "Bolshevists, syndicalists, and Communists would form schools."
Relying heavily on Meyer, the high court ruled that no such fears could justify so great an intrusion by government into family matters. "A fundamental theory of liberty," the justices wrote, "excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only." In the ruling's most famous words, the majority declared: "The child is not the mere creature of the state."
Catholic Boom Times
Whether as a result of the Great Depression or the greater disuse of German in classrooms and worship services, enrollment in the Missouri Synod's schools fell to 67,650 by 1942.
In contrast, Catholic education between 1900 and 1960 enjoyed an almost uninterrupted period of growth, during which enrollment exploded from about 855,000 to more than 5 million.
To raise quality, the Catholic hierarchy in the United States decided that some standardization and centralization were necessary in the largely parish-based system. By 1930, nearly two-thirds of the U.S. bishops had set up school boards and superintendencies to oversee their education programs, according to Timothy Walch, the author of the 1996 book Parish School: American Catholic Parochial Education From Colonial Times to the Present. The formation in 1904 of the Catholic Educational Association--which added ''National'' to its name in 1928--further unified parochial schools across the country.
"There was a more concerted effort on the part of Catholic school educators to become observant of what was going on in public education," Walch says. "And as public education professionalized, so did the parochial schools."
Catholic schools generally maintained an academic curriculum for all children, rather than allow some to pursue different tracks as was typical in public high schools by the early 20th century.
"Many immigrant families did not want their children to have vocational education because they saw it as not opening up opportunities, but placing limits on their kids," says Peter B. Holland, a co-author of the 1993 book Catholic Schools and the Common Good.
When it came to teaching methods, the schools were short on innovation, though there were a few exceptions, as Walch points out. In the first two decades of the century, Thomas Edward Shields, a professor at Catholic University of America, promoted the John Deweyesque idea that schools should nurture students' comprehension rather than just drill them will facts. But at most Catholic schools, educators remained skeptical, relying more on memorization and drill, at least through 1950.
They also continued to teach from The Baltimore Catechism, which came into use as a result of the Third Plenary Council in 1884. Organized as a series of questions with prescribed answers, the book served as the primary tool for teaching children the central tenets of the faith into the 1960s.
The numerous Catholic high schools founded by religious orders were among the most resolute about maintaining a college- preparatory curriculum. Many, such as the Jesuits, saw their secondary schools in part as feeders for their own colleges and universities. Often run without financial backing from the local diocese, almost all were single-sex schools and charged tuition when most parochial schools were financed by donations and parishioner "taxes."
Underlying the rapid expansion of parochial school education--and its accessibility to the children of poor and working-class Catholics--was its cheap source of labor. The tens of thousands of nuns who made up the vast majority of the teaching force in parochial schools received only modest stipends. At the same time, Walch says, the great demand for sister-teachers often made it difficult for schools to release them to get formal training in education. Many younger nuns simply learned the ropes from the veterans at their schools.
Some state governments brought pressure to bear in the 1920s and 1930s when they began applying new teacher-certification rules to public and private schools. Catholic organizations generally supported those measures, seeing them as an opportunity to leverage improvement while also demonstrating to parents that their schools were the equals of those run by the government.
While religious communities responded by establishing "normal schools" for teacher training, and a few dioceses even founded their own programs for preparing teachers, many nuns had to earn their credentials through summer courses.
Space became a precious commodity for Catholics, too, as the country entered the era of the post-World War II baby boom. The U.S. Catholic population jumped from 24 million in 1940 to 42 million in 1960, prompting the construction of hundreds of new parochial schools. The New York archdiocese alone built some 200 schools in the 1950s, according to Walch. Even with the new buildings, the typical class size soared to 50 or more.
Around that time, many Catholics started questioning the rationale behind parochial education. In her 1964 book, Are Catholic Schools the Answer?, Mary Perkins Ryan argued that parochial schools had served immigrant families well early in the century, but that by the 1960s, Catholics were clearly part of the American mainstream. By then, the country had put a Catholic in the White House. In short, she argued, the old justifications for a separate school system were gone.
Bolstering that perspective were the results of the Second Vatican Council, a series of meetings of the world's Catholic bishops between 1962 and 1965. The many changes adopted there had the effect of greatly liberalizing the church. For example, local languages largely replaced Latin in the celebration of the Mass, and many orders of nuns modified or discarded their habits. Moreover, Catholics also sought to forge closer ties with other faiths.
"Catholics' consciousness of themselves before that was much more that they were a breed apart," Holland says. "There had been a whole sense of identity and of marking yourself as different. A big part of Vatican II was saying that that's not the most important thing to consider."
At the school level, the Vatican II reforms translated into a new commitment to educate non-Catholics, especially those who were poor, and to experiment with different forms of schooling and methods of instruction, as spelled out in an influential statement, "To Teach as Jesus Did," issued by the U.S. bishops in 1972.
Regardless of this new sense of purpose, Catholic school enrollment began a long and sharp decline, hitting bottom in 1991, when it stood at about 2.4 million. By that point, Catholic schools accounted for only half the private school enrollment in the United States--down from 90 percent in the late '50s. Urban flight played a role, as more Catholic families moved to suburbs where fewer parochial schools existed. So, too, did the rising cost of Catholic schooling, as a growing dependence on lay teachers made the schools more expensive to run.
But the biggest factor may simply have been that Catholic parents no longer saw the public schools as robbing the next generation of its religious identity--or, in the spirit of a more secular age, were less worried by that prospect.
A Fundamental Shift
Almost as soon as Catholics acknowledged their place in the American mainstream, a growing number of evangelical Christians began seeking alternatives to public education.
The conversion was swift. According to the Association of Christian Schools International, fewer than 350 of its 3,300 member schools were established between 1956 and 1970. More than 1,600 were founded between 1971 and 1985. Enrollment in the group's schools now tops 564,000.
In their 1976 book The Schools that Fear Built, David Nevin and Robert E. Bills portray much of the interest in Christian schools as a reaction to racial integration. Most of the early growth, they point out, occurred in the South just as the public schools were undergoing court-ordered desegregation.
Some of those schools were unabashedly segregationist, most notably those in Mississippi started with the support of the Citizens Council, a grassroots group firmly opposed to integration.
A 1975-76 enrollment application for the council's schools stated that "forced congregation of persons in social situations solely because they are of different races is a moral wrong," according to Nevin and Bills. (In contrast, many of the nation's largest Catholic dioceses publicly declared their opposition to school segregation as early as the 1950s.)
But integration wasn't the only revolution under way. The role of women was changing, and homosexuals were beginning to demand legal protections and social acceptance. Many conservative Christians were especially troubled by the relaxation of sexual mores and the proliferation of drug use.
"It's not just desegregation," says Carper of the University of South Carolina, "but the perceived decline of public education and the turmoil of the 1960s all led many Christian parents to see the world as coming unglued."
To many Christian families, the 1960s also marked the final expulsion of religion from the public schools. Until then, public education still retained enough religious elements to give such parents a "comfort zone," says ACSI's president, Kendall Smitherman, who worked as a public school administrator from 1963 to 1970.
"During the years when I was working in the public schools, as a Christian, there was never the least bit of discomfort in addressing things from out of my own belief system," he says. "Christmas was celebrated with a religious Christmas program. Our parent-teacher organization started their meetings with a prayer. Those things were significant."
But in a pair of opinions handed down in 1962 and 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that public-school-sponsored prayer sessions and Bible readings were unconstitutional. "The cumulative effect of those two cases was to tell evangelical Christians that school was no longer God-centered," Hunt says.
Having seen the "word of God" squeezed out of public education, evangelical Christians were uncompromising in their treatment of religion in their own schools. Christianity wasn't relegated to one period of Bible study a day, but rather infused throughout every academic and extracurricular program.
"We want something more than simply story problems that insert religion," Smitherman says of math instruction. "Two plus three is still five, but what we try to do is lay out the broader idea that the whole world of mathematics is one more reflection of God as the creator of order."
But throughout the late '70s, many Christian schools felt dogged by the perception that they were segregationist. In 1978, a change in federal tax policy forced many to prove that they didn't discriminate on the basis of race or risk losing their tax exemptions, a move some took as an assault on their independence.
A number of states also stepped up their regulation of private schools, occasionally leading to outright hostility, as when Nebraska in the early '80s padlocked a Christian school and jailed its parents and founder in a long-standing dispute over enforcement of teacher-certification rules.
Such actions appear only to have added to the resolve of school supporters. By some estimates, the number of students in evangelical Christian schools grew by nearly 800 percent between 1965 and 1989.
Pluralism's New Age
American Jews have also been embracing private education in increasing numbers since midcentury.
Orthodox Jews established their first schools in the United States in the late 19th century. But the movement expanded substantially as Jews fled to North America in the 1930s to escape persecution by Nazi Germany. The schools allowed them to educate their children in a climate that accommodated their strict codes of conduct.
As a result, the number of students enrolled in Jewish day schools in the United States and Canada climbed from 7,700 to 55,800 between 1940 and 1960, according to Alvin Schiff's The Jewish Day School in America, published in 1966.
Full-time religious education has more recently begun to spark increased interest among other branches of Judaism.
In 1957, leaders of the Jewish Conservative movement passed a resolution promoting Jewish day schools as a way to ensure "a reservoir of intensely educated and deeply dedicated men and women."
Leaders of Judaism's most liberal branch similarly proclaimed, three decades later, that while they still supported public education, Jewish day schools with a Reform orientation should be established to provide parents with more options.
"This is much more of a coming to, rather than a running away from something," says Rabbi Joshua Elkin, the director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, which provides seed money and technical assistance to Jewish day schools. "It comes down to needing adequate exposure to a language, to traditional texts, a system of worship, and a grounding in ethics and appropriate behavior. You just can't give that in two or even six hours a week."
Though the vast majority of Jewish parents in the United States still send their children to public schools, current estimates peg enrollment at about 185,000, some 80 percent of whom are in Orthodox schools.
Some observers say the recent rise in popularity among liberal Jews, however, shows that dissatisfaction with the public schools has risen to a new level. Throughout most of this century, mainline American Jews have been among the strongest supporters of public education, which they have seen as key to their upward mobility.
Even more recently, the rapid growth of the United States' Muslim population --thanks to immigration and to religious conversion among African-Americans--has spurred the creation of private schools with an Islamic orientation. To many of the families they serve, such schools are not only places that accommodate their children's religious practices, but also havens from what they see as elements of decadence in American society. The number of Muslim schools in the United States has grown from roughly 50 to 180 in the past decade.
An 'Underground Railroad'
No other form of nonpublic education, though, has grown as rapidly in recent years as home schooling. Recent estimates of the number of home- schooled children range from 700,000 to 1.2 million--up from roughly 100,000 in the early 1980s.
Although most closely identified with conservative Christians, the home schooling movement of recent decades gained impetus from the progressive "alternative" schools of the 1960s and 1970s. One of its most ardent early supporters was free-school advocate John Holt, who had taught in private school. Throughout the 1960s, Holt complained that schools were overly structured and stifled student initiative.
At first, he hoped that open-minded public school educators would embrace his vision of a learning environment in which children's own interests largely directed their work. But he eventually grew skeptical that even alternative schools could go far enough. "He saw that these schools were still just soft jails instead of hard jails," says Patrick Farenga, the director of Holt Associates, the home schooling information clearinghouse Holt set up before his death in 1985.
In 1976, Holt published Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better, in which he proposed "a new Underground Railroad to help children escape" from school. A year later, he launched a home education magazine, Growing Without Schooling.
Shortly thereafter, evangelical Christians started holding home schooling conferences, and the primary motivation for home education began to shift from the pedagogical to the religious. Some families found justification in what they viewed as the Bible's pronouncements that parents bear ultimate responsibility for educating their children. Others who might have sent their children to a Christian school discovered that none existed in their communities or were unaffordable.
Between the early 1980s and the early 1990s, many states officially recognized the rights of parents to teach their children at homea practice that some believed had previously been illegal.
Legal skirmishes, nevertheless, continue--though home school advocates say the battleground has shifted. Parents today are rarely told they have no right to home school. Instead, challenges tend to center around whether states are being heavy-handed in their regulation of home schooling. Some parents, for example, have refused to submit curriculum plans to education officials, as required in some states.
Although Christians make up the bulk of home schoolers today, the movement is diversifying.
"It doesn't matter whether the parent is an atheist, or Bahai, or Christian, adults usually think they know what is best to pass on to their children," says Brian D. Ray, the director of the National Home Education Research Institute.
In Their Own Right
Confident in their ability to instill values, many private schools have seemed defensive about the quality of their academic programs--at least until recently. As public schools added new facilities and course offerings during the first half of the century, for instance, Roman Catholic schools often struggled against the view that their bare-bones curriculum didn't measure up.
But by the 1980s, public education seemed to be losing its edge.
In 1982, the sociologist James S. Coleman published the study "High School Achievement: Public, Catholic, and Private Schools Compared." The findings suggested that Catholic schools did more than public schools to narrow the performance gap between rich and poor students. Similar conclusions were offered that same year in research carried out by the Rev. Andrew Greeley of the National Opinion Research Center, a Catholic priest and noted sociologist.
"What Coleman and Greeley found in their research was that Catholic schools weren't inferior," says the Rev. Richard Jacobs, a Villanova University professor. "At the time, it was astounding. It counteracted the conventional wisdom."
Not everyone was convinced. Some argued that the differences had more to do with the fact that private schools could choose their students. Regardless, those studies and others increasingly opened up the possibility that Catholic schools might actually be better than public ones, particularly in inner cities.
Non-Catholics began seeking out parochial schools for academic, safety, and discipline reasons-- in far greater numbers than ever before. Between 1970 and 1988, the proportion of non-Catholics in Catholic schools grew from less than 3 percent to more than 11 percent. Many of the new students were African-American children who partially filled the void created as white Catholic families moved out of the cities. By 1984, more than half the Catholic school students in Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York were members of minority groups.
While the Catholic schools were finding a new source of students, their traditional pool of teachers was shrinking. The number of men and women entering religious life plummeted after the 1960s. Within a few decades, the schools went from faculties that were 90 percent religious to 90 percent lay.
Even though Catholic school enrollments began to rise again after the start of this decade, the shortage of nuns has brought new challenges. Lay teachers require more competitive salaries--thus pushing up the cost of running schools. And the rise of all-lay schools is posing a once unthinkable question: How can these schools be sure of maintaining their religious identity?
"The problem now," says Jacobs of Villanova University, "is how are they going to be anything other than just good private schools."
Indeed, as the century draws to a close, the demand for "good private schools," regardless of church affiliation, appears to be on the rise.
The number of day students in schools belonging to the National Association of Independent Schools alone has jumped from fewer than 315,000 to more than 425,000 over the past decade.
"The independent schools, which used to be particularly immune to societal changes, began to feel some external pressure in my tenure," says John Esty, who led the organization from 1978 to 1991.
"By the end of the 1970s, they were dramatically changing their student bodies to be less white and less affluent. Partly it was because of changes in NAIS policy, but those were also the first inklings of parents' perceiving the decline in the academic performance of the public schools."
For some, those inklings found confirmation in the 1983 report A Nation at Risk. While its damning assessment of America's public schools helped prompt a wave of changes in education, it also added to the list of reasons why parents seek alternatives.
For their part, public schools seem more willing to learn from their private counterparts as the century ends. The arrival of charter schools, magnet schools, and interdistrict- transfer programs within the public system has had the effect of casting private education not as something at the fringe, but as part of a continuum of options.
"In the early 1800s, the line between public and private was very blurred, and then it became very distinct," says Carper, the South Carolina scholar. "Now, I wonder if we are not coming back to a point where we think of the education of the public as being through a variety of means."
Vol. 19, Issue 8, Pages 26,28-32
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