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Contesting the Canon

The face plate opposite adorns the tomb of Philip Howard, who died in 1786 while in the service of the King of Sardinia. It is a moving tribute and speaks of the earnest desire of an Englishman to serve his country, even whilst precluded from doing so. His patriotism was clear; his cultural endowment ought to have been equally so.

But it wasn’t. The Howards were recusants, seeking to uphold the Old Faith against a political elite determined that such obstinacy was tantamount to sedition. And this little Anglican chapel nestled on the western banks of the River Eden at Wetheral, with its mausoleum hidden away through the north transept, housing the testimonies and remains of ‘papists’ and bearing this poignant plea for clemency, stands in quiet witness to the messiness and splintered loyalties bequeathed by the Reformation and the persecution that followed (the chapel was originally the local church for the Howard family of nearby Corby Castle, the same Howards who, following the emancipation of the Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1829, commissioned A.W.N. Pugin to build a Catholic church, further away though this time on their side of the river). Whilst another branch of the Howard line, based ten miles to the east at Naworth Castle, eventually conformed (with inducement to do so – Charles Howard was made first Earl of Carlisle), others held firm and became outcast.

And outcast really is the word, especially if our interest is cultural inheritance. Loyal Catholics, during that period described by Cobbett as ‘an alteration greatly for the worse’, had their wealth purloined as much as their stake in society, and found themselves asset-stripped as the Acts of Uniformity, the Test Acts, and myriad other laws achieved their principal objective and diminished the influence and position of Catholics. Cultural alienation followed – notwithstanding notable exceptions, from Byrd to Tallis, Campion to Shakespeare(!), it is difficult to generate, let alone bequeath, great art, literature and architecture, while isolated and stripped of the web of relationships and influence that underpins such flourishing. From patronage to possessions, Catholics found themselves outcasts in their own lands, a land they built, a land which bore the marks they laid upon it, which sang the testimony of their deeds in stone and quill.

Carlisle Cathedral, Eastern window

It may be tempting to see this as an historical debate, though that would be to miss the continuing impacts of that centuries-long dispossession, one that is a source of interest for anyone wishing to think again about curriculum and what we pass on to our children. Sat amidst the architectural and artistic beauty of Carlisle cathedral (described unfairly by Pevsner as ‘not much more than half a cathedral,’) during a recent choral concert,  the question became pertinent: why does the Catholic community have such comparatively feeble offerings? Why are we largely absent from culture in this sense, a culture which we historically defined, the treasures of which remain at the heart of our national story today? The answer lies in the disenfranchisement outlined above, no longer possessing the organic infrastructure or accumulated expertise and culture to do so. Whilst this might be ameliorated in the big cities, beyond here the Catholic church often exists in a liturgically, architecturally and aesthetically emaciated form.

Since exclusion was as much about ideas as it was property portfolios, so  ignorance of, and hostility toward, the Catholic faith became a way of asserting rightmindedness and affirming social credentials – to be a member of the in-crowd, one had to be able to mock and ridicule Catholics, to repeat and defend what Newman called the ‘myths and fables’ of the anti-Catholic record. The temperament remains prevalent today, with ignorance of the Faith seemingly synonymous with a cultured worldview and an elevated intellect (one might point to the jingoistic whiggery of Michael Gove’s recent offering as a fine example of this enduring phenomenon). And politically, too: we fight for our right to exist in the state sector, and put at risk our employment within it where our adherence to doctrine might be deemed incompatible with the dictates of the state. How poetic history can be.

What relevance has any of this to curriculum? Well, it is important to state these truths, since this is the historical milieu from within which our educational canon is constructed, the well from which our intellectual waters are drawn. If we are to discuss what we deem worthy of transmission from generation to generation then the curation of that canon, and the judgement of what best comprises it, is a matter for scrutiny, lest we risk repeating the disinheritance and wrongly calling it scholarship.

For myself, this has become a more pressing matter in recent weeks, as we look at ways we can develop a core knowledge curriculum at our schools, a broad vision of learning which really does offer, to quote Arnold, the best of that which has been thought and said.

And here one runs into difficulty. Bluntly put, one is tempted to question whether the Hirschian approach, and more so the evangelism of his disciples, might be insufficient for the task. It seems increasingly the case that the core knowledge movement restricts itself to the straight jacket of secularity, cutting itself from whole fields of interpretative frameworks and placing insufficient stress on theology and especially Scripture. For many this presents no barrier (I have seen few protest the point), either lacking the personal belief to deem it important or working in a non-church school where it might be deemed inappropriate anyway. But surely this is to accept an impoverished canon, blind not only to the realities of our shared history but also to the very concept of core knowledge and cultural capital in the first place.

Examples? Well, prayer is an obvious place – is Kipling’s If self-evidently more worthy of recitation than the Our Father? Is the rosary in possession of less cultural capital, and worthy of less attention, than Shelley’s Ozymandias? Is the liturgical year, the cadences of which shaped the very psyche of our island and the customs and rituals therein, unworthy of detailed study? Is scripture, which lay at the heart of learning for hundreds of years and shaped everything from our laws to our literature, not a foundational aspect of any coherent concept of cultural capital? And lastly, is theology, the lens through which one must approach so many historical events to have any meaningful understanding of them, not worthy of as much attention as the events themselves?

Calendar page from the Book of Hours of Jean de Berry

Of course this might jar, with some seeing a jump into the theistic problematic in a system that is resolutely secular (though I suspect Arnold himself, whilst no theist, would have rejected this line of thought). But if that is the case, then we must confront an uncomfortable truth: should the best that has been thought and written be determined primarily by our present philosophical hue? If we say yes, then do we not also reject the notion that elevated knowledge and cultural value is timeless, and reaffirm that our curation is focused not by the worth of the texts themselves, but as the reflection of our own prejudices in approaching them? And if so, isn’t this precisely the point that those who criticise the notion of having any canon at all (‘Dead, White Males’) have long been making themselves?

In short, if one starts from a position of neglecting the religious and theological backdrop of the culture in which so much of our cultural inheritance was formed, what is offered is but a shadow of artefacts, and ultimately historical and cultural illiteracy, a secular humanist wish-projection of what our shared history and identity should have been, rather than what it practically and really is.

Which brings me back to our schools. Taking into account this deficiency, wanting to give a fuller account of that cultural fruits we wish to see preserved and bequeathed, do we, as a Catholic federation, need a Catholic canon? One hundred and sixty five years after Newman sought to define the proper curriculum of a Catholic university, must the Catholic community undertake a more systematic effort to define the proper curriculum of a Catholic school? Do we need to stake out our own vision, to include those treasures of our own that have not only been neglected, but from which we have been excluded? Something of the sort does exist, though not in a collated or systematic form. Should that be our next project? And if so, does that undermine the very notion of a canon, by definition shared and universal, or reaffirm it?

Or should we accept what we might believe to be a sanitised product, projecting an account of worthiness defined, ironically, by the whims of the now? This would certainly be easier. But I for one cannot shake the feeling that we might have something worthier still. Or put another way, would a Catholic canon cast aside the secular in the same way the secular casts aside the theological, or a thousand years after last having done so would it instead preserve them equally since, as with Chesterton, ‘it is only Christian men/Guard even heathen things’?

I’d certainly welcome your thoughts.

Read the follow-up post, including an email dialogue with Hirsch, by clicking here.

 

 

 

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9 Comments

  1. […] a previous blog (‘Contesting the Canon’), I explored concerns regarding the overarching effectiveness of the core knowledge curriculum for […]

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  2. Michael

    In light of your post, I think this is a must-read

    http://humanumreview.com/articles/liberal-arts-education-a-new-model

    If you go to the Westminster Cathedral Choir School website, you can download each year group’s curriculum topics

    See what you think. I’d be happy to discuss further, especially the great Christopher Dawson…

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  3. smintey says:

    Dear Michael,

    “Dear Michael,

    One of your admirers asked me to comment with a couple of sentences!

    It takes more than that even to broach the topic. You are absolutely right to correlate the Cultural Literacy idea with the word “canon.” As you know, that was the term used by early scholars to determine which candidate books shall be included in the official text of the Bible.

    Then in the 20th century, professors of English like Leavis in Britain and the New Critics in the USA began to talk about which writers and texts belonged to the “canon” of works that students should be taught in school and college.

    In the 21st century, in the USA, the subject has been dropped altogether among English professors and just about everyone else, as too hot to handle. I think that is craven, and an avoidance of responsibility.

    That’s just by way of a vague general introductory comment. One could and should develop this topic as a central one for any nation’s educational principles. Not to do so is to hide behind the skirts of the “general skills” idea, which we now know to be factually wrong and educationally harmful.

    Well done! for bringing the topic back!”

    On behalf of Dr. E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
    E D Hirsch, Jr.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. J F Murphy says:

    I agree. There is an urgent need for a Catholic Canon and a serious discussion about how we want our students to learn and to think. If we abandon these questions then we are abandoning the idea of a Catholic education.

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  5. nancy says:

    When I studied English literature at A level, this was enhanced by my teacher ensuring that we knew the biblical stories upon which much of the stories and poetry from the 16th and 17th centuries were based (as well as the classical allusions).

    As a student of history, my own interests took me in the direction of feminist scholarship, which, together with my interest in the medieval, took me a fair way into the religious and spiritual beliefs of the people in the periods I studied.

    I don’t like the overly secular nature of some education debates – as you say, much cultural richness is missed; and, I think also, scholarship would be much enhanced by a study of the marginalised, whatever form that takes.

    Hope that makes sense! Tapping away on my phone!

    Liked by 1 person

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