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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.