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Forming the Curriculum

Curriculum (re-)design is again in fashion, as inspectors and inspected alike recognise what should have always been obvious: that what we teach is equally as fundamental, likely more so, than how we teach.

Cue a flurry of activity from leaders and middle-leaders, getting back to fundamentals and looking once again at neglected and tired schemes of work, asking how we might be more ambitious, more attentive, and indeed more inspired by the subjects we love, or at least once loved, when we were still allowed to do so.

And what a wonderful development that is.

But as we tread the path to curriculum excellence, a central truth must be upheld: the curriculum is not just an academic matter, and the writing of it even less so.

Knowing What to Value

What we teach is a distillation of that which we deem worthy for future transmission. And not all those choices are strictly utilitarian – or at least they ought not to be. Populating the curriculum necessarily involves value judgements on the part of those tasked with constructing it; those judgements reveal something of the person creating it, the world they inhabit, or the world they wish to inhabit.

And this is important. Those tasked with fashioning a curriculum bear the heavy responsibility of creating the intellectual landscape of a domain we wish our pupils to experience, even if they choose to ultimately reject it. Its aesthetic, its values, its very temperament – a world pupils might not otherwise choose to aspire toward, or at very least might not otherwise fully appreciate. In a very real sense, designing a curriculum is therefore as much a spiritual reflection as an academic one.

This brings controversy, of course, since it cannot avoid value judgment, and one can well understand the challenge of those who argue that the move toward core knowledge can be exclusionary, or that it privileges particular kinds of knowledge over others, or that its aesthetic can be of a marginalising hue – from a particular perspective, there is a valid argument to be met here (see my previous post on one potential perspective here).

Anthea Hamilton’s infamous Turner Prize nominated sculpture – cultural literacy?

After all, if one deems a core knowledge curriculum to consist of art and culture beyond the parochial boundaries of place, or deems cultural literacy to consist primarily in knowledgeable articulacy of the contemporary, certainly more than the past, then clearly an alternative vision exists to the one most commonly proffered, and needs to be taken account of.

I’m not sure how often we see that challenge accepted. Curriculum development often appears to proceed without acknowledgment of an argument that concerns its very soul, sometimes ignoring altogether, other times attempting a cross-fertilisation to avoid accusations of the chauvinistic. One might well understand why: this is a minefield, strewn with the traps of politics and identity. But also, because it requires one to retreat back to first principles and ask the most basic questions: if the core curriculum goes hand in hand with developing cultural literacy, then what comprises this culture? And should we only focus on this culture? And what is our aim in seeking to transmit this culture to the next generation?

The Moral Dimension

Potential responses only outline the space for future dialogue, rather than providing a comprehensive answer. The curriculum is the capture of a process, the staging post of cumulative decisions and experiences coming together to form a proposed canon of knowledge. It is the principles guiding these footsteps which offer the best chance of fruitful dialogue.

And so, they begin: are curriculum decisions made with utility in mind – to help ensure future employability and the ability to hold one’s own, in general society as much as in esteemed company? Is it identitarian – to infuse children with the fruits and intellectual architecture of the culture in which they are being formed, the better to increase their attachment to it? Is it simple familiarity – those things which, through time and fashion, have traditionally comprised a liberal education and have long been seen as constituent parts of a quality curriculum? Is it resurrecting a memory – choosing a canon based on its resonance with a particular past, offering pupils ways of finding meaning in the cultural landscape around them? Or is it spiritual – to form the children in front of us and help them inhabit a worldview, a manner of being, which might otherwise remain alien to them?

A collection of all these? Or something else entirely?

The latter might be considered out of place, a soteriological cherry on top of what is otherwise a utilitarian project, by varying degrees, and there are those who would claim such an ambition is an act of oppression, taking upon itself an intimate concern with the soul that should properly be beyond the remit of the school. I am not sure this can really be upheld as a novel exercise – all schools do it, even those who deem themselves most devoutly secular, from content taught to rules administered to values upheld (children from socially conservative traditions, and with socially conservative views, will experience this most acutely in our schools today).

As such, the question is not whether the curriculum is in some sense shaped by a prior moral or spiritual commitment, or even whether it should, but rather which it should be – and how we should decide. Howsoever one finally chooses to answer that question, the issue of content selection as co-constructing that project is never far away, but it most properly follows the prior vision, rather than preceding it.

In a world of busy-ness and deadlines, the time to reflect on such matters can seem indulgent, even should the desire exist to do so – better to simply chuck all the ingredients in and get the job done. But avoiding these questions, or tactfully choosing not to consider them, only gives justification to those who would maintain that our curricula do not represent expanding horizons, but expanding certain horizons, whilst leaving others unattended – with the interlocutor free to speculate for themselves the underlying reasons for any omission. And whilst time is finite, and decisions must be made as to what makes the cut, this is of course understandable. It is not unfair for detractors to ask on what basis curriculum decisions are made.

Curriculum Kitsch

Looking around, it can sometimes feel as if curriculum improvement consists primarily of simply adding more stuff. This is clearly problematic – it is one thing associating challenge with quantity, but if there is no underlying coherence (important for both the learning and the remembering) to weave such knowledge together then the curriculum lacks authenticity, and gives to those charged with teaching it or learning it no justification for doing so, beyond personal fiat – the determination of a particular Head, at a particular time. Here, the curriculum risks losing its inner dignity, becoming an atomised collection of things, ready to fall apart once the authority of the person insisting upon it ceases to be its sufficient cause.

The focus on content accumulation, on simple quantity, risks turning knowledge into just another consumer product, in which the capacity to consume and one’s accumulated consumption becomes a social signifier and sign of success. And the more glamorous the consumption, the more niche the diet, the better, not because of the interior quality of what is consumed, but because of the status associated with the ability to acquire the exotic.

However, in elevating knowledge consumption by quantity to prestige status, we risk a sort of consumerist kitsch, choosing knowledge not to enhance or nourish, but to impress, to define oneself, to affirm status and the ability to consume and to have consumed – knowledge as performance, as spectacle, knowledge as bling.

The Alfred Jewel – likely the head of a ‘æstel’, much like a yad, which were distributed along with copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s Regula Pastoralis

I’m not convinced this approach has longevity beyond the personality of the individual leader insisting upon it, lacking meaning since it lacks telos – something which underpinned the motivations of those tasked with creating curricula and composing the canonical in ages past. When King Alfred completed his project of translating particular works into English, and insisted upon their distribution and even their reading, he did so not because of a desire to simply fill a neutral pot called knowledge, where the fuller it became the better, but instead because those works were ‘most necessary for all men to know.’ The justification, the enlivening principle, was formation, not a gluttonous accumulation. It was anticipated that the wealth of wisdom could flow from reading these texts, from knowing these principles, to the benefit of both the individual and society.

Whilst exposure to a broader variety of knowledge is certainly a starting point, and learning for learning sake is a virtue to be rehabilitated, this is not a permission slip for some sort of educational nihilism, either for pragmatic purposes or ideological: the question of ‘why?’ has to remain central. Only once this has occurred might one get down to better considering the what, and justifying the discrimination (in the literal sense) necessarily involved in defining it. Because in a finite world, or more specifically a 25 hour timetable, one must indeed be discriminatory in choosing what to include over the myriad other things that could have been included. And one best have in mind the reasons for doing so. Only here can one find the dignity of the curriculum, beyond fiat and fashion, to develop a coherence worthy of the formative years of our children.

Conclusion

The elephant in the room here is the demand placed upon schools by our accountability system, and the pragmatic necessity for highest possible exam performance. This has been left alone not because it is deemed to be of lesser moral worth – I tend to agree that the best we can do for our children is to deliver an education which enables them to achieve excellent exam grades – but because curriculum development is in some sense leading the way over qualifications, being at once more ambitious and more aware of the principled necessity of a broad and high-quality curriculum.

And this is as it should be – examinations capture a slice of what has been taught; they should not become the outer limits of what we teach.

Here’s hoping, then, that the current race toward curriculum improvement proceeds with a clear commitment to an underlying coherence. Or else we’re just playing at this. And however politically astute that might be, and however much professional prestige and career advancement people might find tied up with it, it shall nonetheless be destined to crumble with the passage of time, when, as inevitably happens, people ask why we study this, and do not study that, before realising that we have neglected to ever give an answer.

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The Federation Hymnal

At the St Ninian Catholic Federation we are seeking to develop a knowledge-rich curriculum that introduces children to learning opportunities that do not yet feature in our current programme. As I have written previously, whilst we are indebted to the work of Hirsch in lighting the way on this, we also need to develop a curriculum offer that reflects our own Catholic ethos, our tradition and our identity, our priorities and needs.  Just as the Catholic vision of education is a broad and coherent whole, embracing beauty, goodness and truth in both the religious and the secular, so we aspire for our curriculum to do likewise.

As a result, we wish to develop our music curriculum to better recognise its central status as part of that vision. Whilst this will include new programmes of study, it will also a commitment to ensuring that each child has a minimum entitlement when it comes to knowing the hymns and prayers that form our heritage (I will blog on the specific prayers the children will be taught and expected to know at a later date).

As such, we have decided to develop a Federation canon of 20 hymns that we will aim to ensure all children know before they leave school, and a further list of hymns or chants chosen for their liturgical or spiritual value in the life of the Church. Of course, over the course of 7 years’ worth of hymn practice and Mass attendance the children will come to know more than just this list, and they will come across age appropriate songs at each age level, but identifying a core list helps ensure this minimum entitlement is met.

Whilst this is still a working document, and open for change, the hymns we currently have identified as comprising a core canon are:

  • Adeste Fideles
  • Amazing Grace
  • As I Kneel Before You
  • Be Still for the Presence of the Lord
  • Be Thou My Vision
  • Eat This Bread, Drink This Cup
  • Faith of Our Fathers
  • Forty Days and Forty Nights
  • Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer
  • Hail, Queen of Heaven
  • Holy Virgin by God’s Decree
  • How Great Thou Art
  • Immaculate Mary
  • Lord of All Hopefulness
  • Sweet Heart of Jesus
  • Take My Hands
  • The Lord is My Shepherd
  • Ubi Caritas
  • Veni, Veni Emmanuel
  • When I Survey This Wondrous Cross

We also want the children to know and be able to recognise different prayers and parts of the Mass that might be sung, or prayers often sung on special occasions. For this, our current list is:

  • Pater Noster
  • Ave Maria
  • Credo
  • Kyrie
  • Gloria
  • Agnus Dei
  • Sanctus
  • Salve Regina
  • Tantum Ergo
  • Te Deum
  • Dies Irae

Many of these the children will have already been introduced to, primarily through the weekly Mass, which will ensure the music they learn and sing reflects the liturgical year or spiritual use for which it was originally designed. It is also important to note that list will work alongside the wider curriculum (and in many cases overlap with it), which will include a variety of musical traditions, both secular and sacred, complementing the performative aspect of singing with both theory and the ability to read and be able to follow sheet music as part of that performance.

There are challenges of course – from expertise, to resources, to time. These are significant, though not insuperable. We are also aware that the curriculum must remain mindful of the pupils, and not become a simple adornment of our own ego – it is all too easy to produce a list of increasingly obscure suggestions, not to develop the abilities and interest of children, but to make a statement about one’s own.

For this reason, the curriculum will be under constant review. In the first instance, however, we are determined that music will no longer be seen as an adjunct to our learning, but as a core component of the Catholic curriculum, helping us deliver a suitably rounded and coherent vision of human flourishing in what we teach our children, or more accurately for the purposes of this blog, what we expect them to be able to sing.

And that is where we are to date. If you think there are other hymns you think would be worthy for inclusion, or have any other thoughts to share, I’d be delighted to hear from you – do please either use the ‘Contact’ form on the website or make recommendations in the comments box below.

 

N.B. Newman needs to be on there – Praise to the Holiest in the Height. Hmmm…

Hirsch, Secularism and the Catholic Curriculum

In a previous blog (‘Contesting the Canon’), I explored concerns regarding the potential (anti-Catholic) partiality of the canon, but also the overarching effectiveness of the core knowledge curriculum for achieving its principal goal of cultural literacy. In sum, I suggested that whilst I support and advocate the idea of a canon, the core knowledge approach seemed to have taken on an overtly secular character, meaning the contents of its canon were necessarily restricted and restrictive. This was a problem for us, a Catholic school, but also for the very notion of cultural literacy – or as I wrote then, ‘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.”

With the kind help of Dame Rachel de Souza (@Rachel_deSouza) of the Inspiration Trust, the blog gained the attention of E D Hirsch, architect of the core knowledge revolution and someone whose work and influence I admire. He was kind enough to comment on the blog and gracious enough to answer a follow-up question, which shall form the basis of this blog.

But first, the background of the question. Since the core knowledge (or similar) agenda took off in the UK, I have wondered why it seems to neglect such a huge area of learning as scripture and theology. Since one needn’t have a faith persuasion to study either of these things, and since they seem fundamental to a halfway competent understanding of so much of our shared history and culture, the oversight is curious. Quite why it might exist is open to debate: be it subliminal partisanship or wider ignorance (in the literal, non-pejorative sense), it nonetheless existed.

But the danger of such an oversight seems clear: one risks falling into precisely that trap set by anti-canon activists, who insist the whole project is not the objective exercise in aesthetics its proponents claim, but instead the imposition of a highly partial and exclusive account of ‘us’. I disagree with this, but the absence described above opens a door to the claim – after all, if we wish to construct a canon of the best that has been thought and said, we better make sure its contents reflect the value of things in themselves, and not the personal hangups or preferences of those charged with collating it. Failure to do so risks precisely the philistinism of which the core knowledge agenda is intended to be a riposte.

It is from this perspective that I wished to press the point regarding the secular character of core knowledge. Whilst I recognise that Hirsch operates in a US context, and has indeed tipped his hat to the role of scripture in shaping the cultural, I was curious as to how far he thought his might go, not least since advocates in this country seem to have paid this curiously little attention.

And so my (with hindsight very wordy) question, which was:

My main question… is to do with the core proposal of the original piece, which is that the core knowledge movement, certainly as I have come across it in the UK, seems to have become secular-humanist in both content and delivery, and in so doing risks two consequences, each of which aggravate against the very concept of core knowledge: firstly, it can neglect high value cultural treasures and over-promote others, thus giving a distorted account of cultural value; secondly, it presents an obstacle to effective understanding of the key content of our canon, denying pupils the principal interpretative framework to understand the canon in its true historical and cultural context…. Hence the suggestion that core knowledge, in this particular form, risks promoting cultural illiteracy and misunderstanding, and putting together something akin to a ‘knowledge menu’, which is prone to the kitsch… I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the matter.

 

And thus came the response:

In the UK there’s a Church of England.  In the USA, there’s not a Church of the USA.  That was the political/cultural decision that was taken by our founders, and stressed before the founding in the Virginia Statute for religious Freedom of 1786 authored by Jefferson.  The statute named theology and scripture “opinion” and indicated that it must never be part of the official public sphere.   The aim was to keep unity and peace — against the backdrop of the bloody wars of religion of prior centuries in Europe.   

The tradition in the American schools was to teach about religion as a historical phenomenon, but to leave hymns, prayers, and scripture to the home.  

Instead we instituted a quasi civil religion (Rousseau’s idea) with a National Anthem (i.e. National Hymn), a holy secular symbol (the flag). The Core Knowledge curriculum outline is very much in that tradition.  Even Bible stories as stories were approached with caution.  

There is a lot to unpack there, beginning with that very first sentence, since it rubs against the argument of the original post that the core canon excludes the Catholic from our accounts of culture and nationhood, and that this had been precisely the intention and reality for hundreds of years (see the original blog for the expanded version of this argument).

But to focus on the broader argument, Hirsch seems to be clarifying that the core knowledge curriculum is intentionally framed within a resolutely secular narrative that actively confines to the personal many of those things that I would argue are essential aspects of any broad account of cultural literacy. Religion could be studied through a sociological gaze – which might itself be open to questions regarding effectiveness – but any more than this transgresses the separation-ideal of American civic life (a civic space that, it must be noted, is very different in history and character to the UK.)

At this point, the core knowledge curriculum appears to take on a slightly different ambition from what I had assumed, and I now wonder if it might be better to suggest that it more accurately advocates the acquisition of ‘knowledge capital’, which is unquestionably a good thing, and with which we acquire cultural literacy. I understand how this might make sense within a clean-slate secularism such as that which prevailed in the US, though whether it can be seamlessly transposed into the rather more entangled and undulating history of the United Kingdom strikes me as doubtful. The direct link from expanding knowledge capital to improving cultural literacy might make sense in a US context, but less so in a UK context, and insisting upon such a separation might even have the unintended consequence of inhibiting it.

Of course some might disagree here, and suggest that Hirsch’s divide between these two knowledge realms is desirable, perhaps even necessary within our de facto secular education system. And whilst I see how this might make superficial sense, or better reflect the worldview of those without faith, or those accustomed to the view that faith is a private matter, I only offer the same challenge as set down in the previous blog: how do you give an honest and authentic account of our cultural inheritance whilst sectioning off those things which were and remain principal components of it? How do you teach an accurate understanding of so many of our historical events, of our institutions, of our political reforms, of myriad cultural references, of legal developments, or literary expression, or social customs, or shared festivals and celebrations, or architectural history, or innumerable other things, without it?

Without scripture and theology one is destined to miss the target on these things, and will instead garner only a superficial collection of cultural tidbits (themselves chosen by the same highly partial criteria), denied of the framework within which to properly understand their worth, making erroneous assumptions about our shared history and identity accordingly. In other words, there is a difference between knowledge capital and cultural literacy, and the latter requires more careful thought than the former, since the former can easily collapse into a form utilitarian kitsch whilst the latter depends upon judgement and wisdom

What does this mean for our schools? Over the next few months at the St. Ninian Catholic Federation we will be seeking a way to integrate the best of the core knowledge agenda as it has already developed, rooted in the desire for both knowledge capital and cultural literacy, whilst curating a canon that better reflects a fuller account of learning consistent with the Catholic vision of education.  In other words, we are looking at how we offer a genuinely Catholic core knowledge programme, to present the riches of human achievement on the one hand, situated within a proper account of human understanding and flourishing on the other (whilst out of fashion now, Catholic philosophy historically preferred to use the term ‘formation’, which more accurately depicts this account of flourishing).

Of course, this is not a process of manufacture and pedagogical consideration also informs our considerations, as do questions of what support structures we can offer to help children achieve the highest standards. Perhaps that will be a matter for another post, but for now the focus is on constructing a compelling, broad and challenging curriculum. It promises to be an exciting project. If you are interested in our work, or would like to collaborate in creating an outstanding core curriculum, then do please feel free to get in touch – we would be delighted to hear from you.

 

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.

 

 

 

The Challenge of Traditionalism

‘Traditionalism’, so far as that label catches anything, has had something of a fraught time of late. It has been put to all manner of uses, positive and negative, from those who seek to attach legacy and prestige to their latest innovation, to those who wish to dismiss a proposition by rendering it already unworthy of consideration. Still, if words mean things, then we might as well try and find agreement on what they mean, lest we simply talk past each other even whilst claiming to debate.

To my mind, traditionalism is a positive moral vision more than a pedagogical claim (I don’t like the term, but that’s for another blogpost). Of course the latter can and often does flow from the former, but ultimately it is a code which allows more pedagogical freedom than it does ethical. Or put another way, virtue-signalling about VAK need not make one a traditionalist, but maintaining the teacher/taught relationship is rightly shaped by particular accounts of authority and obedience probably does. Thus the split, between those who might claim to be traditionalist because their pedagogical preferences neatly align with what has been labelled as such, even whilst dissenting from the ethical and moral underpinnings of traditionalism itself.

Of course, not everybody agrees with the detail of that moral vision, and the features of its claims are more often implied than explicitly stated. Partly this is because one risks an unsympathetic and indeed hostile reception in declaring oneself an advocate (‘shy traddies’ are a thing too, mostly confined to DMs); partly because of this tendency to force the discussion into tick-list claims about classroom practice. Further, there is space for competing, if broadly united, accounts – no catechetical formula exists to which one can simply subscribe.

Still, that there exists something approaching coherence, and that this is identifiable across particular interpretations, casts its shadow and demands opponents take account. And ultimately it must provoke a reaction – sometimes rational, sometimes emotional –  from those who recognise that the challenge it offers is not a debate about process, but a positive claim about reality. And not an inconsequential claim, but one that strikes at the very heart of the presumptions and beliefs of many an educationalist.

Of what does it consist? As tricky as this is, common themes present themselves, and we can identify just a few here. Particular accounts of hierarchy – of knowledge, especially, but also relationships and status – can certainly be found, whilst the virtues of authority and discipline are recognised and build upon the frameworks put in place by those hierarchies (some insist there is a straw man here, and maintain they too favour authority and discipline, though in a manner so fundamentally unlike as to make the suggestion appear more rhetorical convenience than serious claim).

The capacity to legitimately judge between competing truths, and indeed the moral duty to do so, is also affirmed – not only in the realm of fact, but also judgment; that the correct and the incorrect, the right and the wrong, actually exists, and are not all simple expressions of individual preference or habit, and that we should seek one over the other. Similarly, the belief that a canon should exist, and is constructive of who we are, and should be passed down to the next generation for nourishment, and that there is virtue in both the bequeathing and the inheritance. And of course, the long view – that education should stand aloof from the transience of the now, or the demands of the market, or the convenience of the employer, and instead cherish the gifts of our forebears as of inherent worth – artistic, aesthetic, moral – with value to our ongoing and changing conversation about who we are and what we believe.

Which brings us, almost inexorably, to Michaela School, as so many current education debates tend to do. Whilst I would not wish to put words into the mouth of Michaela School, or make claims about it that are misjudged or inaccurate, it is from here that I believe the Michaela project, or more precisely what it embodies, has such value, and the reason why it draws such stark reactions. In short, Michaela has not billed itself simply as creators and exporters of a particularly efficient model of practice, though it might also wish to claim that; it has instead openly advocated a moral vision, not only of learning, but of society itself, and the relationships that reside there.

And it jars. Badly. Comparisons that have been made, whether later defended as being in jest or not – with Nazism, with fascism – are the protests of a group who instinctively recognise the fundamental moral challenge Michaela has set, but who lack the ethical and even linguistic categories to meet that challenge. This traditionalism, banished from normative discourse within the education sector and university departments for so long, presents itself as simply alien: when faced with something that defies normative categorisation, the imprecise and the hyperbolic is simply what comes most easily to hand. There is no abiding guilt in this, and perhaps even reason to celebrate – it at least shows the magnitude of what is at stake truth has been grasped, even if instinctively.

To my mind, Michaela are doing what a traditionalist education must do if it is to stand in a system so generally ill-disposed toward it – it draws a line in the sand and invites its interlocutors to make their choice. In this sense, Michaela embodies a very real culture war in education, even it is not the one that dominates our largely technocratic discussions, debating the efficiency of group work or the effectiveness of drill – it is about the fundamentals: who are we? how should we live? how do we know?

I should add at this point that, whilst I have sympathy for the Michaela project, I cannot say I agree with all of its offer, so far as I understand/know what that is, though without having visited I could not claim to base my view on anything more substantial than what I have read to date. For example, as much as I commend Michaela’s recovery of the inherent value of knowing, and the worth of our literary and artistic inheritance, and the absolute ethical claim that all citizens (regardless of wealth or background) have on that shared inheritance, I do nonetheless wonder if it can be prone to the educational kitsch, rooting itself in the superficialities of broad knowledge as a safer bet against the controversies of deeper wisdom. But then, I’m a Catholic, who defends and advocates the unique gifts of Catholic education – I would say that.

Nonetheless, so far as traditionalism offers a competing vision of society and those who comprise it, a vision largely redundant in the state sector, then Michaela’s foray is to be welcomed. The impacts of traditionalist dormancy have been keenly felt, especially in those layers of society for whom such an absence can be all the more life-constricting. If Chesterton, Burke, and even Tacitus were all right that moral laxity is always to the benefit of the already powerful, and if traditionalism is indeed a moral account that counsels against such (educational) laxity, then one might tease out an explanation of why that might be the case. In education, as in society, demands to cast aside strictures ring loudest from the mouths of those best sheltered from its social consequences – what some use as ladders, others declare to be chains. And the poorest really have lost out here; Gove’s liberal authoritarianism at least recognised this, even if his cure was to cast aside as irrelevant those contextual features that were actually fundamental to the insight.

So far as traditionalism in education means anything, then, I hope the debate can coalesce around these moral claims, since focusing on the pedagogical is ultimately a hostage to fortune that elevates an inexact science into certitude and leaves us prone to the fashions of research and the politics that reside therein. We should know why we do what we do, before constructing the system to deliver it, informed by research but not captured by it – without that, teaching is just task design, and we, the teachers, become marginal players in a drama that is not ours.

Liberty and faith: a defence of church schools

This article first appeared in the online Fabian Review on November 2016. It can be accessed here.

 

As Catholics who teach in Catholic schools, we must necessarily approach the church school debate with an air of resignation, sure in the knowledge that we will be deemed from the outset to be unfit to comment. After all, it is hard to escape the claim of vested interest, even if we might gently remind our interlocutors that the action follows the thought, rather than the other way round.

What’s more, those who would diminish the contribution of church schools to the collective life of our nation do so from a perceived perspective of neutrality. Whilst we might challenge the easy assumptions of those who would so readily equate the secular with the neutral, nonetheless we must proceed, and will do so here by choosing a single argument, from amongst the many that exist in defence of church schools, though one perhaps less well aired than it otherwise might be: a society in which church schools exist is a freer and more worthy society than one in which they are eradicated, in so much as their existence preserves the rights of parents to educate their offspring according to the values and beliefs that they see fit.

It is useful first to add historic landscape to our claims. Church schools were established long before the state took an interest in education, often founded explicitly for the education and spiritual succour of the most vulnerable. Churches blazed the trail for expansion of education provision beyond circles of privilege, an engagement that assisted in the broad development of an educated proletariat, an entwining with the most vulnerable still discernible in the geographic dispersal of Catholic schools today. Little wonder, then, that Labour historically supported church schools – we long ministered to the same constituency.

In other words, the Christian churches provided education in this country long before the state decided to join their efforts – that they should now find themselves having to defend their status not for what they do well, but for the fact that they do it at all, can only be read as an authoritarianism designed not for the common good but the satiation of a secular crusade.

And it is intriguing how easily that secular crusade is willing to tread on the toes of liberties long embedded within society, indeed long admired within left-wing thought, which built its critique of capitalism on concepts of positive liberty, contra the negative liberty of the social and economic free-marketeers.

This brings us back to our central claim, one best elucidated through recourse to a central Catholic belief that education is primarily the responsibility of the parent, with which the state assists. More directly: church schools are the living embodiment of a principle that a free society must keep foremost in its thoughts.

In recent years, there has been a slow transformation of the relationship between the state and the family, and the rights of parents and indeed the state in relation to that family. This is particularly discernible within education, specifically discourse surrounding that cherished goal of social mobility, within which one most explicitly detects the intention to ‘rescue’ children from the culture and values of their upbringing – which most often means from their working-class backgrounds. Some might argue this is the natural and justifiable consequence of the state seeking better outcomes for its citizens, though the thorny issue of quite what constitutes better outcomes rarely acquaints itself with the purifying influence of critical debate.

Still, it is from this vantage point that some feel emboldened to deny the rights of parents in relation to the education of their child, often under the guise of fallacious arguments ranging from the absurd (church schools indoctrinate children) to the ridiculous (church schools are a form of child abuse). One could write an entire essay debunking these claims and many others – counter to the data-dubious claims of many, our schools are actually more racially and socially diverse than their non-church counterparts, for example – though the point pursued here is broader: we ought to think carefully before casting aside the fundamental rights of the family, in particular the rights of those of faith to continue to have their child educated within the faith tradition of their heritage.

It is, after all, an odd definition of liberty that would declare that this should not be so. And whilst we can admit that drawing facile comparisons with a series of fantastical cults might establish a rhetorical point (‘well why not let Satanists have their own schools too?’), it does little to establish a rational one.

In truth, so much opposition emanates from a fundamentally inaccurate account of what happens within church schools, and a wholly distorted account of what we seek to achieve by having them. In short, we educate because we do it well, from an ethic of service, enlivened by philosophical and ethical frameworks forged over millennia and tested for centuries; there seems to be plenty of evidence to support our confidence and justify our inclusion.

As such, we must seek to balance priorities – the freedom of the family to organise itself, within reasonable limits, according to its own values and beliefs, overrides the determination, however well-intentioned, of those who hold to a different set of beliefs and seek to impose them on that same family.

This is not to say that interventions should never be entertained, or that parental choices are forever beyond the reach of the state – clearly sober judgment is to be made. Still, we might confidently suggest that Catholic and Church of England schools – which comprise the vast majority of church schools in the UK – fall on the right side of that judgment.

Indeed, for us Catholics the argument takes on added poignancy: we had to, and still must, fight for those liberties that others might take for granted – our own shot at the good life has been dearly bought. It was in the face of prejudice that we founded our schools – both to counter social discrimination that Catholic families, often immigrants, faced within wider society, and to put in place a positive vision of what we think education is and what can be offered when we deliver it.

Which brings us neatly to our concluding point, with an appeal once again to liberty: those who wish to deny the rights of church schools to exist must reconcile themselves with the fact that the achievement of their aim could only be pursued by the most illiberal of means. The vast majority of Catholic schools are Voluntary Aided: the land on which they are built, and very often the buildings that reside there, are the property of the Church, which must also contribute to the upkeep and maintenance of those schools. To reverse this situation one must either confiscate, or cut off funding and imperil the education of hundreds of thousands of children, or purchase that land and those buildings. Since the latter two options appear less than likely, one would be left with an option that, hundreds of years after a similar intrusion, one might hope would never seriously be entertained.

This debate deserves more words than are available in this short piece, and is more wide-ranging than those limited arguments, offered without consideration of counterpoints, that we have briefly explored here. Nonetheless, focusing on the single principle of parental rights and historic liberties, we commend to you a simple truth: church schools are part of and co-creators of a healthy, generous, more tolerant society.

To strike at that would be to strike at the roots of what we consider best in ourselves.

 

Michael Merrick and Chris Wilkins – teacher and Executive Headteacher of the St. Ninian Catholic Federation, Carlisle.

The Limits of Aspiration

A version of this article first appeared in the TES magazine print edition in October 2016.

 

Aspiration

Aspiration has become quite the fashion in education. It appears to be the solution to everything from social mobility to boys’ underachievement, from poor discipline to dreary school culture. And we might say that, in so far it is willing to draw distinctions between good and bad choices, it has value.

It soon gets a little more complicated, however. Because as aspiration is often presented, one discerns at its heart the presumption of a certain set of outcomes, which broadly align with the goals of social mobility in general. Why else would one school announce that it aspires for all its students to enter university?

I do not intend to argue against that ambition, and I instinctively wince when I hear the suggestion that not all kids should aspire to further learning. My concern is more elsewhere: that our accounts of aspiration exclude too many, making pupils choose between occasionally contrary impulses, at times incentivising against itself whilst simultaneously denigrating that choice.

The Messiness of Life

We rarely allow to intrude into our definitions of aspiration those accounts which speak of technical or vocational flourishing; successfully attaining status within the knowledge economy is generally what counts. Whilst government figures might look at income patterns to explore changes in social mobility, it is difficult to deny that the concept also contains a cultural edge. For our politicians and our thinktanks, social mobility means being inducted into the middle-class – for the working-classes, it is the ability, often the demand, to walk away from who are you are, or at the very least where you are from.

Which means that for our children, it is the reality that you must do so, if you wish to enjoy this thing known as success. Here, perhaps, the root of that long-observed fear within working-class communities in particular, that education does not expand minds but sows prejudices, turning children against an upbringing rather than building upon it. Put simply, for a young person from certain parts of our country, pursuing the social mobility dream can feel irreconcilable with background: from accent to habit, one feels compelled to choose between the two.

But life is messier than this. Whereas as some might see a background that needs to be overcome, others might see an upbringing that made us who or what we are, a web of connections and relationships that sustain us. Virtue and sound sense might well find expression in the decision to leave home and pursue these accounts of success, but it does not exist there exclusively. For others, it can also exist in becoming a full part of that web of life and community that has maintained and sustained, that gives meaning and identity, an affirming rite of passage all the more powerful in tight-knit communities. The social mobility narrative has neglected to recognise the virtues and good fortune in precisely that upbringing which it deems students must overcome. In so doing, it creates false opposition, consigning our children to a choice between success and perceived stagnation, entrenching the notion that flourishing is only to be found when we leave, rarely when we stay.

Which can put us in a difficult position. We want our children to be successful, but if our only account of success is exclusively tied up with social mobility, and the designated pathway for achieving it, then we risk disenfranchising those who decide that the costs of pursuing such accounts are too high. Making success and rootedness a zero-sum game will only lead to alienation of the rooted, of those whom Jon Cruddas has called ‘the Settlers’ in contemporary society, calling into question the value, and dignity, of their own shot at the good life. It feels instinctively unwise to set the price of aspiration as something seemingly in conflict with those virtues embodied in the decisions of those who choose other paths – family, friends, duties, commitments, obligations, love.

This is particularly acute when one takes physical geography into account, the issue which really does confound the meritocratic ideal by introducing a variable which is much harder to circumvent. It might be straightforward if you live in a big city or within easy range of a good university, but if you’re from (say) Workington, how do you become ‘socially mobile’ without first leaving all your family and friends behind? The nearest Russell Group university is 100 miles away: might social mobility, and the esteemed universities deemed most likely to deliver it, be as much about physical geography as it is a deficiency in the virtue of aspiration?

Entering the professions presents the student with a similar dilemma, whilst practising within them might render you better off elsewhere, too. Factor in the debt (which, despite people pointing at graphs and insisting otherwise, really does influence the decision-making of the working-class), and the living costs: if some decide this too high a price, are we to decide they simply lack aspiration?

Which leads to the question: have we painted ourselves into a corner where aspiration, and by extension social mobility, are for too many deemed antithetical to their background and upbringing and the human relationships which reside there? And if we have, then are we really happy with that?

All things considered, maybe we should be less surprised if a cohort decide that the orthodoxies of ‘aspiration’ aren’t for them, and by extension the academic pathways that they have been lead to believe are irrevocably tied up with it. Not because they are not aspirational, but because the way that term is configured in educational discourse leaves untouched their own accounts of flourishing. Because of this, maybe we should concern ourselves less with defining the pathways of aspiration, and worry more about our core aim – to deliver excellent education to all, and to make all believe that it really is important for them, whatever future paths they choose.

The Caveat

And yet…

I live in an area that might be considered prime target for those pious lectures from chief inspectors and politicians being fabulously successful down in London with all the advantages that come with it – the provinces, if you will. I am animated by a desire to expand horizons and bring a world into the classroom the better to convince the kids within it that it is worthy of exploration. I try to challenge insularity and lack of intellectual curiosity, and was quietly delighted when some of our students entered into top universities this year. I have come across students who genuinely do not see the allure of visiting Rome, or watching theatre, or appreciating art, and it leaves me disheartened. It is a lamentable fact that lack of access can lead to lack of interest, and lack of interest can lead to refusal to access. Yet the fundamentals of a good education require us to overcome that, to persists in trying to show our students why these things matter. In other words, something in the aspiration vision does indeed chime, even if (for me) it is not quite what its adherents generally think it to be.

Whilst conceding the point, we must nonetheless remain alert to arguments that go too far in the opposite direction. For example, the claim that aspiration and social mobility is just middle-class imperialism, followed by the argument, no doubt well-meaning, that we shouldn’t impose middle-class normativity on to working-class kids and judge them deficient for not having met the ambitions and values of a different social class.

Whilst there may be the grain of benign instinct buried away here – it at least acknowledges that we need to think about different social realities and not just insist we can bootstrap folk out of their origins – it nonetheless patronises. Why would we want to tell working class kids they needn’t worry about doing the kind of things some middle-class people do, when our real concern is them not having to shed heritage and identity as an entrance fee?

This is where the danger lies. Entwining aspiration solely with university can and does convince some that education is only valuable or worth persevering with if your life decisions align with that view of post-school life. Don’t want to be a doctor? Prefer to be a mechanic? Fine. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn your Shakespeare or know your Windrush. The moment we tell ourselves that it does – the moment we assign aspiration and education excellence to a particular pathway – is the moment we deny our children their shared rights and privileges of a cultural inheritance.

This is why our configuration of education around aspiration might need to be detached from professional outcome – not because aspiration is a middle-class thing, but because in tying it to a certain pathway we have decided that it can never be a working-class thing. The result? A disjointed philosophy which divides students between the practical and the scholarly, bustling them off into the vocational or the academic, according to which aspect of the market they might best serve.

It cannot be emphasised enough that this is a modern ruse. An educated, articulate and learned working-class is not at all a contradiction in terms. Our history, and no less our cultural heritage, screams this at us. It might be tempting to assign openness to scholarship as the product of a more enlightened era when education was seen as food for the soul, though perhaps that is to sentimentalise what was as likely to be the interplay of pragmatism and ingrained wisdom – it is through education that we best resist oppression, through education that we best discern and assert our interests, through education that we give ourselves the best chance of succeeding in the art of living well.

Working-class kids want to study for a degree? Brilliant. All the better. But they should not have to leave who they are and where they are from behind at matriculation. Nor have ingrained into them the insidious belief that those who chose otherwise – those back home – are somehow failing in life.

That we have come to accept otherwise can only be the consequence a utilitarian estimation of education: if some kids work well with their hands, why do they need their heads? Why aspire? And all the while, a group of middle-class pupils corralled toward university, regardless, as aspiration fails to present itself in any other socially acceptable form.

Inclusive Aspiration

The opposite to aspiration is not and need not be stagnation, and yet we seem to have made it so. In so doing, we unwittingly reaffirm the idea that a good education is for those who seek to follow that pathway into undergraduate study and beyond, and not really for anybody else. But the price of pursuing that vision remains high enough – with both economic and human costs – that some decide the normative routes are not for them. This is not because they are not aspirational, but because their aspiration expresses itself in ways more closely aligned to their values and obligations, duties and desires. In short: if given a choice between abstract ideas of success and social mobility on the one hand, and concrete realities of rootedness and (hopefully) flourishing on the other, some choose the latter of the two. Not every bond is a tie that binds – some become the ladders that help us soar.

And so the questions present themselves: what do we have to offer these children beyond a disappointed sigh and sometimes a sneer? Can we rescue working-class culture from the clutches of those who think it is only ever something that must be abandoned or overcome? How do we convince our students that an excellent education is a gift for all, wherever your ambitions lie?

Either way, it seems to me important that we do. Lest we continue to scratch our heads and wonder why so many of those who sit before us continue to feel uninspired, alienated, by what we offer, by what we say, and by what we tell them they should aspire toward.