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Gove’s traditionalism and Catholic education

For those unable to purchase the Catholic Herald, this article of mine appeared in today’s edition;

Whilst the increasingly fractious education debate has been simmering for a couple of years now, there has been a significant rise in temperature of late with the revelation that Michael Gove intends to abolish the GCSE in favour of a return to O-levels and CSEs. Cue bouts of frenzied reaction and overreaction: what Michael Gove is doing, and why he is doing it, has given an opportunity for all sides to dust off their best caricatures and head for the moral high ground.

Sifting through the numerous myths, peddled by both sides, is no simple task. Even the issue which has generated such frantic debate is far from clear cut. Questions abound on the details of the policy, the potential consequences of any such move, the planned responses to those consequences, and whether all this will be politically viable anyway. As is the nature of policy-by-leak, there is not much we can say for certain; those who respond with the air of authority are fumbling around in the dark.

Yet one thing can be said with reasonable confidence: Michael Gove intends his legacy as Education Secretary to be the re-emphasis on academic excellence in our schools. Or to borrow the words of Matthew Arnold, quoted by Gove in his speech on the elements of a liberal education, education shall be about about introducing ‘young minds to the best that had been thought and written.’

Perhaps predictably, this has been labelled as educational ‘traditionalism’, usually used pejoratively and standing alone as both condemnation and dismissal.  Yet it provokes important questions for the Catholic community about how we educate our young. If this is the direction the tide is beginning to flow, Catholic schools and those concerned with them must consider the question: is Gove’s educational ‘traditionalism’ compatible with a Catholic understanding of education?

Leaving the issue of pedagogy aside, the  focus on development of the intellect sits comfortably within a framework of Catholic education. Nuance is needed, since the intellectual virtues extend beyond mere possession of knowledge, though knowledge can be seen as an end itself, as Newman argued, when seen as invariably pointing toward the acts and works of the Creator. As such, training the intellect has long been held as central to Catholic education since it deepens discernment and helps us make proper use of the gifts bestowed upon us by God. As Ronald Knox said, ‘God wouldn’t have given us an intellect, if he didn’t want us to think straight.’

Accordingly, the traditionalist approach offers opportunities to access aspects of formation long neglected by many of our schools. There is currently little opportunity for children to study the Doctors of the church, or the mystics, or the apologists. Theology and philosophy find themselves pushed to the outside of a crowded timetable, their relative absence from the qualifications curricula rendering them indulgences few teachers, weary of exam results and the league tables constructed from them, are bold enough to address in any sustained manner.

Reviving the notion of knowledge acquired for a greater purpose than the adornment of a CV might help rehabilitate, even if only in theory, those core aspects of Catholic intellectual formation currently deemed superfluous. In short, introducing our young to the riches of our shared intellectual heritage would help, not hinder, the delivery of an authentic Catholic education. It would also help us more effectively furnish them with the confidence and capacity to boldly live out the faith in an increasingly hostile environment.

For these reasons, the initial response to whether or not Gove’s new traditionalism can be welcomed must be a tentative: ‘yes’.

There are other considerations which have to be taken into account, however. Catholic education is nestled within a framework that does not contradict Gove’s traditionalism, but certainly outgrows it. Catholic education, after all, emphasises holistic development over narrower pursuits of intellectual aggrandisment. It is better summed up by the word ‘formation’ rather than education. Refining the intellect may be a noble pursuit, but it is one noble pursuit among others.

It is this holistic account of education which lead some Bishops, most notably Bishop Michael Campbell and his predecessor Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue, to use the word ‘evangelisation’ when contemplating the fundamental nature and purpose of our schools. This reveals an approach to schooling which extends beyond knowledge and into the realms of our relationship with God, a goal which is both personal and communal. Catholic education has an unapologetically communal nature, seeking to develop organic communities of faith that, to use Lord David Alton’s words in a recent speech on the subject, infuses the school with an ‘all-pervading presence of God; with His signature writ large on the school’s values and objectives.

This means concern for the development of the individual as part of the living community is entirely legitimate. We strive to develop intelligence, but we also care deeply about what kind of person walks out of the gates at the age of sixteen. ‘Citizenship’ was the political attempt to artificially embed this into the school curriculum, a wrongheaded approach which largely aggravated the very problems it was intended to solve. Catholic education, however, has this instinct embedded within its core vision of formation: the school, in theory, is an organic body focused ultimately on God, rather than merely the building in which knowledge is imparted to a line of atomised vessels.

This links into the notion of service and the ways in which our schools offer themselves to their communities. Many Catholic schools serve communities with diverse educational priorities and needs – responsiveness to these needs ought to be praised, not traduced. If Catholic schools have a duty to cultivate the whole spectrum of talents, then its ethos and organisation must reflect this duty. Whilst the utopian wing of the traditionalist spectrum might decry this as ‘dumbing down’, Catholic schools can pursue such outcomes secure in the knowledge that the Catholic vision is set within a wider framework of faith and wisdom which compliments, not contradicts, intellectual development.

Gove’s vision of a liberal education does not necessarily conflict with this, since the wider development of character is seen as the benign consequence of the development of intellect. The educational traditionalism which gains ground under his name, however, often does. So whilst any renewed emphasis on academic excellence can be welcomed by Catholic schools, we must nonetheless be bold enough to appeal simultaneously to a broader vision of what a specifically Catholic education entails.

Of course, such deliberations might prove immaterial whilst the very existence of Catholic schools remains under threat. Some maintain Equality legislation will expand and do for Catholic schools what it did for Catholic adoption agencies. Others believe an increasingly re-energised laity will demand from their schools what they can neither genetically nor legislatively deliver and choose to abandon the project as a result.

In that sense, the debates thrown up during Gove’s short time in office might prove most useful as a catalyst for reflection on what we think Catholic education ought to look like and how it should be delivered. The time might not be so far away when we have the blank canvas upon which to enact it.

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The Long March

A couple of years into Coalition government and all is not well.

The warmth with which the Tories were greeted by some in the Catholic community, as a haven from the constant attacks endured under years of Labour rule, has proven just a touch optimistic. In particular, the hope that there might even be a space for *whisper it* social conservatism has turned out to be a cruel illusion peddled by a class of politicians who always believed much the same as those on the benches opposite and who have proved every bit as legislation-happy in order to demand the rest of us conform to it.

What has become obvious is that this chafing phenomenon, lazily termed ‘leftist’ by normally astute commentators, is very much in the ascendancy in the Tory Party and beyond – semantic sorcery which for years convinced people the attacks would only, could only, come from one direction on the political compass, a betrayal which has left a whole lot of people feeling politically homeless.

There remains, nonetheless, a broad coalition of dissent. Call them what you will – social conservatives, postliberals, normal –  a whole array of worldviews continue to plough on, occasionally planting a defiant flag into the mainstream, refusing to bend the knee to the socio-cultural hegemony.

What is lacking amidst all this diverse dissent, however, is any sort of organised response.

This is important, for this increasingly noisy air of dissent will not go away. If anything, it is beginning to become more and more prominent. Occasionally, this is a sign of defeat – like the lobster’s scream as it is thrown into the cooking pot. Partly, though, it is a show of resilience, a small sign that the real world beyond the socio-cultural oligarchy is rather more anarchic than the monotone ‘radicalism’ of the political zeitgeist.

Unfortunately, however, such resilience all too often exists only at the margins of the public forum, usually because that is the only space it has reconciled itself to owning. Knowing itself to articulate the views of a great many, it has been negligent in its duty to defend the views of this great many, lazily assuming or naively believing that numbers will win out and the Silent People will roar each and every occasion on which they are prodded.  As such, it approaches the game and consents to playing by the rules of those who already dominate – and who are implacably opposed to their involvement.

For my own church this is the kind of attitude that has left us unable to find homes for orphans, which will soon hinder our freedom to educate the young, and which has turned once-vibrant notions of the Common Good into an emaciated PDF file full of trite truism and feel-good clichés (yet which remains strangely silent on the Osbornian liberalism which is attacking the family every bit as effectively as the Harmanite variety ever did).

Inaction, naivety, lack of courage – too often, these are defining features of the cultural recusants, the very reason why they remain on the outside looking in rather than inhabiting their rightful place as protector of the mainstream.

And there is a paradox in this – groups that instinctively eulogise and adore social and civic institutions are yet useless at generating, preserving or influencing institutions themselves. The political landscape is currently determined by an extreme minority often with extremist views – the majority upon whom they parasitically prosper have proven useless at doing the same. Maybe, just maybe, the broad and well organised coalition against the abolition of marriage by the Tory Party marks the beginning of a new politics in this regard.

But it must only be the start. For these groups speak a language that most people understand and sympathise with, even if their courage weakens in the face of the often vicious, sometimes legislative, attacks to which they are subject. As such, there is a moral duty to shape the public space and the institutions which reside there.  And those who undertake the task must be unapologetic in doing so. They must actively agitate and re-narrate the public space, delighting in being despised by the power interests who reside there. They must not only walk into the Lion’s Den, but must also be willing to shout loudly and kick over the ornaments when they get in there.

And if the institutions cannot be taken, then new institutions must be created and nourished to challenge and replace them.

For this Roman Catholic, this means continuing to stand within the traditions that are legitimately part of our heritage and yet within which we are actively despised, insulted, mocked and dismissed. It is to refuse to be meekly banished by an unrepresentative crust of misanthropes and extremists who would deny us entry because we refuse to be exactly like them (and less like everyone else). It is to remain an agitating cog in the very machine that has been most actively involved in our harassment.

It is, in short, to be a small part of a long march through the institutions.

The rising tide…

I have written extensively about Catholic education on this blog, and for those who have somewhere between little and no interest in the topic, I can only apologise that I am about to do the same again. Whilst I intend, in future, to write about what a specifically ‘Catholic’ education looks like, I thought I’d throw down a few more comments about the cultural and political vice which Catholic schools, both now and increasingly in the future, continue to find themselves in.

Firstly, and most predictably, Catholic schools shall come under increasing pressure to conform to metroliberal mores, particularly with regards to a) the teaching of sexual ethics; b) the eschewal of the presumption of objective truth in teaching. The latter is a pedagogic matter very much inherent to current teaching culture and practice, whilst the former is primarily political and has reared its head rather prominently of late. Whilst Michael Gove appeared, in his response to the latest bout of attacks, to give Catholic schools some breathing space by stipulating that the Equality Act did not apply to the school curriculum, what he actually did was identify the next obstacle for activists and campaigners to seek to overcome. When that goal is achieved, Catholic schools will have little place else to go – appeals to ‘conscience’ and ‘freedom’ will fall flat on those who have assumed unto themselves the status of moral infallibility and who have pronounced, ex cathedra, that no deviations from their dogma shall be permitted. In the meantime, the slow drumbeat of opposition will further weaken the any hopes of countering the narrative – heads of unions trotting out myth and outright slander, politicians doing much the same, and even the (suspected/alleged) use of OFSTED inspections to further promote the ‘progressive’ judgment.

This will be the battle that makes the headlines. And this is the battle that would be the most comfortable to lose.

For in reality, it would not prove all that difficult a transition for many Catholic schools to make. Indeed, it would hardly be controversial to say that this is where many Catholic schools are already at anyway, such that bending the knee to this new master would only be a matter of doing it publicly rather than in private. In short, this would be the easier step – it would provide very little body shock to the Catholic schools system.

By contrast, there is emerging an alternative pressure from pretty much the opposite direction, one rarely talked of amidst caricatures of decline but also one with the potential (or so it seems to me) to be rather more potent. This is the increasing presence and prominence of a re-enervated laity, and indeed of a newly energised clergy, particularly among the younger generations. Whereas older generations, where they cared, might have avoided conflict by merely gritting their teeth or (which is not at all uncommon) abandoning Catholic schools altogether, there seems to be blossoming a generation with more of a stomach for the fight. They want their Catholic institutions to be, well, Catholic, and they’re willing to challenge those whose stewardship has lead to a weakening of this sense of identity and, indeed, mission.  In short, should the new ‘creative minority’ of younger Catholics prove more demanding of their schools then this would apply a new pressure on the Bishops, and indeed the schools themselves, that would prove far more uncomfortable than the slogans thrown about by the ‘progressive’ brigade.

The reason for this is that the demands of the Catholics would prove, in many cases, more alien than the demands of the ‘progressives’, meaning that those demands would also be more difficult to assuage, particularly from within the current legislative framework within which Catholic schools operate. Many Catholic schools have simply outgrown their supply lines, such that they have effectively become non-distinct save for the occasional mention of ‘gospel values’ in the Mission Statement and a few superficial dainties to keep the governors on board (where, of course, the governors care). Further, whilst the Equality Act has made recruitment more of a sticky issue than it previously had been, nonetheless many schools have essentially jettisoned the consideration of faith in the employment process (except, perhaps, in R.E.) and plump primarily for teachers who promise an exam results boon. As such, the staff body of many Catholic schools is very rarely majority Catholic, let alone actively Catholic, and often contain voices that outwardly undermine any claim to the label ‘Catholic’, thus presenting obvious problems for instigating, developing, cultivating or promoting an authentically Catholic ethos.

Indeed, it has been suggested at various points that the biggest problem facing Catholic schools is not the diminishing number of Catholic children, nor the diminishing number of Catholic families, but rather the issue of Catholic staff. This is not all down to individual schools. The Bishops have rarely taken anything near an active enough interest in the formation of Catholic teachers, just as they have not taken anywhere near enough active interest in the development of the school curriculum nor, indeed, the creation and provision of suitable qualifications, particularly in Key Stage 4 and 5 (something that could easily be rectified).

Whilst there is an element of horses and stable doors about this, the sum effect is that the emergence of an energetic and demanding laity and/or clerical class, which is basically where the church is heading, will cause the greater body shock for Catholic schools. Trapped between these two poles, one demanding what schools can neither genetically nor legislatively deliver, the other demanding that which would be rather easy to deliver though not whilst remaining ‘Catholic’ and/or whilst taking public funding, one suspects they will simply buckle – and dioceses will have to rethink the way it helps parents bring their children up in the Catholic faith. It would not be too alarmist to say that, in a setting in which the battle for Catholic education has been definitively lost, the models from which the Bishops could learn most are those networks that both educated and catechised the faithful through the recusancy era of our forefathers in faith (more of potential ‘solutions’ in a later post).

As such, that the continuing existence of specifically Catholic schools remains in jeopardy is beyond question. Don’t be surprised, however, if, contrary to popular caricature, the final blow is delivered from within rather than without.