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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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