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I have a confession. It’s not one that makes me proud – these things rarely are – but it was one that made me think. Indeed, it was the thing that made me fundamentally rethink so much about education. Please be generous.
It involved a lad who was not doing as he should. He could have had good grades, but he didn’t. And one early summer afternoon early on in my teaching career, after having tried every strategy I knew, I said a thing which in my naivety I thought might be motivational but which I now realise was just conceited: ‘you crack on then lad, and at this rate you’ll end up stacking shelves, but hey if that’s what you’re happy with you go for it.’
In my head, in the respectable world in which I now existed, this prospect alone would be enough to effect change, to bring about the transformation in attitude and approach I desired, to ensure this kid met his ‘true potential.’ I, the virtuous hero, speaking truths from compassion, to save the working-class kid, to deliver him to ‘better things.’
It didn’t have the desired effect. I lost that battle, truth be told, even whilst thinking I was winning it. And if this were a film, I’d have found out why in some chance coming together later down the line – tragedy, followed by redemption. But I never did find out. After he left I just never saw him again and, if I’m honest, thought little more of it. Until some years later, and parents’ evening, and there was Mum, younger child in tow, straight from work, in her ASDA uniform.
Up until that point, I hadn’t realised that the thing that I thought proved I had high standards was actually the thing that showed my standards were nowhere near high enough. I had mistaken my obnoxiousness for aspiration, perceived my judgmentalism as compassion and care. After all, I told myself, if I didn’t want these things for these kids, who would? Do they not deserve the chance to be successful too? And more to the point, who wouldn’t want these things?
The slow realisation of quite what a morass of assumptions lay buried away in that train of thought hit hard – and caused me to rethink everything.
In the wake of the current social disruption unprecedented in most of our lifetimes, I wonder if we find ourselves at a similar crossroads. Slowly it is dawning that our own assumptions might too be in need of a rethink, a truth brought home forcefully as those we previously undervalued become the very ones we realise we rely upon most.
Up to this point, we in education have been the fundamental part of a culture (and a structure that expresses it) in which one pathway is elevated as the model of success and against which other pathways are compared. To be successful, to get on, means to be academically successful, and schools have been the place to make this happen. A mix of vanity and Pelagianism has been absorbed into an education sector, in which success is perceived as merely a matter of the will. We have convinced ourselves destiny can be chosen through individual efforts alone, and those who do not succeed deserve not to have done so, having obviously chosen not to do so.
Deviation from this story has been dismissed as the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’, a culture war putdown useful for breezily dismissing the uneven playing field on which our kids are forced to run their race – the winners drunk on phrases like ‘meritocracy’ to add a justificatory glaze to a system in which those best placed to succeed will succeed, though now without the necessity of having to acknowledge their good fortune in having done so. Social mobility – though it comes at a cost – provides some succour for those concerned with social justice, though it can only ever be window dressing to pull attention away from the raw deal we give to a great many more and have managed to rationalize in the name of justice.
And for too long we in education have embraced this too. Just as education has effectively become a grad-only profession, so it has absorbed all the values and justifications of that liberal graduate class of which it is almost exclusively comprised. We have gone along with the idea that our success is measured by grades, that our quality of education can be weighed by how many we get to university, that those who do not go on to graduate are in some sense a missed opportunity. In short, we have bought the lie that we are successful at our jobs when we manage to make as many kids as possible like ‘us’ – in thought and deed – and we value less those who are not.
Sometimes history bites you in the backside. With the coronavirus pandemic we are seeing a new reckoning of value as those who we would historically deem as having not been successful present themselves as vital to us all. Success, for so long, has not been measured by how many people become hauliers, or carers, or delivery drivers, but in how many take their place in that respectable strata of graduate society. The paradox presented by the events of recent weeks education is we have spent years convincing ourselves that we’re most successful when the kids in our care don’t go on to those low paid, low-status jobs that everybody has now realised are actually vital. And so we find ourselves in an uncomfortable place.
I don’t think I have ever met anyone in education who doesn’t want the best for the kids in their care. For the most part we react to, and are a reflection of, external priorities and events – we don’t really create them. And if being ‘successful’ comes with the pre-condition of getting a clutch of good grades, then who wouldn’t want that for all kids? There are lingering biases, sure – but they’re evidence of good will, not malign intent.
Still, if events of the last few days might make us confront anything, perhaps it is this whole set of assumptions and value. Perhaps we will realise that what we have for so long placed as a lesser option, a lowlier life path, is nonetheless vital to us all – and those who stand there serving us all have every bit as much a claim to respect and dignity as anybody else. After all, who would make a dismissive comment about stacking shelves now?
I met an ex-student of mine a little while back. He was a great lad. Still is. He went through a tough time at school and left without any grades. And now, as he worked in menial labour for cash-in-hand and far less than minimum wage, his sole desire – to become a plasterer – eluded him: it turns out the stain of academic failure follows you, and locks you out, for a long time after you leave school.
It has bothered me ever since, but this is the logic of meritocracy. We are what we have achieved, and what we have achieved is the result of who we are. No room for luck, no space for good fortune, no need for outdated notions of providence here. He was simply living with the fruits of his failure, right? Yet one cannot shake the feeling that with our inability to factor in the arbitrary to this judgement, we become unbearably self-justified.
For in this new meritocratic world, woe betide those who fail. Woe betide those ill-suited to the assessment of the meritorious. Those who fail merely they reap what they sowed; the losers deserve to have lost, because they are losers who lost.
And all the while those who determine our measure of merit happily discover that it looks much like them, and reap the rewards accordingly.
The result? A whole stratum of society locked out and left behind, disregarded as the authors of their own misfortune and responsible for their own subsequent degradation. After all, with hard work and determination they could have turned it round, they could have written their own fate in the stars, but chose not to – incapable or incompetent, they are nonetheless no more or less than how hard they worked to get where they are.
Any reaching out to support them, to give them a second shot, is one of unearned charity – the lingering virtue of the empowered – rather the legitimate demands of justice.
Education has embraced the same cold ethic, elevating competence as the principal value that can justify status, dignity, worth. Teachers judged by their efficacy, students by their results, leaders by their legacy. A good teacher can become a bad teacher overnight, an effective school leader an ineffective one, as the storms of life or the mechanisms for telling the difference between the two give all the justification and impetus for casting aside those suddenly deemed ‘not up to the job’.
It’s the same for our children. They leave our care, their life determined according to their success within a system the already-successful design, and we declare almost without exception that these results are the inevitable outcome of the efforts they put in along the way. The moral responsibility for success, and failure, is theirs, and failure is largely a chosen destiny – locking children out of future pathways becomes easier to defend when you can convince yourself that justice requires it, that they receive only what they deserve, the authors of their own disinheritance.
But what if this gets justice, and each other, wrong? What if this world of efficiency, of prowess, of cold utilitarianism sells us all short? Makes us all vulnerable? Maybe we need to stop looking at each other through the eyes of what we can contribute, stop judging each other’s worth according to the value of that contribution. Maybe we need to remind ourselves that what we cannot do is no vice any more than our limitations constitute a stain on our dignity. Maybe we must demand that even those who society deem to be failures deserve to be loved. Indeed maybe those who society deem to be failures deserve most to be loved.
When you confront your own limitations, when you recognise your own good fortune, when you concede your own ultimate vulnerability in the drama of life, you come to realise the horror of this way of viewing the world and those within it. Life is more than what we might write on a CV, the sum total of our performance, our technical capacity at any particular point in time. When we go through bad times, when our contribution to an institution, to society, to GDP, is limited, we’re still of infinite value, better than merely what we can give, and we deserve a shot at the good life regardless of merely what we can give.
If we forget that, we degrade ourselves as much as anyone else. The moral demand on all of us to set aside cold assessment of worth and assist the downtrodden, regardless of earned merit, is no more diminished by the asking than it is limited by the giving.
In other words, we’ve become too ready to accept sham accounts of merit, neglectful of the coincidence that often its superficial appeal to justice is simply the rationalisation of our own good fortune. But this is limiting, corrosive, of ourselves and others. Ultimately, life trumps this illusion of logic. And love must always trump competence.
For an educational context so absorbed by the pursuit and possession of knowledge, one wonders why it can be so hard to find people willing to talk about the purpose of having it. On the traditionalist side, it can sometimes feel that those advocating for ‘cultural literacy’ (or any of its iterations) do not quite realise how radical their position demands them to be; for the progressives, it can seem like their desire for disrupting power structures stops at the point that their own privilege comes into view. As such our curriculum discussion too often risks superficiality: a way for lots of people to show they think knowledge is important, but for few people to drill down and say why it matters that kids have *this* knowledge, and what they should do with it when they get it.
Yet this matters. It’s fundamental. What we want our kids to know is shaped ultimately by what we want our kids to be.
One unhelpful trend is the (mis-)treating of ‘curriculum’ as a self-sufficient concept. After all, there is no such thing as ‘curriculum’ per se – instead there are a thousand answers to the questions ‘what should we teach? When should we teach it?’ And it is the (transient) answers to these questions that comprise the curriculum, the components which are later embodied in the composite.
As such, if we wish to articulate the power of the curriculum, we must cast our eyes to the components – it is in those thousand answers that the real conflicts lie. After all, why this and not that? Why always this and why never that? The answer is not linear – those decisions are the articulation of a process, the staging post of countless uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) variables: the decisions of leadership, the knowledge of the Heads of Department, the expertise of the individual teachers, the desires of governors and parents, the assertion of politicians, the hue of available resources, and all the way to the cultural and moral contexts in which all of them were formed.
The curriculum, then, is really the shadow cast by those who deliver it – and of the society in which they live, or the society in which they wish to live. It is the song of the cultural and moral norms of those that develop it (as opposed to those receiving it – a serious issue in a world where all teachers are graduates and there exists a huge values divide between graduates and non-graduates). In this sense, schools will nearly always conform to dominant political culture, and the prestige worldview to be found there, even when that dominant political culture sees itself as revolutionary or disruptive – and the curriculum is the principal tool by which that conformity is expressed.
For this reason, those who argue that the curriculum is a tool for transmission of a progressive politics, for the pursuit of activism and social justice, are at least cognisant of its power and thus the importance of its ownership. The error is to think they are alone in thinking this: self-described traditionalists may have a more genteel language to describe it, but ‘social justice’ and social mobility have long been the justification for the education revolution drummed up by a certain liberal Gramsci-loving Tory. Each want to make the world anew; each wishes to do so by tearing up what came before it.
One suspects this latent progressivism inevitably hampers the traditionalist cause. In short: if cultural literacy is really the aim then they can not achieve what they desire, since they are not really willing to desire it, but will instead create their own templates every bit as partial and political as the progressives they deride. They will default to utility and social mores as the two categories within which to discern curriculum content, and reject as an order to be consigned to history that culture in which much of that content was borne.
In this sense, they too pursue a rootless engagement with knowledge, one that is not rooted in a place or culture as such, but is instead a theoretical and fundamentally ahistorical process of knowing, an act performed rather than a reality absorbed. Here, then, cultural literacy is less about coming into possession of a lived and living inheritance, and more about creating a spreadsheet inventory of what that inheritance might be. This is the Hirschian dilemma – it risks a commodification of knowledge, a conglomeration of things put together without a unifying story to tell to justify their inclusion, or to justify the exclusion of anything else; something possessed, not possessing.
When this happens, the decision of what to include becomes little more than a power game, a way to express the dominance of one group or other at any particular point of time. Progressives accuse traditionalists of indulging the misogynistic and the colonialist, whilst traditionalists accuse progressives of fetishising the provocative and the political – and each stand unable to articulate their defence against such charges, since neither has an alternative beyond whim and utility to explain what enlivens their curriculum choices.
In the UK context this is particularly pertinent, as we have been subject to a curriculum debate in which knowledge has very much become a sort of capital, the gluttonous accumulation of which has been preferred over any attempt of explaining why it is worth having. And this is why any talk of cultural literacy, or cultural capital, is destined to fall flat: it would require a broader ecology of thought that few evangelists of the cause would be willing to accommodate. As I have written previously:
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.’
There is little hope of cultural literacy when the framework used to form it sits so uncomfortably with the culture and context in which its core content was developed. One can possess a mental gallery of loosely related experiences, one can experience having engaged with them, but without the web of meaning that brings them together into a unified whole, so one’s knowledge is really mere akin to an acquaintance, a sort of cultural pastiche, where these things instead sit as sterile artefacts to be gawped at as an aesthetic exercise, though essentially indifferent to purpose and focussed instead on the more superficial values of skill or utility.
Of course some will defend this, pointing out that it is inevitable, and it is the task of each generation to give fresh meaning, to rediscover anew our cultural inheritance and make it speak for our times. Which is true, though to the extent that this process is carried out in cultural and historical vacuum, a hermeneutic of rupture from the very stories one is trying to tell afresh, so this starts to look very much like that progressive account of curriculum as disruption we might ordinarily expect a traditionalist to reject.
Sure some will defend the project, pointing to the aesthetic as criterion of judgement (‘the best that has been thought and said’), but without that criterion clearly explained (I’m yet to see it) then it seems to me that the progressive claim that cultural literacy is really just the projection of dominant-group prejudice or presumption is perfectly valid.
As such, when Christine Counsell points out that English teachers can not realistically teach all the knowledge required for an in-depth understanding of texts in the English classroom – the theology, the archetypes, the Scriptural knowledge – then the answer can not simply be teaching more R.E., since R.E. is simply not in a place to deliver it. The kind of R.E. that would be required for that is not the kind of R.E. the mainstream would be willing to accept, any more than it is the kind of curriculum that the mainstream would be willing to accept. All that knowledge, that background understanding, that complex web of meaning, a sort of infrastructure for thinking – not only would the time required to develop it be dismissed out of hand, but the desirability of doing so would face the insurmountable problem of a culture that no longer really sees the desirability of doing so.
Which is fine for some – even if one might quibble whether or not it is capable of developing cultural literacy. Though it does bring to the fore the contemporary traditionalist paradox: at heart it is liberal, not conservative, a project of individual empowerment (‘Knowledge is Power’), formed from a desire to overthrow the status-quo every bit as much as the progressives whose project it claims to reject. It identifies knowledge as desirable not for teleological reasons but for its usefulness in that pursuit of power – be it economic, social or political – yet it simultaneously rejects the tradition that both formed the content and would provide the most profitable window for its understanding.
In other words, contemporary traditionalism runs up against its fundamental rejection of tradition, and in so doing outs itself as a progressive project, different in style more than substance.
As such, the difference between the (largely secular liberal) traditionalism in contemporary education, and the (largely secular liberal) progressivism, is one of branding more than DNA. There is nothing radical about either, since each articulate in their own way the same thing, and mostly just have endless disagreement on the route taken to get there. Alas, neither seems to offer a compelling account of the end to which they aspire – or indeed why any journey is worth taking at all.
Maybe, then, we need to look elsewhere for a truly radical account of curriculum, in both its components and its composite.
I sometimes wonder about death. Not in a morbid way, you understand. Just the practical stuff – how it will approach; who will be there; how long it might take. It’s part of being Catholic I think – we pray for a good death, so you naturally end up thinking what this might look like. Pain free, of course; comfortable, yes; surrounded by loved ones, absolutely.
My Grandad died before Christmas. It really affected me; I loved him dearly. I really did. And yet, I wasn’t there. I couldn’t be. I was far away, seeing to my own affairs.
Which is fine, right? We’re all busy these days, seeing to our own affairs. It’s natural. One cannot be blamed. No need to feel guilty.
But the niggling feeling wouldn’t go away – what if his vision of the end was like mine? What if he, too, wished to be surrounded by loved ones? Maybe that was precisely what he wanted, and yet I was elsewhere.
When Tony Blair offered his vision of a graduate workforce, he conceived of a society of the highly educated better able to service a shiny new graduate economy. The industrial sector had been decimated, leaving behind unemployment and despondency, and besides (the story went) fewer people wished to enter the old industries anyway.
The answer seemed obvious – send as many as possible to university, have them enter the job markets later as fully-fledged graduates able to undertake the jobs our newly globalised world shall demand.
But there was a problem: the graduate jobs both promised and required did not exist. Or certainly not in sufficient numbers. So to help provide that job market, as well as cater for the newly heightened expectations of a whole generation of young adults, we demanded young people get degrees to do the very things their Mums and Dads did without needing one – nursing, teaching, the civil service, law, industry – indeed jobs they were still successfully doing without having one.
The effect was to make university education necessary not for social mobility, but for mere social equilibrium.
As such, sales pitches placing university as the catalyst to improved health-and-wealth were a self-fulfilling promise, with those proclaiming the benefits the same as those tilting the odds against those who dissented from the cause.
And so, as collateral for a newly gentrified economy, our children were siphoned off into two camps according to which part of the economy they could serve, the graduates to one side and non-graduates to the other, with the latter prevented from entering the job markets of the former. And all for a fallacy: that one must be highly educated before one can become highly trained, and not being highly educated inhibits your ability to become highly trained.
This was simply untrue, and generations of successful non-graduates, historically given access to socially esteemed and well-paid jobs, trained within the workplace to high levels of expertise, attest to it. No, it was only ever graduates that insisted as many people as possible had to be graduates, the confirmation bias of a class policy makers holding up their own pathways as the pre-eminent model of progress.
In treading this path, we instituted a grad-class protectionism that has proven disastrous to the social fabric, engendering a values-chasm between graduate and non-graduate that looms large over our civic space. Every year, swathes of children are tacitly deemed failures by the social mobility narrative that shapes our politics and our schools, whilst the other half are told the true path to success is to leave behind – geographically, socially, morally – those networks of kith and kin in that place we call home. And to both, the unstated truth that those who fail to do so – those who are left behind – are but second-placers in the meritocratic footrace of life.
For a policy that was so self-consciously progressive, do note the irony – with degree education the gateway to the jobs markets, and since for most young people this meant a move away from home, so expansion of the university sector looked more and more like an embodiment of Tebbitian ‘onyerbike’ philosophy. Not because of a stress on the importance of work, but because of the quiet assumption that we should all accept the demand to be uprooted in order to access it.
It has been quite the project over the last few years, looking for ways to explain the social fracture encompassing the UK. Some put it down to austerity, others to ingrained economic inequality sapping morale and opportunity from swathes of the country, whilst others still think lack of education is the key factor – as if the non-graduate population haven’t been ill-treated enough without also being blamed for being angry that the tables have been so consistently been tilted against them
Still, for all one might offer an account of why change has happened, one thing surely cannot be denied: not everyone has benefitted from the changes that have accompanied the modernisation project.
In declaring that half of all youngsters must go to university, we were telling them they must leave – an injunction that hit all the more keenly in those areas long-neglected that could least afford such siphoning off of the young and talented. After all, whilst university was and is framed as a coming of age waypoint, a significant proportion of those who leave never return home, having built new lives and met new loves – and found access to new jobs – in a different place. This is of course fine, but we would do well to recognise it is not without consequence either, assisting decline in some areas rather than, as was promised, mitigating it.
As such, at those key points in life when we most need loving interdependence, when we realise we want loved ones close – often the dawn of new life and the end of it – families have found themselves scattered, unable to lean on one another for support, a geographical fracture all the more egregious amongst tight-knit working-class communities used to keeping extended family close.
This is the ultimate irony of social mobility: the more ‘successful’ your children have been, the more likely you are to be distant from them as old age approaches, and to feel the growing loneliness of that distance.
Of course, some areas have benefited from the huge expansion in graduates, as they were meant to – other areas have suffered, as they were always likely to. A graduate economy is well served by a graduate market, but not all places have graduate economies, or need graduate markets, certainly not whilst the wider investment that would generate these jobs remain absent.
And so, we have the fallout that has come from insisting children need to move away to get on. It has had real-life consequences. It has incentivised the uprooting of a generation of young adults, stretching family bonds over distances that even the conveniences of modern technology cannot entirely overcome. In so doing, it has proven as socially disruptive as any other factor – be that housing, or globalism, or mass immigration – that populists and demagogues insist is at the root of current social unrest.
In other words, whilst university education is a good thing, and many people have benefitted for having received it, it is time to acknowledge that there have nonetheless been macro-level negative impacts too.
Which is where my Grandad comes back into view. You see, to my great regret, I was not able to be there for his final moments. I was a beneficiary of the social mobility dream, I had left, and was now far away. And whilst I cannot honestly say I would trade my position now for what it might have otherwise been, I can say it feels like a high price to have paid to achieve it.
And it inevitably leaves me wondering if my own children, pursuing their own success in future, might be issued the same demand. What choice will they really have but to pay it?
At which point, those final moments of my own suddenly loom far lonelier than I pray for them to be.
Below is the transcript of a paper I gave at Thornycroft Hall in November. It’s a meshing of various pieces I’ve written and some new stuff – some sections are reprinted with kind permission of the Catholic Herald and Unherd – links to original articles can be found here and here.
Why Are We Absent?
In the summer of 1786, a young Cumbrian lay dying with fever. He had joined military service almost exactly one year before, at the tender age of 19, determined to progress within the commissioned ranks, the better to serve his country.
Only, he was not allowed. The crown for which this young Cumbrian fought was that of Sardinia, not England. For he was Philip Howard, a Catholic from that great recusant family, and he lay dying on a Piedmontese hill because his homeland would not permit him to live, or indeed to die, in its service. Howard joined the employ of a foreign crown, his mausoleum informs us, ‘in anxious hope that his country would not long continue to reject his services, on account of a difference in his Belief.’
It is a moving tribute to the messiness of the time and speaks of the earnest desire of an Englishman to serve his nation. His patriotism was clear; his cultural enfranchisement ought to have been equally so. But despite his poignant pleas for clemency, the Howards were ‘Papists’, and thus outcasts. And outcast really is the word. Loyal Catholics, during that period described by Cobbett as ‘an alteration greatly for the worse’,had not only their wealth purloined, but their very stake in society.
From this, cultural alienation flowed – after all, it is difficult to generate, let alone bequeath, great art, literature and architecture, while stripped of the social web that underpins such flourishing. From patronage to possessions, Catholics found themselves pariahs in their own land, 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.
It may be tempting to see this as an academic debate, but that would miss the continuing impact of that dispossession. Sat amidst the rustic beauty of Carlisle cathedral recently for a choral concert, the issue came to mind: why do we, 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? Where is our voice in the story of Us?
It is important to identify this context, as this is the historical milieu from which is drawn our sense of self, and if we do not recognise the dispossession, we see less reason to pursue re-possession. For so long, our Catholic schools have shrugged and taken on the cloak of that dispossession, bowing meekly before a (now) secular world demanding we fall into line, now just as then, lacking the means and the confidence to defy the demand in any systematic way.
Curriculum as Formation
All of which means we need to think carefully about what we teach our children, since the curriculum reflects who we are, and what we value. Indeed, it seems strange that we have for so long neglected to do so, preferring instead to limit ourselves strictly to R.E., leaving the wider world, with its radically different priorities, to determine for us what everything else should look like.
Before we get there, however, perhaps a few words on what a curriculum is – and what it is for.
What we teach is a distillation what we deem worthy for transmission down the generations. And not all those choices are utilitarian – or at least they ought not to be. Creating a curriculum involves value judgements, and those judgements reveal something of those creating it – the world they inhabit, or the world they wish to inhabit, and importantly the world they wish to construct for their pupils to inhabit. This is best seen as an offer rather than a demand – but always an offer with a foot in the door of the ideal, of a world different from the day to day, the school apart, to use Oakeshott’s imagery.
This sounds obvious but it is important, particularly if we express it in the negative – if we pay no mind to what comprises that curriculum, we have failed to consider the world which we wish our pupils to inhabit.
As such, fashioning a curriculum means creating the intellectual landscape of a domain in which we wish our pupils to dwell, even if (especially 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 the very least might not otherwise fully appreciate. In a very real sense then, designing a curriculum is as much a spiritual reflection as an academic one. As Roger Scruton puts it, we cannot really know that we reject something, until we know enough to be able to reject it.
Know enough to be able to reject it. We must keep this insight forefront and let it shape our approach: in short, if we do not offer an authentically Catholic world for our pupils to inhabit, do not be surprised when they see no need to inhabit an authentically Catholic world.
This has potential for controversy, of course, since it cannot avoid judgment, such that some will claim that a Catholic curriculum is exclusionary, or that it privileges particular kinds of knowledge over others, or that its aesthetic can marginalise minority views. And it is nervousness in the face of this charge – and the omnipresent cry of bigot – that has stopped us being bold in developing our curricula, instead falling into line with secular fashion, lest the content chosen to paint the drama of our Faith be deemed exclusionary to all else.
I don’t accept this claim – indeed I think it no different from every school does – but perhaps part of a response to it can be found in asking what a curriculum is for.
And there are many potential responses: first, that the curriculum is formed by utility – to help ensure future employability and the ability to hold one’s own, in general society as much as in esteemed company. For others, it is 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. Others might claim it is simple familiarity – the curriculum as those things which, through time and fashion, have traditionally comprised a liberal education. For others it is best described as 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, finally, that it is about formation – to form the child in front of us and help them inhabit a worldview, a manner of being, which might otherwise remain alien to them.
Maybe it is all these things; maybe something else entirely.
Either way, for many, that last reason – formation – is out of place, a sort of soteriological cherry on top of what should be a strictly utilitarian project, with the further claim that such a goal in the Catholic context is an act of oppression, concerning itself with things like soul and conscience that should properly be beyond the remit of the school. We might be allowed to have these as stated aims in airy and abstract mission statements – but to pursue them through curriculum, we are told, is pure indoctrination.
This is nonsense – and a claim we’ve taken far too seriously for far too long. Formation is absolutely what a curriculum should be concerned with, and further there is nothing novel in it – all schools do it, even those who deem themselves most devoutly secular, in fact especially those who are most devoutly secular. To be blunt, the opposite to a Catholic curriculum is not a neutral curriculum – it is merely that of another faith. So if we develop a Catholic curriculum – and curate it accordingly – then we do nothing more radical than mirroring what already happens in community schools in creating their secular humanist one.
As such, the question is not whether it is ever right that the curriculum should be shaped by a prior moral or spiritual commitment, but rather which commitment it should be. Whilst others might try and convince themselves that this does not apply to them, for us the answer is clear: we are Catholic, this is our faith, our focus is the Word who is life, ‘this,’ in the words of John the Evangelist, ‘is our subject.’.
Cultural Literacy and Catholic Yeast
So we needn’t apologise for desiring a Catholic curriculum. But this goes further – in the education debate, we spend so long apologising for our very presence, that we neglect to boldly assert why it’s a good job for wider society that we do.
Though we shy away from asserting it, our presence really is the yeast to a society that would otherwise be shorn of its last frayed connections to its heritage and, thus, to itself. We have the capacity to offer a way of seeing, of knowing, that society at large is at risk of losing altogether, and in so doing has become impoverished, a stranger to itself.
To explain further, let me tell you about a cup of coffee. A nice cup, as I recall, if expensive, as coffee always seems to be these days. Still, it was whilst trying to choose that coffee that the event occurred. For on this day, the waiter – intelligent, respectful, articulate – informed us that, in addition to the usual cakes and pastries, there were also pancakes available, it being Pancake Day. To which I declared it wonderful that the café was keeping Shrove Tuesday, and asked would they be keeping Ash Wednesday?
And the response eventually came: ‘What’s that?’
After some back and forth it soon became clear that the gentleman with whom we spoke had no idea what Ash Wednesday was. And there is nothing surprising in this – I can relate many similar such stories.
Now of course, it might be that we elevate what is important to ourselves as that which ought to be important to everybody else, but surely one need not be religious to know about Ash Wednesday. Indeed, one need not be religious to care. There is a certain amount of cultural detail, of collective awareness, that we might just expect people to know, or more precisely to have been taught – in this case the marking of a liturgical season, but in another case a particular sculpture, a common idiom, a piece of literature, a score of music or a work of art. These things form the warp and weft of our culture, of our heritage, of our Christian heritage. Would we not just expect most informed adults to know of certain things? The Sistine Chapel? Shakespeare? Mozart? Lent?
Of course more and more people have decided that the answer to these questions is: yes. Cue a burgeoning interest in the concept of ‘cultural literacy’, the idea that a good education includes an awareness of the fruits of the culture in which we are being and have been formed. This is most true for the disadvantaged, for whom home conditions might not always provide opportunity to engage with high culture, to have their minds, in the words of Peter Hitchens, ‘furnished with beauty.’
The concept, however, is incomplete: for too long, it has been assumed cultural literacy can be pursued as an entirely secular affair. And here is the kicker – we in Catholic education have effectively agreed with them.
And the result is far from satisfactory. Notions of cultural literacy have developed that deliver a body of knowledge cleansed of the faith-filled lens which adds new levels of understanding and engagement to the content which comprises it. This elevates the secular humanist paradigm to normative, and in so doing subverts the very notion of cultural literacy. Sure it might include important religious works of art or sculpture, but it views them as artefacts rather than testimony and is circumspect about the spiritual gaze that would add new levels of understanding, and benefit, to their reception.
Such neglect is a tragic loss. In the words of Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, a secularised education and loss of scriptural understanding is worrying, since ‘there is a rich visual language tradition, a rich symbolic language in literature, which we find increasingly difficult to understand if we are not attuned to allegory, if we are not familiar with the great themes of classical antiquity and the Bible. If we are not aware of the background, then our experience is impoverished.”
In other words, if no-one offers the spiritual and theological perspective in which so much of our cultural inheritance was formed, what is offered is but a list 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. And to deny our children this perspective is to deny them a stake in the aesthetic, ethical and literary landscape into which they are born, an intellectual rupture and ensuing 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.
Of course some bray against this. Shaped by a culture which assumes the secular to be neutral, and society to be secular, there is instinctive resistance to anything that sounds like having to accept the claims of the religious. This is simply to render oneself a philistine for the sake of calling oneself educated.
As such, if cultural capital is an important thing, then a Catholic curriculum – busily conserving the treasures of our culture, the roots and foundations of it and all – is central to any account of that. With it, we serve society by providing a counterbalance to a wider malaise, recognising importance where others don’t, preserving that thread of understanding between the now and the then, and how the faith of our ancestors shaped this land, our art, our laws, our literature, our music, our history, our language, our philosophy, our civic realm, indeed our very notion of ourselves.
Having spent so long cowed by claims of religious imperialism, we have neglected to fight the real battle in education, which has been the march of philistinism. We have sacrificed so much in the name of being open-minded, and in so doing give away the key to precisely that wisdom which really does open minds. And in a society in which an ever-increasing number are driven to the darkest corners to look for meaning and overcome its absence, so a Catholic curriculum can unlock the treasures of our shared identities, serving society by delivering a truly coherent account of who we are, how we got here, and what we are here for. We’ve been in this position before, a thousand years ago, and perhaps it is our sentence as much as our charism – for, as Chesterton put it, ‘Therefore your end is on you/is on you and your kings/Not for a fire in Ely fen/Not that your gods are nine or ten/But because it is only Christian men/ Guard even heathen things.’ We must not shirk this duty.
It would be easy misconstrue this as a call for an indiscriminate cataloguing of stuff, a kind of educational hoarder syndrome – with the assumption that a good Catholic curriculum simply has more in it. This is insufficient – it is one thing associating knowledge with quantity, but if there is no underlying coherence 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 institutional fiat. Here, the curriculum risks becoming merely an atomised collection of things, ready to fall apart once the authority of the person insisting upon it ceases to be its sufficient cause.
But it goes further – the blind focus on content accumulation risks turning knowledge into just another consumer product, in which the capacity to consume, and one’s accumulated consumption, becomes a social signifier. And the more glamorous the consumption, the more niche the diet, the better, not because of the quality of what is consumed, but because of the status associated with the ability to acquire the exotic.
This risks a sort of curricular kitsch, choosing knowledge not to enhance or nourish, but to impress, to affirm status – knowledge as performance, knowledge as spectacle, knowledge as bling – an account of curriculum that lacks any telos and so detaches it from the noble motivations of educators past.
But we in the Catholic tradition know better – knowledge is for wisdom, not just for winning.
For a flavour of this, we can call to mind one of England’s wisest Kings. 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, in his words, ‘most necessary for all men to know.’ In other words, the justification was formation, not gluttonous accumulation. It was anticipated that a wealth of wisdom could flow from reading these texts, from knowing these principles, to the benefit of us all.
The State We’re In
So far so, I hope, uncontroversial – but we would be kidding if we told ourselves that we as a sector actually believed it. We have long ceased to imagine what a Catholic curriculum might look like, and long ceased to articulate why it is important that such a thing might exist. 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’ is too often an easy pass for any account of Catholicity of our schools, allowing us to avoid the dirty work of defining the nuts and bolts of what children might reasonably be taught.
And here the fundamental ruse. We too easily convince ourselves our schools are Catholic, even whilst adopting every assumption of secularity, simply because we have control over R.E. and can insist on collective worship. The Catholic vision of education is all-encompassing, able to speak to all of what Eliot called the languages of human inquiry – yet in practice we reject that vision, treating subjects as secular domains independent of the Catholic imperative: so long as they are careful not to pick a fight, so they can pass untroubled. In so doing, we present the Faith in an emaciated form, more strictly a parody, rather than the comprehensive human drama it really is.
But this very division, this very embrace of a duality between R.E. and everything else, is to already have surrendered the ground to those we think we have defeated. The more politic among us, having long learned the placatory and too often abstract language of faith schools, simply mouth pieties peppered with hazy references to ‘gospel values,’ before turning to more important matters of Ofsted and pass rates and leaving everything untouched. Mass? Oh yes, termly. Assembly, Absolutely, weekly, with a religious theme. School Entrance? Yep – statues up. Properly Catholic we are.
And so the show rolls on, hiding the fact that too often we stop short of delivering the kind of education that should be our aim: ‘to build the foundation [of] our spiritual development, our learning and teaching, the formation of culture and our society in Christ’ (Mgr Stock, 2012).
In other words, we’re getting it wrong in accepting this nigh-on Manichaean account of curriculum – the Catholic curriculum should care what happens in the history classroom, the art classroom, the English classroom etc., every bit as much as the R.E. classroom. [Even when we make progress on this, it is too often to say ‘oh we need to bring more Art and Music and History and Literature into R.E.,’ instead of what should actually be the case – making sure the rest of the curriculum is an appropriate forum for that which we keep trying to shoehorn into R.E.
Overcoming this is not an easy job. Indeed the very attempt requires a shift in mindset, for currently the greatest obstacle to a Catholic curriculum is the imbibed secularity of our Catholic education sector.
To give an example, I was recently at a meeting on R.E. assessment. I entered in optimistic mood, hoping we might be about to see a change away from generic and often abstract skills (appropriate for any school of any hue) and towards core knowledge. The optimism soon gave way – around halfway through, after a disconcerting twenty minutes with the new specifications, the session lead explained that the assessment committee does not wish to outline what should be learned, as they did not wish to tie anybody into a particular scheme of work, or to dictate to schools what they should be teaching.
And I thought: why on earth not? Of course we should preserve a space for school flexibility, and the ability to explore new avenues of thought as they arise – but isn’t this a far cry from at the same time saying there are certain non-negotiables we expect children to know? Why shouldn’t we say that by a particular age we expect children to know particular things – these specific prayers? These specific figures of the Old Testament? These specific parables? These specific artefacts? And also further in the curriculum: these specific historic events? These specific places? This specific sculpture? This specific score of music?
After all, these are the building blocks of the whole edifice! Without them, how do you construct later understanding? How do you create the architecture of the Faith without the intellectual foundations firmly in place? It becomes hit and miss. Would we say ‘we should teach children to read’, and then think this doesn’t include giving them basic phonic awareness? Or piously affirm that children need to be able to solve mathematical calculations, but neglect to teach them the basics of number?
We can aim for abstract outcomes – wisdom, a life lived in grace – but we kid ourselves if we think these run alongside or as an alternative to the development of knowledge and awareness, and is not intertwined with it. And it’s a logical fallacy to say that because wisdom and grace can be gifted without learning, so learning does not move toward wisdom and grace. One cannot teach an abstract thing directly, but one absolutely must try to put in place the conditions for it arise, intellectual and cultural alike. We would never try to teach a child artistic creativity without ever letting them near paint pot or clay – we must be sure we don’t commit this same fallacy with our curriculum.
To bring this back toward a final plea, I’d like to return, very briefly to that example of Alfred – out of concern for the souls of his Kingdom, he created a canon as a vehicle for induction into wisdom, not to place limits on what people could know, but to ensure that what they knew at the very least included this.
And so my contention is: we are in need of just such a canon, and the curriculum to deliver it. If we desire to preserve and bequeath the treasures of the Faith, we need first to collectively define what at least some of them are. Put simply, do we want all our children to know the Pietà? Byrd? Lepanto? And if not, why not?
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 Faith.
Because the alternative, as we too often see, is not that children learn something different, but that they don’t learn anything much at all. Though not all children, of course – those in the most prestigious schools will have continued access to this wondrous knowledge. It is those without such resources to draw upon who are left out. This is not a situation we should be willing to bear.
Such an endeavour is beyond the resource and capacity of most schools, and could only succeed as a shared endeavour across sectors, with specialists, particularly in our universities, coming together and writing it. After all, curriculum design is a specialist job, and a Catholic curriculum even more so. As things stand, schools have a large degree of freedom to assemble their curriculum, using the skill and scholarship of their staff body to define what their children will learn. And decades ago this might have worked – but with fewer and fewer of our teachers having received any robust formation themselves, the curriculum is too often fair game for any who might wish to impose their preferences, or in some cases their prejudices, upon it. In the words of JPII, ‘no Catholic school can be effective without dedicated Catholic teachers.’ – well, we are no longer as blessed with the numbers of such teachers as in decades past, and we need to move quickly to put in place the structures to counteract it.
As such, a codified Catholic curriculum would be an assistance to our schools, providing them with coherence and expertise that they often find difficult to self-generate whilst ensuring consistency and quality of outcome. This would also allow us to overcome our own expert blindness – we currently disastrously underestimate just how little our staff know – putting in place a step-by-step curriculum that would ease planning concerns and develop coherence without overly contributing to workload.
To brings things to a close… a colleague of mine founded a school in London, an impressive school, a secular school, but with as close to a Catholic account of education as I’ve come across. It’s an impressive place to be, and she herself is a wonderful leader. And as leader, she chose a school motto you might have heard before: ‘knowledge is power.’
And you know what, it might be. But it is also a lot more than that. It is a gateway to a vision of who we are, the first steps of coming to know God and His creation, the invitation to a life shaped by Faith in Our Lord, Jesus Christ, in all its diverse expression. So we are compelled to take a greater interest in determining what our children learn. Because in a very real sense, what we teach is who we are, the people of God – in the same spirit, we need to make sure that who we are, defines what we teach.
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.