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Top Teachers Don’t Teach

There is no more pernicious idea in education than the idea that teachers should not teach.

Of course, it is never stated as explicitly as this, and there will be those who will reject outright that this is where their ideas and methods lead, convinced that their own particular variant of this noxious ideology is not actually all that noxious nor really an ideology.

Most commonly, we hear it expressed in the benign sounding context of empowerment, a romantic liberation of the constricted child from the chains of the didact – no mere brick in the wall shall they be – free to spread their wings and work out for themselves the intricacies of the Trinity, or the photosynthetic process; teacher talk is bad, oppressive, a cruelty inflicted on blossoming flowers not created for the passivity necessary in the act of listening to someone else speak for a bit; it is student-led learning, the independent and the free, that is Good.

When phrased in such way, and with such moral certitude, the possibility that these ideas might be rejected on philosophical grounds, because they are bad ideas, or on pragmatic grounds, because they are not really very effective strategies, is alien. Better by far to assume the recalcitrant lacks confidence, or capability, or a soul.

Well, if you wish to play like that, let us turn the tables: if you genuinely cannot comprehend that people might oppose student-led learning on firmer grounds than their own character flaws, then you yourself are intellectually stunted. And the responsibility for addressing that is more yours than it is mine.

Truth be told, this whole student-led gig is nothing but the desire to diminish the role of the teacher. It might be delivered in pious power ballads, evoking tear-jerking personal testimony of how Bob in Year 9 once explained the intricacies of quantum mechanics more effectively than I, the teacher, ever could have managed, as if this is a cause for celebration rather than concern. But at root it says nothing more than this: we don’t really need an expert sat at the front of the class. Or anywhere else, really.

No, in reality we are just dispensible task-setters, useful only up until that point at which someone else comes along and delivers tasks with more and better whizz-bangery, or fills in admin records more efficiently, or is willing to do longer hours and more break duties.

Maybe this is the result of weary necessity: the de-skilling of the profession and the institutional morale hit that has come with it. Maybe it is that lingering ‘progressive’ ideology that always was uncomfortable with traditional hierarchies of power. Maybe it is just lethargy, a profession seeking to take the line of least resistance against an OFSTED that, for want of anything insightful to write, reaches for the ‘too much teacher talk’ when struggling to fill in the blank space on their lesson observation forms. Maybe it is a wilful misunderstanding of the nature of teacher talk – truly a piece of theatre when done well – or maybe it is the perceived kudos that comes from appearing to be in control by, well, giving away control, avoiding the responsibility conferred by authority by reconfiguring the demands of that responsibility and the nature of that authority. After all, student-led learning is all fluffy and nice, and one must be terribly self-assured to do that kind of thing, no?

That it might not be all that effective? Pah. You’re missing the point. And who asked you anyway?

I dish out my fair share of stick to the NewTraddie herd for blithely indulging in their own sloganeering and tilting at their own windmills, but one response that cannot really be denied is this: that beyond the realms of the digital NewTraddie Wonderland, the Blob reigns supreme.

And it’s still telling teachers they shouldn’t teach. And I’m not really sure what our kids have got to gain from that. 

Our Island (Cock and Bull) Story

One thing has to be said for post-Reformation propaganda – it has serious longevity. As I outlined a few weeks back in an article on anti-Catholic history, the myths and propaganda of the anti-Catholic narrative have become such common currency that, even after hundreds of years and patient refutation, they continue to be peddled as fact by those who might otherwise pride themselves on their erudition and intelligence.

Well, as a handy example we have here Rev Pete Hobson, involved in organising the burial of Richard III, responding to the suggestion that integrity would demand that Richard III be given a Catholic ceremony;

‘There’s been widespread misunderstanding on this point, which might be summed up in the way people use the word ‘Catholic’ when what they really mean is ‘Roman Catholic’. Richard lived before the Reformation when the very term Roman Catholic wasn’t in use – and all English Christians were Catholic, that is they all saw themselves as part of the one, world-wide church. But what is clear is that since the English Reformation, the Church of England is, in law, the true Catholic church of the land, in full continuity with the earlier generations. Moreover the churches Richard worshipped in are, where they still stand, the churches that now belong to the Church of England – and St Martins Cathedral is a case in point. It was there in King Richard’s time, and it’s still there now.

So of course our service will be catholic – how could it not be? But it won’t be Roman Catholic as such – a later innovation! [yep, he did just say that]. 

As far as historical and theological reasoning goes, that requires some serious mental gymnastics.

Yet it’s not altogether new. Whilst fables can give succour, they will continue to be employed – let history, truth, be damned.

Which bring us to Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, who is credited as having delivered such a rousing speech at his martyrdom as to have affected the conversion of several bystanders, including Margaret Clitherow, who would later become another of Queen Elizabeth’s victims (and, the legend goes, her unborn child too), martyred for her faith. Percy was offered his life for recanting, which he refused, and his speech proved something of an embarrassment for those seeking a propaganda coup from his recantation. The following comes from the Historical Papers of Blessed Thomas Percy, Vol. V:

“On this the Earl, turning towards the people, said : I should have been content to meet my death in silence, were it not that I see it is the custom for those who undergo this kind of punishment to address some words to the bystanders as to the cause of their  being put to death. Know, therefore, that, from my  earliest years down to this present day, I have held the Faith of that Church which, throughout the whole Christian world, is knit and bound together ; and that in this same Faith I am about to end this unhappy life. But, as for this new Church of England, I do not acknowledge it.

Here Palmer [the protestant minister], interrupting him, cried out in a loud voice: “I see that you are dying an obstinate Papist ; a member, not of the Catholic, but of the Roman Church.” 

To this the Earl replied : That which you call the Roman Church is the Catholic Church, which has been founded on the teaching of the Apostles, Jesus Christ Himself being its corner-stone, strengthened by the blood of Martyrs, honoured by the recognition of the holy Fathers ; and it continues always the same, being the Church against which, as Christ our Saviour said, the gates of Hell shall not prevail.”

Just what he said, Rev Pete. 

Teaching (anti-Catholic) History

For those who might be interested, this article of mine appeared in this week’s print edition of the Catholic Herald:


If history is concerned with recounting the past, then integrity demands that it hold regard for truth. To admit otherwise is to relegate the historical to the whimsical demands of the present. 

William Cobbett, himself a Protestant, recognised this. While writing a history of the Reformation he repeatedly outlined the motivation for (and the manner in which) history had up until that point been distorted to tell a mischievous, anti-Catholic tale. Yet he also, at times, struck a surprisingly hopeful note. “But TRUTH is immortal,” he wrote, “and though she may be silenced for a while, there always, at last, comes something to cause her to claim her due and to triumph over falsehood.”

It is this pursuit of truth that must lie at the heart of the teaching of history in our schools. Sadly, it frequently does not. To recognise this is not to broach something new. Rather, it is to return once again a recurring theme. Indeed, in 1920 Catholics, including Belloc and Chesterton, gathered to discuss the problem of the teaching of history in our schools. Their assessment could be republished today as a more or less accurate account of the state of history teaching in our schools.

The social landscape has changed from the early 20th century, but not much. While wider cultural prejudices towards Catholics have receded, the bias that permeates our historical sense of being has not. Myths still abound: Catholic monarchs were uniquely brutal (post-Reformation that is – little is made of the Catholicism of the Coeur de Lion or King Alfred); Protestantism brought with it prosperity and freedom; and Catholics are not quite English – or, at least, their allegiances can be legitimately questioned. Whether it is in the telling of key events or in the evaluation of key figures, there exists a whole artifice of anti-Catholic orthodoxy which permeates popular culture.

This is not to say the bias is obvious. Anti-Catholic history is not in the explicit statement. It is far more subtle than that. The selection of sources, the weight given to particular events, the omission of key details, the general tone, the assumption of progress – all go to shape a very particular understanding of historical events. As things stand, popular school textbooks used in many schools perpetuate this subtly anti-Catholic history. The most obvious incidences can be brushed away, but the rest, seemingly innocuous, seep quietly into growing minds and disrupt any sense of continuity between our faith, our sense of who we are and that of our ancestors. 

Of course, one could easily respond that teachers should be countering anti-Catholic history as a matter of course, but that misunderstands the position in which many teachers often find themselves. First, it is not uncommon for history, particularly in the early years of secondary school, to be taught by non-specialists whose knowledge of key eras is limited.
Secondly, the subtlety of the anti-Catholic narrative is such that it can be perpetuated unwittingly, especially when this same anti-Catholic story is what most teachers will themselves have received during their own schooling.

Thirdly, teaching workload means that many teachers will simply not have the time to create such a huge store of plans, resources and materials, or indeed undertake the research required to begin to haul down some of the myths presented to us as truth. The temptation will be to use what is already present and seek to challenge any obvious issues as they occur.

There are wonderful historians, past and present, who can and do tell a different tale. Yet little of what they say gets much of a systematic airing in many of our history classrooms. This is because their accounts contravene the standard narrative and so provoke caution, limiting the likelihood of any publisher taking up the cause and thereby limiting wider broadcasting of such views. To question the established narrative is, after all, a political act; better to politely submit, or remain ignorant, than be deemed a reactionary. This is a tragedy, both for the neutral and disinterested pursuit of truth, but also from the Catholic perspective of equipping our young to counter a world that will misrepresent who we are, where we have come from and what we believe. 

Yet, as Eamon Duffy has argued, the established myths cannot hold – in the name of intellectual integrity, if nothing else. This might sound like a call for historical ‘revisionism’. It is, rather, an appeal for our schools to increase awareness among our young of what Newman referred to as the fables and myths of the anti-Catholic record. The issue here is simply truth. It is, after all, our island story, too.

The Church in England and Wales has long helped to fund the development of resources and work schemes for the RE syllabus offered in Catholic schools. It might be time to focus attention on our history departments, too. Could the more eminent among our number collaborate to create high quality resources to challenge the anti-Catholic chronicles? We can only hope. But what is clear is that a sense of who we are is entwined with what we believe. And a more accurate sense of the former might just help us more effectively communicate the what and the why of the latter.

Michael Merrick is a teacher at a Catholic secondary school in Cumbria