A version of this article appeared in the Catholic Herald – you can read the article here
In 1905, one Miss Agnew sat at her desk in Carlisle and sketched out the ‘scheme of instruction’ for the poor Catholic boys and girls of St. Cuthbert’s school. Amongst her entries was the History ‘object lessons’, and it contained a glimpse of the recipients for whom it was intended – here a lesson on Caedmon and Bede, there Joan of Arc, another on Wolsey, next ‘the Revolution’ (nothing ‘Glorious’ about it). It was history, but it was also more than that – it was a statement of ourselves.
The State We’re In
One could be forgiven for thinking that what is taught in our schools is a settled affair. We have had long enough to come to consensus, after all, and one might imagine there is key knowledge that one would expect to make the list of every school that bears the name Catholic.
In truth, curricula vary widely. Whilst those under local authority control follow the national curriculum (though with some variation alongside the centrally mandated), academies are free to set their own content.
In some ways, this level of freedom can serve schools well. It allows the teacher-scholar to shape a curriculum unencumbered by a system that, they might decide, leaves the best bits out. More, it allows flexibility, so that each school can respond to the needs of the parish and communities it serves.
But there are corresponding challenges, chief amongst them being to ensure consistency and quality in response to that freedom. The task of creating a curriculum is left to individual schools so what children learn is, to a great extent, determined by the individual who happens to be head of department at any particular time. Diocesan support is available for R.E., but beyond that the curriculum is fair game for any who might wish to impose their preferences, or in some cases their prejudices, upon it.
In other words, for the majority of our schools, forming the curriculum is a cottage industry – what is included, and what is not, is determined not by a commonly agreed account of the essential, but instead by the strengths and, sometimes, the limitations, of the leaders and middle-leaders tasked with creating them.
If we wish all children in our schools to experience the wholeness of the Faith, in all its creative and intellectual glory, then here the seeds are sown for us to fall short of that ambition.
Yet it would be unreasonable to expect each school to develop schemes of work imbued with the supernatural gaze, weaving different subjects into a coherent statement of the whole, each filled with the treasures of the Church. After all, simply holding a degree, or a teaching certificate, is not sufficient; degree courses do not always include the content one might need, and necessarily take on the character of the institution or training course through which they were formed. When so many of our teachers and leaders do not come through our Catholic schools, or universities, or training courses, thus do links go unseen, knowledge go undelivered, our intellectual and artistic heritage left to neglect.
In short, curriculum design is a specialist job. And for a Catholic curriculum, even more so.
Catholicity and Cultural Literacy
The concept of ‘cultural literacy’ has become a key part of the curriculum revolution currently taking place, under the supportive eye of the schools’ inspectorate. It is the idea that a good education provides awareness and understanding of the key references, the key signifiers, of the culture in which our children are being formed. By this account, there is a canon of knowledge that constitutes being educated, being culturally literate, that children ought to have as part of a good education.
Nonetheless, contemporary efforts to define the canon fall short: cultural literacy, and indeed the canon, is too often viewed through the secular mores of those who now write it, delivering a body of knowledge cleansed of the faith-filled lens within which so much of the content which comprises it was originally developed. This elevates the secular humanist paradigm to normative, subverting the very notion of cultural literacy, since, as I have written elsewhere, ‘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.’
In contrast, a Catholic curriculum can unlock the treasures of our cultural inheritance, serving wider society by detailing then delivering a truly coherent canon, one best able to give an accurate account of who we are and how we got here. As such, if there is to be any lucid account of ‘cultural literacy’ then it must include a kind of ‘faith literacy’, and certainly scriptural literacy, as the key to unlock it. Only here do we find the intellectual infrastructure for an true understanding of Our Island Story, cognisant of its cadences and nuance, its motivations and myopias.
We have long ceased to imagine what a Catholic curriculum might look like. The introduction of the National Curriculum rendered doing so less necessary than it might previously have been, whilst appeal to ‘Gospel values’ and ‘Catholic ethos’ seemed enough to uphold the Catholicity of our schools without reference to the nuts and bolts of what children were taught. And so, oftentimes, the ‘Catholic bit’ is what you do in R.E., sometimes in an assembly, occasionally in Mass. The Catholic vision of education, indeed of formation, is all-encompassing, able to speak to all of what Eliot called the languages of human inquiry – in practice we tacitly reject that vision, treating subjects as secular domains independent of the Catholic imperative: so long as they are careful not to contradict the Faith, or explicitly criticise it, so it passes.
In so doing, we present the Faith in an emaciated form, rather than the comprehensive human drama and experience it really is.
Must we accept these secularised accounts of knowledge, of learning, of ourselves? A Catholic philosophy of education cares what happens in the history classroom, the art classroom, the English classroom, every bit as much as the R.E. classroom. If we are to recover in our schools not only a sense of the Faith, but of ourselves, one suspects a newly emboldened Catholic curriculum will be the first steps toward it.
Forming the Canon
Over 1000 years ago a certain King Alfred decided that, for the good of his Kingdom and the good of souls, there were certain works it was “most necessary for men to know.” So he translated them; the intention was formation, not just generic development of a thing called ‘knowledge.’ It was believed that these texts, knowing these principles, would be to the benefit of all and singular. Alfred effectively created a canon, not to place limits on what people could know, but to ensure that what they knew at the very least included this.
Perhaps we are again in need of just such a canon. If we desire to preserve and bequeath the treasures of the Faith, perhaps we need first to collectively define what they are. Do we want all our children to know the Pietà? Byrd? Lepanto? And if not, why not?
This is not just a project for R.E. One hundred and sixty-five years after Newman sought to define a curriculum appropriate for a university, the time may have come for us to do the same for our schools. Should we succeed, we stake out Catholicity as at home in the totality of learning, indeed of wider culture and experience.
Thus the time is ripe for a revived Catholic curriculum – sequential, across the key stages, to deliver excellence not only in the detail of doctrine, but in the cultural, artistic, musical, liturgical and historical heritage of the Church. Nor is it merely a curriculum of the baptised – in the true spirit of the catholic, it would cherish the good, the true and the beautiful, wherever it is found. It need not be so restrictive as to exclude local innovation, but ought to enable all children, regardless of geographic or social context, to receive a minimum entitlement in their learning.
Such an ambitious endeavour is beyond the resource and capacity of most schools, and could only succeed as a collegial endeavour across sectors, with specialists, particularly in our universities, coming together and writing it. And it could integrate wider accountability demands, including exam specifications, in its creation. In so doing, we would keep pace with the curriculum revolution, and recover our own spot at its forefront, no longer passively accepting wider assumptions and trends but reclaiming our own.
It is said that knowledge is power, but it is a lot more than that. It is a gateway to a vision of who we are, as individuals and as a collective, the first steps of coming to know God and His creation. So we are compelled to take an interest in shaping what our children learn. As Miss Agnew knew at the turn of the twentieth century, what we teach is who we are – in the same spirit, we need to make sure that who we are defines what we teach.
A piece over at TES arguing that it would be wrong to use a critique of social mobility to undermine the curriculum revolution.
For which reason, it is strange that we would not share with children the greatest fruits of the culture that forms them – indeed of the cultures of the world – and this in the name of their freedom. Denying access to their intellectual and cultural inheritance is denying the opportunity to have mind and imagination shaped by commonly recognised expressions of the good, the true and the beautiful; stopping poor kids from studying high culture, siloing them off into the vocational-but-little-else, restricts them from making meaning from our cultural inheritance and offering back to it their own interpretations of our collective social consciousness – it is to advocate for two nations, a stratified society that cannot but help depict any attempt at shared culture as a power imbalance, rather than a common inheritance that all co-create and own.
A new piece arguing that any desire for cultural literacy must include a commitment to scriptural literacy too.
To deny our children this is to deny them a stake in the aesthetic, ethical and literary landscape into which they are born, and that remains their rightful inheritance. Without this, our children have merely a technical connection to their past, an intellectual and social rupture which only loosens the connection to the present, a cultural listlessness that provides few navigation points for a generation trying to work out its own accounts of the good, the true and the beautiful.
This year saw the publication of the Conservative Case for Education by Nicholas Tate. The book is well worthy of your time, even if it fails to achieve its stated ambition of providing a (small ‘c’) conservative vision of education. As I said in my review for ‘Schools Week’,
There remains, however, an underlying tension; Tate’s evident irritation with the direction of contemporary thinking, indeed culture, seems to hang over his work. There is nothing wrong with this, and as Chesterton reminds us, ‘he is a very shallow critic who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of a conservative.’ But the rebel must also be a romantic, and have a cause to sell.
It is here that Tate risks reaffirming the caricatures of the conservative mindset – that it knows what it is against more than it knows what it is for.
Read the rest of the review here.
Below is a provocation piece delivered at the Battle of Ideas, on the panel ‘Too Dumb to Vote?‘
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It wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it? It was all supposed to be very straightforward – a simple, definitive referendum, which would show up a swivel-eyed minority as out of touch, put jingoistic Tories back in their box, and finally close the discussion on EU membership for a generation.
Only, it didn’t work that way, did it? In a fit of bloody-minded pique, the British public decided otherwise; they ignored their alleged betters, held firm in the face of a barrage of threats and insults, and obstinately voted however they damn well pleased, thank you very much. And of course, by a slim margin, they chose to Leave.
The education gap in the vote is undeniable. Or better, the qualification gap, which is not quite the same thing. What is deniable, however, is that this represents any sort of argument against the legitimacy of the voter, or indeed any sort of argument against the legitimacy of the vote.
I have lost count of the amount of times I have read that the Brexit vote was simply the suspension of reason, the triumph of the unreasonable, that there exists no substantive reason to vote Leave, that this was but an emotional spasm of the ‘left-behind’, a xenophobic upsurge characteristic of the ill-educated.
All of which represents nothing more than a juvenile wail against the fact that there exists a group of people, several in number, who have different values, cherish different things, draw their lines in different places.
The Brexit vote wasn’t, in truth, about education – it was about people with a worldview more complex, indeed more nuanced, than the anodyne materialism that underpinned pretty much every Remain argument. It pitted wisdom against intellect, lived reality against spreadsheet theorising – and it was the former that won out.
To declare, in increasingly shrill response, there are no rational reasons to vote Brexit, that those who did so were simply ill-educated, is to do little more than declare oneself an intellectual and emotional desert, so attached to a very particular account of reason as to exclude what else makes us human – identity, community, security, dignity, control.
The Remain side committed two big mistakes. Firstly, they reduced the whole discussion to a material analysis, elevating the quantifiable ‘evidence-based’ lens as the only legitimate forum of discussion, and severely downplayed, where they did not dismiss, the importance of precisely those intangibles that still hold sway over the hearts and minds of many. Or as one person recently claimed, “notions of democracy and sovereignty are not tangible issues, and so cannot be considered rational reasons to vote Leave.”
No wonder these people lost.
But secondly, they also presented their own arguments shrouded in reasoning and argument so arcane as to make themselves look like the ones who had taken leave of their reason. There is no surprise here, – this is common to the highly educated – they are much better able to find ways of providing a rational edifice to uphold their prejudices, and then mock and question the intellect of those who fail to fall into line.
I know of one professor who, with admirable patience, repeatedly explained to me the sovereignty argument was not valid since the EU enhanced our sovereignty by allowing us to pool it for a greater purpose, and that the slogan ‘Take back control,’ really had nothing to do with the EU. Now, this is a valid argument, and boils down to saying that losing some sovereignty can sometimes be a worthwhile trade-off. But it takes a good deal working through to get to that point, a collection of premises running toward a conclusion, and it needs heavily qualified. To declare from the off that there is simply no loss of sovereignty, against both common experience and perception, only reinforces to the masses the feeling that perhaps these terribly well-educated people are not so clever as they appear, or so honest as they proclaim.
The follow-up has proven just as bad – the hysterical reaction toward those who voted Leave, at times personal and too often vindictive, has been a case study the ultimate futility of seeking to get out of a hole by digging deeper. And yet, this is indicative of a certain mindset, a certain class. To broaden this out a bit, there exists today a highly-educated group of individuals, remarkably alike in habit and mind, who stubbornly cling to a worldview that is crumbling around them. As their totems fall, they double down – they abuse and mock their opponents, they insist upon ever more provocative and esoteric creeds, they advocate ever more illiberal and anti-democratic moves to enforce their privileged position in society. And worse, they see in this not only the evidence of their superiority, but the source of their virtue.
The question before us is whether there exists amongst us those whom we might consider to be too dumb to vote. I trust, nay hope, the panel here will conclude this is not the case. I would only add that, were we to decide with the philosopher kings and the paternalists, and task ourselves with deciding who, precisely, deserved categorisation of being too dumb to vote, then I would steer clear of the working clubs and the bingo halls, of the pubs and the pews. No, I’d head instead for the university departments and the news floors, the City bars and the political lobby, where there exists more than enough reason to suspect the wisdom of the inhabitants therein, and wonder whether or not it is they, despite their finger-pointing denunciations, whose intelligence we need to consider more closely.
In the words of Kipling, in his poem the Land, in which he explored precisely the relationship between the rooted and their assorted overlords; ‘Not for any beast that burrows, not for any bird that flies, Would I lose his large sound counsel, miss his keen amending eyes.’ If one cannot see the wisdom in those words, if one feels even the temptation to reverse suffrage in the name of disenfranchising the common folk, then I believe we have found the one who really is too dumb to vote.
A little while back I wrote a blog post reflecting on some of my experiences of social mobility, teasing out some of the effects that have received rather less attention within a political environment that has held commitment to social mobility as a staple of virtuous and socially concerned politics. That blog post received some attention, and I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to talk through some of these thoughts on BBC Radio Four Thought. You can listen to the episode here.
The script for Four Thought is largely a condensed version of the original blog post, so I shan’t replicate it here, though for those who might be interested, I did add some further thoughts focusing in on how these things apply to our education system. Partly, these are the thinking through of a theme I have explored as part of Blue Labour here, a TES piece on ‘aspiration’ here, a post on the culture clash in our schools here, and a post on Brexit here. I have included the additional comments from the radio script below.
It is a theme I’ll no doubt return to in due course, but in the meantime many thanks all for the kind comments and good will.
As such, if you arrive from a working-class background, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You grow accustomed to the objects of derision being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the disdain might sometimes be delivered in the abstract, the barbs are felt personally, especially when aimed at a viewpoint common amongst those who comprised your upbringing. The creation myth of the liberal mind is one of a virtuous battle against intolerance, bigotry and demonization of the Other – but those who pursue such accounts of virtue don’t always realise, or don’t care, that these are precisely the sins they commit in the eyes of those on the receiving end of their disdain.
And this has become status seeking behaviour: there is prestige to be acquired through the sassy, the rude, the downright spiteful to working-class folk with more conservative views, on immigration, perhaps, or crime, or Brexit. Detractors revel in the eloquence of their disdain, as if articulacy were evidence of truth and justification of their prejudice. Thus the motes are plucked out whilst the beams remain – the cultured despisers find in their intellectual superiority, an argument for their presumed existential superiority, too.
There is nothing particularly new in this, and in any echo chamber dissent is proof that someone is Not Like Us, and thus wrong. From which naturally follows the belief that there’s a moral duty to help future generations become more Like Us, and thus right.
In our schools, this has real consequences, as a class of Anywheres, to use David Goodhart’s terms, seek to educate a generation of Somewheres, with the former believing success includes educating the latter out of the values and culture of their upbringing.
And so pupils from a socially or morally conservative background, which often (not always) overlaps with a working-class (or religious) upbringing, will at times find themselves at odds with the moral norms of those who educate them, a culture chasm always framed as simply a matter of education, or more precisely the absence of it.
For our education system, children formed by such views must simply reject them, since that’s the character of being educated. Virtue, and intellect, demands it – and the educated are much better at making the intellectual case for their virtue.
But this feels unwise. In a contest between home and academic flourishing, some choose home; not because of ignorance, but because of a refusal to shed heritage as participation fee. For too many, education presents itself as not for people like them, at least not whilst they remain people like Them – to be educated too often means not being like your Mum or Dad. Thus, we present our children with a choice they should not have to make, in so doing pushing them away from an inheritance they should not have to abandon.
And so the cycle continues, a tension between home and school, in which the rejection of home is synonymous with being educated. Social mobility, it cannot be denied, has a cultural edge – the ability, even the demand, to walk away from who are you are, or at the very least where you are from. At the same time, a residential university system has entrenched the idea that flourishing is only to be found when we leave, less so when we stay.
If we want to talk about why working-class kids are alienated from education, we could do worse than start a conversation here.
None of which is to say working class kids need not aspire to high culture and education, a calumny which often rears its head in the guise of compassion. No, the precise opposite. It’s to say that our cultural and intellectual treasures are a heritage due to all, and we might better ensure its equal distribution if we focused less on the purity of the receiver, and more on the dignity of the receiving.
Of course, this is more complex than a simple to-and-fro between two competing accounts of the good life, and neither side are entirely wrong, even if heart battles fiercely with head in trying to work out the best, or worst, of the two. Still, if you join the affray from a working-class background, you inevitably have a foot in both camps, leaving you an outsider to each. The world that formed you, that helped you fly, can be the world that risks holding you back, a world which you both reject(ed) and embrace at the same time.
And it’s always the rejection that each side remembers, never the embrace.
Northern education is talked about frequently. Northern educators, on the other hand, are talked to rather less frequently. We are regularly told about the deficiencies of the education we offer; we are less regularly listened to about the challenges that shape the education we offer.
This is unjust.
We do not deny there are improvements to be made. We do not deny that change needs to happen. But we reasonably expect to have a voice of our own when discussing how these things might be achieved.
We are as skilled, as passionate, as well-informed as our colleagues in other areas of the country – we deserve to have our voice heard. And too often it feels as if it is not, with discussion and access always based far away from the villages, town and cities that we teach in.
This needs to change.
And so, we propose the creation of a Northern Education Forum. We’ve put together a Google Form [sign up here] for those who may wish to register their interest in being involved. The details of its remit, its membership, and its role will be fleshed out over the coming weeks.
But in the meantime, we have one simple question: