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The Catholic Left

For those unable to purchase the Catholic Herald, find below the sub of an article of mine that appeared this weekend.

The Left is not the enemy of the Catholic Church
Catholic commentators should be careful not to demonise those on the Left, says Michael Merrick

They do not flow quite so easily as they once used to, the words ‘Catholic’ and ‘Left’. These terms used to fit snugly together, accurately describing the political inclinations of swathes of the Catholic community, but have been slowly rent apart: from cliché to contradiction within less than two decades.

The separation hardly came out of the blue. Following years of implicit and explicit attack endured during New Labour’s reign, one could naturally understand the Catholic commentariat snuggling up to the Conservatives, the latest swing of the pendulum toward whichever political party would ease the relentless pressure being placed upon the faithful.  The foot needed taking from the throat and if the Conservatives brought with them the promise of breathing space, then all well and good.

Yet the fallout between the Catholic community and the left has taken on air of permanence of late, just as the bonds have taken root between the Catholic community and the political Right. For what has become increasingly obvious is that, for a good number of well-informed and genuinely astute individuals, being an orthodox Catholic and being on ‘the Left’ is largely incompatible.

It is the language that shapes the intellectual landscape which lets us see most clearly the direction of travel. For many, ‘the Left’ is a phrase emblematic of those habits of thought and action that stand aggressively against the truths upheld by the Catholic Church. Respected commentators with whom many a faithful Catholic would find common ground, including certain luminaries of this parish, are perfectly happy to attribute a host of ideological idiocies to this phenomenon. Everything from liturgical vandalism to hug-a-heretic liberalism is attributed to that dark and not-so-distant force known as ‘the Left’.

Apart from being untrue (in itself a fairly fatal flaw in the analysis) the impression is given that the promulgators of such myths prefer cartoon caricature to blood and guts reality, even at the cost of flinging mud at those they ought to be standing alongside.

The notion that Left-wing thought is inimical to orthodox Catholic thinking is simply not one that is shared by a great many of those sitting in the pews throughout the country. To engage with the legacies left to us by our forefathers in faith, indeed by the very weave of social history and our unique place in it, while proclaiming that ‘the Left’ is an enemy, in whatever sense, of the faith and the Catholic community: this tale, as much as any other, presents itself as a hermeneutic of rupture.

After all, the faith that inclines an individual to stand in defence of the family, of the unborn, of the truths and values of the faithful community, is precisely the same faith that similarly compels some to stand on the Left-wing of the political spectrum, arguing that all these things are relentlessly assaulted by the political orthodoxies of the Right. This was as true historically, with sophisticated Catholic critiques of capitalism, as it remains now, as more than a few in the Labour Party continue to demonstrate. To use ‘the Left’ as shorthand for dissent is to ignore this crucial aspect: for many, their political and economic critiques are manifestations of their fidelity, not obstacles to it.

This is not to embrace what the professional, political Left has too often become. One can readily admit that social liberalism has fractured our communities every bit as much as its market-based twin, and mourn the role of the Labour Party in pursuing that creed (though one could point out that this ideological oeuvre has always been a hobby of the already empowered, existent within all three political parties). Indeed, for the Left the story is not as uniform as its cultured despisers would have it. Peter Hitchens’s distinction between the social and moral conservatism of the Left’s working class, and the ‘let-it-all-hang-out liberals’ comprised largely of the Oxbridge elite, is apposite.

Yet, in confining discussion to the moral free-marketeers of the New Left, one tells only half a story. For while the Catholic view of the family and the unborn (for example) are rightly defended from upon the rock-solid walls of Church teaching, we must be careful not to forget that other teachings have equal call on our thought and action. Church teaching interlinks and interweaves, most compellingly when offered as a coherent, holistic vision. Its impact is neutered the moment it is balkanised for political expediency. To use the encyclicals most symbolic of the impulses of which we speak, Humanae Vitae presents itself most powerfully when read with Rerum Novarum, not in isolation from it.

This gets at the nub of it. The phenomenon alluded to by those who would wash their hands of ‘the Left’ is not a political party or tradition, to be pinned to one end of an increasingly redundant political spectrum. It is much more elusive than that, forever moving because ultimately loyal to nothing but itself. As John Milbank has argued, the feigned confrontation of Left and Right is nothing but shadow play:­ in truth they are allies, each pursuing only the liberalism that drives them.

This demands that we employ a little more nuance in interpreting the socio-political landscape. The truth is that that which the Church holds to be good and true can exist on the Left, has existed on the Left, and continues to exist among significant portions of the Left, as becomes obvious once one zooms out from the unrepresentative outpourings of media-savvy progressive activists and cosmopolitan liberals ill at ease with their own tradition. Indeed, there are few expressions of Church social and moral teaching not readily identifiable within the traditions of the Left, both historically and philosophically, a truth inexplicably forgotten though increasingly rediscovered.

As such, painting ‘the Left’ as the bogeyman that assaults a Catholic vision of the good life is not just simplistic but genuinely dangerous, since it feeds into that culture war narrative that is so pernicious to the wholeness of Church teaching precisely because its tidy-minded simplicity, while so very alluring, is also so very wrong.

Not that I try to claim Catholicism for the Left, or indeed the Left for Catholicism. To do so would be to contradict my whole purpose in writing this article.

But it is to offer a warning that those who would slip so cosily into the arms of the Conservatives as a reaction against ‘the Left’ ought to be careful: that which you run toward is much the same as that which you run from. The intellectual and political tides that swept away any influence among the professional Left (although not the cultural Left) are the same tides currently weaving their way through the professional Right.

In other words, the revolution of the New Left is the revolution of the New Right. And both need Truth spoken to them.

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Teaching Time

I’ve often thought there is a tendency in teaching to try to offer intellectual justification for educational trends that lead primarily to diminishing the role of the teacher. Partly, I suspect, this is because of a philosophical and cultural fetish for anything that contravenes settled notions of authority and hierarchy; partly, it is because of a hazy commitment to such nebulous terms as ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’.

But what if there were more to it? I’m no historian, and so couldn’t chart any patterns of causation or correlation, but what if so many of these trends were actually just attempts to add bien pensant pseudo-psycho-baubles to what are essentially strategies of self-preservation? What if the constant move toward making the teacher less important in the educational process is the result of the fact that the teacher finds it increasingly difficult to be in control of the educational process?

Let me explain. Over on ResPublica’s blog, Joe Nutt can be found musing on the difference between current indigenous educational philosophies and those prevalent in more successful educational systems through the medium of, well, red ink.

In essence, he is arguing that to improve educational standards we must demand academic excellence, both from our students but also from our teachers. To tease out the differences, he notes that whereas in Finland he witnessed a teacher who was willing to cover a pupil’s work in thorough and detailed written feedback, in Britain there is naught but jangled nerves about covering work in red pen, either because we no longer believe in academic excellence, or because our current commitments lie with other pastoral concerns, such as confidence building and the like.

As such, for Nutt a commitment to excellence in teaching, which means also in teachers, is the single most important factor in improving standards and outcomes, this being more crucial than (for example) the structure of the institution in which they work.

And he has a point. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had to endure sanctimonious twaddle about the use of red pen in the classroom. Or the cruelty inherent in ‘over-correcting’ work. In this sense, maybe Nutt is correct in saying that the issue is a cultural one rather than an organisational or institutional one, meaning that any solution to it lies in a conversion of the heart rather than the Head (see what I did there?).

I’m sure Nutt would also have the support of a great many of those who send their children to schools expecting them to be educated. To focus in on one example, it is not at all uncommon to hear people criticising teachers for the standards of marking, or more specifically the fact that they ignore such seemingly fundamental things as spelling and grammar and instead cover a book in ticks and the occasional motivational refrain. This is perfectly understandable: parents, along with everybody else, expect teachers to educate the young and whilst this clearly includes subject knowledge, they also expect ‘the basics’ (spelling and grammar) to be picked up on as being a non-negotiable core aspect of the teacher’s duties.

And, all things being equal, these people are absolutely right in that expectation.

But then, there’s rather more to it than that. Because what Nutt’s argument presumes, and the argument of those parents suggests, is that if only teachers could be converted to the cause of academic excellence then the most significant barrier to achieving this standards vision will have been removed.

But this is simply not true: even for those who yearn to spill the red ink, the reality is that they are not always able.

To explore this a little, lets take the example of a humanities subject teacher. Now, teachers in Britain, at least those without any management responsibility, will have to teach twenty-two classes per week. At an average of, say, thirty children per class, that works out at six hundred and sixty pieces of work per week. That is, by the end of each week, each teacher will have accrued 660 pieces of work that they need to have marked.

Now, imagine the teacher has given their class a set of 10 questions to complete. Or, a piece of prose to write which covers, say, one side of their exercise book. Not only does that teacher have to ensure that all content is accurate and/or well expressed, and make corrections accordingly, they also have to pick up on that grammar and spelling that any normal person would reasonably expect them to amend. There is rather more to it than that, of course, dependent on the level of work set and much else, but let us keep it basic for now.

As such, it is not at all unreasonable to assume that as an average, to mark a piece of work in full detail could take, say, three minutes. (There are many variables, but let’s just take this as a reasonable average)

Now do the sums: 660 pieces of work, with each taking three minutes to mark. That would mean marking each week works out at 33 hours. On top of the 22 hours teaching. And the however many hours planning for those lessons. And making the resources for them.  And everything else that comes with being in a school, from pastoral roles to extra-curricular activities to myriad else besides.

And one could (perhaps should) have added in homework, usually one piece per subject per week, but as this varies from school to school I’ll leave it out: nonetheless for most teachers, the setting, chasing and marking (and punishing for non-submission) has to be factored into their time too.

Whilst this is clearly far from a rigorous scientific analysis, the general point is this: whilst Joe Nutt can rightly admire the Finnish teacher who spent six hours giving detailed feedback to one class on one piece of work, he is wrong to simultaneously speculate that the only barrier to this happening in the United Kingdom is cultural rather than institutional. The truth is that, however much one might desire to cover a page in detailed feedback (or evil red ink, depending on your view) there yet exists only so many hours in a day in which to do it. In this sense, the problem really is institutional, with philosophical or cultural considerations being the secondary issue.

Which brings me full circle and that daft idea that correcting work is somehow oppressive, or an example of bad practice, or whatever other reason given against it: might this not just be a manifestation of the preservation instinct, a way of saying (without actually having to say it) – we simply cannot do this?

Which is ironic. Not least because it would mean the trendy educational progressives become the stalwarts of the status-quo, the useful idiots finding ways to rationalise the system that simply demands too much.

If teaching is to improve then teachers need to be given time to be teachers. And that really is an institutional issue.

Recruitment and Retention

Teaching. It’s a tough job. Genuinely.

Which means that, sometimes, people get into teaching and find it is not for them. The demands placed upon them, they decide, are too unreasonable. The task, they decide, too thankless. The alternatives, they imagine, too tempting.

And so they leave the profession.

This has been an issue for a long time now. Education Secretary after Education Secretary has had to sit and listen whilst Sir Humphrey after Sir Humphrey has had to explain to him or her that, for whatever reason, those teachers that cost us a fortune to train are leaving the profession in droves.

And it is literally droves. Whilst the figures swing about a bit, the cliché runs that more than 50% of those who start on teacher training courses are no longer teaching within five years. Admittedly, some of the research upon which is the based is quite old (see here) whilst other bits rely primarily on polling (for example this), but the issue is still a hot one – just last year, Michael Gove mourned the fact that there are almost as many qualified teachers no longer teaching as there are qualified teachers continuing to teach.

So, the teaching profession has a problem. It can still, just about, attract people to the profession, but it is rather less capable of keeping them once they arrive. Slowly it limps along, not quite managing to cover the wastage with its yearly influx of new talent, many of whom become the next batch of statistics on Sir Humphrey’s briefing paper.

The bodyshock that comes with the workload is one primary cause for the exodus; the stress of workplace issues, in particular pupil behaviour, is the other.

And we lose some fantastic talent in the process.

Yet, so long as the numbers wanting to get into teaching remains sufficiently high to cover the losses the wreck keeps rolling, and we can claim to be holding the Maginot Line. After all, who cares if 50% of teachers leave the profession, so long as those remaining are significant enough in number to satiate the needs of the system? If we can pretend to the outside world that it ain’t broke, then that’s what we’ll jolly well do.

But what if the production line was to dry up? What if the fodder for the system became more and more sparse? What if more and more people looked at the financial package on offer and decided they could better use their (very expensively acquired) degree elsewhere? What if others decided that having to endure the almost mythical workload until they were 68 is not sufficiently tempting to draw them in? What if others decided the c. £27,000 for a degree plus c. £9,000 for QTS were investments they could ill-afford to make? What if the static pay and decreased incentives were not enough to tempt career switchers to take a chance on the low trust-high surveillance profession of teaching?

Well, then there really would be a problem. And no amount of politicians waving their arms assuring everyone that teaching is an elite profession would ever be enough to make up for it.

Michael Gove no doubt worries about the leeching of talent from the teaching profession.

Good.

Next he should worry whether his actions, and those of his government, are discouraging the talented from even bothering with teaching in the first place.