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RE in schools – evangelise or secularise?

As of this September I shall be training to become an RE teacher at a Catholic school in Cumbria. This has lead, as one would expect, to a heightened interest in all things RE, but more particularly an interest in the way in which it is perceived more widely through contemporary society. I don’t mean so much its standing amongst those children who have to study it – I’m well aware that RE can be remarkably unpopular (it was for me!), especially to young adolescents feeling their logical certainties assaulted by the mysteries and paradoxes of faith. Rather, I’m more interested in how the subject is regarded within the education sector as a whole, and amongst our cultural and political elites in particular.

And the impression one comes across time after time, in document after document, proposal after proposal, research study after research study, is a fundamental lack of certainty about what Religious Education is actually for, and what it should look like.

At one end, of course, there are those who maintain all religious education should have no place in state schools, as if denying children such knowledge is somehow better for their education and development. At the other end, one still very occasionally comes across those who believe Religious Education should largely be a matter of catechetical instruction, as defined by the denomination or tradition in which that particular schools rests, with only the odd foray into contrasting religions and beliefs. And somewhere in between, though much closer to the former than the latter, there are those who maintain that RE is an important part of a decent education, but that it should be strictly confined to disinterested academic pursuit, the teaching of sociological features, historical fact and cultural quirk.

And it is this latter view that seems to have been raised into unthinking orthodoxy, certainly amongst those (usually academics and educational advisers) whose job it is to construct a consensus upon what role RE should play in the life of a school and how it should be taught within the curriculum (although it does remain non-statutory – which, theoretically at least, allows a certain flexibility).

Before he retired, the Bishop of Lancaster (now Bishop Emeritus) issued a report entitled Fit for Mission?, part of which concentrated specifically on schools. The document is bold and important, and was well received by many within the Church – which means, almost inevitably, that it was poorly received by many outwith the Church (more, the Bishop was pretty shoddily attacked at a parliamentary committee by a variety of mediocrities who appeared little more than thirsty for religious, or more particularly Catholic, blood – the video appears to be unavailable, but Douglas Carswell indirectly rebuked his colleagues by asking the Bishop if he thought he would have been treated with such hostility had he been a Muslim cleric – read a report here).

Anyway, one part of the document that struck me, particularly in light of recent events, was the passage,

‘Our Catholic schools and colleges must become powerhouses of evangelisation and catechesis. Again, I must stress that evangelisation is not proselytism, which is a coercive pressure to go against one’s conscientious beliefs. Evangelisation is an invitation to freely consider and experience the truth of the Catholic faith.

I am concerned that a failure to appreciate this clear distinction between proselytism and evangelisation has led some schools and colleges to be inhibited about proclaiming the full truth of the Catholic faith, due to the presence of non-Catholic pupils.’

Whilst the very first sentence of that passage will no doubt horrify some, nonetheless the Bishop is right to draw out the distinction between evangelisation and proselytism, one that must be upheld lest religious schools merely capitulate in the face of secularising forces that wish to erode the religious character of schools on the basis of an unthinking muddle of these two very different things. As such, there is a perfectly rational and robust defence to be made here – a Catholic school should be at liberty to be, well, Catholic, and if parents freely choose to send their children to a particular school because it is Catholic, or knowing that it is Catholic, then there is no reason for that school to cease to be Catholic, nor to cease inviting its students to share in that community of faith.

Perhaps this is partly the old English habit of striving to avoid giving offence when, in fact, no offence was ever likely to be taken. What seems to be the greater factor, however, is the apparent triumph amongst many of our educational elites of the view that only objective neutrality can guarantee profitable discourse and learning (which is nonsense) and that only secularism is both objective and neutral (which is nonsense). And so it is that ‘secularism’ has become the banner under which a motley collection of ‘anti-religionists’ increasingly march, the intellectual illusion through which religious education is constantly assaulted by precisely those relativisms and nihilisms that it should, more properly, seek to counter.

Accordingly, there was little surprise when news arose recently of an Ofsted report that claimed the teaching of Christianity in our schools is of a worryingly poor standard, and increasingly transgresses even the law of the land as to the minimum legal requirement demanded of all schools in the state sector (a report that, remarkably, never featured in the pages of the Guardian – proving the paper is less about delivering news and more about peddling ideological idiocies). Christianity, it is becoming clear, is not only regarded as just one eccentricity amongst others, but is even underplayed and under-taught in relation to various other religions. This is consistent with the prejudices of a wider cultural assault committed primarily by the liberal-left – an unflinching and destructive commitment to relativism more generally, and multi-culturalism more specifically.

Or, in the words of Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, ”What is happening in schools perhaps reflects what has happened in society generally regarding the importance and practice of Christianity… I think certainly in the last decade inspectors have wanted to see examples of multiculturalism, diversity and the promotion of community cohesion in RE, so that is what schools have shown them’

Which leaves us in a pickle, and gives prospective RE teachers something of a minefield to navigate. And it might not be as easy as just keeping in mind the essential difference between evangelisation and proselytism, and sticking rigorously to the former – because it seems that something much more fundamental is at stake; the right to evangelise at all, or at least to evangelise the Christian faith, be it a religious school or not.

Where has the Broken Society gone?

I was reading this rather snazzy looking document entitled Labour’s Legacy over on the Conservative website. It concerns itself entirely with the state of the economy, and lists a few of the things Conservatives clearly feel are important enough for them to reiterate whenever the opportunity presents itself. Which is fair enough. After all, if the Tories are to push through their plans to pay down the deficit, possibly damaging their (somewhat limited) popularity in the process, then the best way of providing the necessary covering fire for doing so is by highlighting just how dire the finances allegedly are, and how irresponsible Labour were for having let things get so bad in the first place.

But the document is far more interesting for what it doesn’t say, than what it does.

When the Tories were flying high in the opinion polls, they had a popular and coherent narrative about a Broken Society. They hadn’t, at that particular time, settled on any kind of cure, but their diagnosis, however much some thought it unfair or inaccurate, nonetheless resonated with a large chunk of the electorate who waited eagerly to hear what solutions the Tories proposed. The recession changed all that, and blew the Tories away from their Broken Society narrative and into the realm of budgetary cuts and the (still raw) memories of the Thatcher years. The polls narrowed and the Tories lost the unlosable election – though the reason for that loss is something that will keep political obsessives debating for years to come. And now, as with this document, one barely hears the phrase at all. All political talk is about reducing the deficit, generating growth, paying off debt, and avoiding falling into the same trap again in the future.

Which is wholly understandable, but not wholly necessary. Put simply, the economic agenda needn’t be cut from the social vision that once distinguished the Tories from their political opponents, not least because it is patently obvious that the two things are very much two sides of the same coin. The broken ideology that has guided our approach to the markets is much the same as the broken ideology that has guided our approach to the state, and both of them are the broken ideologies that have guided our approach to society. Debt, state power, tax, the markets, growth – all of these things form a small part of that scattered jigsaw puzzle that the Tories were once bold enough to address.

So why the apparent abandonment of the project? Why limit the scope merely to our economic poverty, and not our increasing social poverty?

Well, I think it’s three things. Firstly, David Cameron is and always has been a committed social liberal, instinctively opposed to socially conservative policies (as his wobble on marriage tax support initially illustrated, and his eagerness to ditch it post-election merely confirmed). In fact, he openly derides social conservatism. This meant that his talk of the Broken Society always seemed to come with a caveat, a clarification, or an escape clause, and this cost him in the credibility stakes.

Secondly, the coalition has meant that the LibDems, who are essentially socially liberal but split between fiscal conservatives and fiscal lefties, have been able to neuter the social conservatism that underpinned much of the Broken Society narrative.

And thirdly, many Conservatives are modern day disciples of Thatcher, meaning they care much more about the fiscal wealth than they do about ‘social wealth’ – indeed, some even think that the former is the prime generator of the latter. Additionally, even when evidence is produced to underscore the economic benefits of promoting certain socially conservative policies, their commitment to an emaciated account of ‘freedom’ precludes them from supporting such moves. In short, they conflate their conservatism with libertarianism, and in doing find social liberals to be affable bedfellows.

Which means that the Conservatives run the very real risk of confining their vision to the economic and in so doing simply resurrecting all those caricatures that they have tried so hard to shed. Worse, there is every danger that such a narrow approach may well exacerbate that very social breakdown that they have previously claimed to be so pernicious, a consequence that remains the prime accusation levelled against Thatcher – if this happens, after such forthright talk of the Broken Society and, latterly, the Big Society, then the Conservatives will come, in a very short space of time, to be every bit as despised as Labour were towards the end of their own, in the end inglorious reign.

Balls and St. George

I remember a while back I attended a lecture by Terry Eagleton, a rather dull sermon on… well goodness knows, some pseudo-Marxist bluster no doubt. Even so, despite the overwhelming boredom that is my principal memory of the event, one thing Eagleton mentioned did in fact stick with me, and it was when he started talking about the morality of grammar, before bringing forth some examples of medieval dissertations, with one of them entitled something along the lines of ‘the morality of the semi-colon in [poem/thesis/argument]’.

Now of course, in itself this is wholly unremarkable – grammatology and sociolinguistics have long been the fetish of the loony-left, that bourgeois clique of daintily middle-class Marxists fighting culture wars from their dreamy humanities-habitats in universities up and down the land. Either way, the comment stuck with me, not because of any great insight it offered into the reality of things, nor because it whet my nostalgist appetites with its reference to medieval manuscripts, but simply because it offered an alternative perspective into something else that had increasingly come to my attention at that point in time.

For you see, there was a particular lefty lecturer at this university who, when sending e-mails, would never use any capital letters nor use any formal mode of address when writing. He would just launch into what he wanted to talk about, devoid of all but the most necessary grammatical restraints (usually the full-stop, which in a punctuation desert suddenly becomes really quite brutal), and leave it there, occasionally with an odd attempt to sign the message off in some sort of formal fashion. In so doing this lecturer was clearly trying to make some kind of passive-aggressive statement – or, if my presumption of extreme revolutionary fervour is unjustified, then he was certainly trying, by consciously contravening established norms, to make some kind of statement, whatever it might actually be.

I was thinking about that episode again today when I read this blog by Toque, which reproduces  a response from Ed Balls to a question regarding the public funding of St George’s Day celebrations. The letter was courteous, and engaged with the topic thoughtfully, but it contained the following passage;

Thank you for your recent email asking for my views on St. Georges Day, and for your kind words of support. I apologise for the short delay in responding. You ask if I am in favour of state funding for an official St. Georges Day celebration and making St. Georges Day a public holiday in England.

I think it is right to recognise the importance of St. Georges Day, what it means to the history of England, and for the values that England represents [etc.]

Now it is of course entirely possible, and even probable, that the expensively educated Edward Michael Balls, Shadow Secretary of State for Education and former Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, simply does not know how to use an apostrophe. And it could be theoretically possible, although this might be pushing it a little far, that Ed Balls is wholly ignorant of the St. George story and therefore thinks that April 23rd is dedicated to a whole collection of people, all called St. George, though it is not their possession, thereby rendering the apostrophe redundant.

Either way, it seems unlikely that Ed Balls is being linguistically seditious, at least not in the same way that that university lecturer was trying to be. Even so, by omitting the apostrophe one subliminally denies the connection between that particular day and that particular saint, the singular St. George, patron saint of our nation and dragon-slayer extraordinaire. The association is sundered, rendered generic and meaningless, stripped of the history, tradition and legend that gives the dedication (and our adoption of St. George as patron saint) any meaning whatsoever.

And who can really deny that our sense of national identity suffers from precisely this sort of sterilisation of our historical and cultural consciousness, of our ‘island story’.  In the inevitable vacuum we keep creating for ourselves, it is those who prefer to destroy than to build up that increasingly emerge triumphant; those who boldly denounce having any patron saint as simply pointless, an irrelevant anachronism, a silly tradition from our less civilised past that no longer merits inclusion in our enlightened present.

The tragedy is that, increasingly, they may well be right. If people hold on to customs and practices whilst simultaneously stripping away the very social, cultural, historical and, dare one say it, religious language (and grammar) within which they have meaning, then one is merely dressing up a mummy in modern clothes and make-up the better to pretend that it is still alive. As soon as someone points out that, all things considered, the mummy seems to be dead, then the illusion is finished – and so is the mummy.

Am I taking this grammatical slip too seriously? Undoubtedly I am. But I don’t apologise for it. Because it is a small sign of a greater cultural sterility that has stripped society of those foundational pillars that once fashioned some sort of shared identity. In essence, it is this – our society has lost a shared sense of sacramentality; with regards to national identity, this ranges from the gradual erosion of our Christian heritage, to the mock and derision of our public institutions, to the haughty disdain of our historical establishments, to the general distaste for the once honoured place of tradition and custom, to sheer indifference to all of the above. But without that shared sacramentality, that transcending cultural apparatus, society will fragment. Because if a society casts off all sacramentality, then nothing is sacred. And when nothing is sacred, everything can be destroyed.

Grammar is important. And April 23rd is St. George’s Day.

Our Island Story

Martin Kettle writes here about what seems all of a sudden to have become a pressing subject, that being the teaching of history in our schools. And he makes the important point that one might find it difficult to teach a common history within a land that is no longer monocultural. Or, in his own words,

Britain, though, has special difficulties of its own. Not only is there no overarching British narrative, as distinct from English, Scottish, Welsh and at least two sorts of Irish narratives. English culture, in particular, is still disabled by unresolved class differences as well. History from above? History from below? Or a synthesis? And which one?

Which is a central question, and one needing put to those charged with the task of writing any new syllabus with the intention of teaching of a ‘common history’ at its heart. Nonetheless, if the legacy of the liberal left, with its devotion to multiculturalism and cultural relativism, has been a fractured sense of common identity, then perhaps one small way of countering that fracture is to return to a history syllabus that encompasses everyone in the same tale, in the same ‘Island story’.

At the same time, we mustn’t become too simplistic. Truth is, we have never really ever been a monoculture – though we have certainly shared patriotic commonality. Trying to make everyone look and think the same is never the answer – trying to encompass everyone in loyalty for their homeland certainly is.* So when Kettle says ‘Without a common culture, a common history remains out of reach,’ he is going too far. And in so doing, he risks accepting that narrow cultural imperialism that says we must all think and look the same or else we must all be irreconcilably opposed.

It’s worth bringing in here Ana the Imp, commenting on the contemporary refraction of the (relatively recent) idea of the nation state into endless parochial identities, especially in relation to the EU project;

The nation-state, in its modern form, is a largely artificial creation; the child, not of nationalism, as is usually assumed, but of the Age of Enlightenment. The European Union might be said to be a reaction against this, a process by which the nation state will be rendered obsolete. But all the evidence suggests that there is no European identity as such. Rather what can be seen is the liberation of a patch-work of local identities, formerly sublimated within the nation state. What we can see, in other words, is Transylvanian, Basque, Breton, Flemish, Scottish and a host of other fragmentations; what we can see is a revival, it might be said, of the crazy patchwork of the Holy Roman Empire.

Which is true,  and helps explain the flourishing of different nationalisms in our own lands at the moment – they are simply the next step down, so to speak, of the political construct known as United Kingdom, and the local identities that constitute it.  Only, this has problems of its own. As I have tried explaining to certain Scottish nationalists over the years, Scottish independence is essentially the restatement on the local level of precisely that which it seeks ultimately to refute: ‘Scotland’ is every bit the arbitrary political and cultural construct as is ‘Britain’. It contains the same internal contradictions, and tries to unify internal social, cultural and historical identities through appeal to a transcending, though largely artificial, sense of monocultural unity.  In this sense, the nationalists have let the genie out of the bottle, and their logic will consume them; those who deride unionism by appeals to nationalism will eventually succumb to the demands of regionalism. Or, in Ana’s words,

This process of division and subdivision is likely to continue, always looking inwards, towards ever more parochial loyalties. Consider the Scots… once the old ‘oppressive’ English state is factored out, once the sense of historical grievance is removed, what then? How will the Gaelic Highlands see the Saxon Lowlands? How will the east sit with the west? How will Glasgow sit with Edinburgh? I can’t answer these questions; I do not have sufficient prescience. All I can say is that more and more prince-bishops and margraves are likely to emerge in a modern form as we move wider still and wider.

As I have written before, as a northern, working-class Roman Catholic, I will construct my identities and my loyalties, my history and culture differently to a southern middle-class Protestant. The question is, need this mean we must therefore be disparate? I think not, and the idea that difference must be inimical to unity is fallacious – the wealth of local and regional identities add depth and breadth to the national; they are not irreconcilable with it.

Which leads, inevitably, back to the question of ‘what constitutes the national’, or at least, what is the transcendent that unifies? For which I offer no detailed answer here – though my chosen title of this piece is something of a clue. Further, if I tell you I have more sympathy for the monarchist and his realms than I do for the bureaucrat and his regions, then you might get some idea of my own thoughts on the matter.

*I instinctively think here of the brutally persecuted Catholics, living in the time of Bloody Bess, who nonetheless remained loyal to their Queen, and this through wider loyalty to their realm and the desire to not cede it to the French (through Queen Mary’s marriage to that tribe). Clearly, identity through such oppositional conflicts would be largely obsolete these days – at least on a ‘nationalistic’ axis.