Monday, 14 April 2014

What's wrong with Catholic education

This week The Catholic Herald lines up four worthies to answer the question: what's wrong with Catholic education and how can we put it right?

The answers produced are varied and often passionate. Every short essay is worth reading, and I can hardly hope to summarise them here. To give you a flavour, however, should be easy enough. Kevin Meagher of Labour Uncut thinks Catholic education has lost its doctrinal backbone and fallen into the ways of faith-lite. Joseph Shaw, LMS chairman but here speaking for home schoolers, points out that Catholic schools are secularized, as poor in standards as other schools and likely to expose children to some form or other of explicit sex education. Philip Booth says parents just don't have a big enough say in the running of schools and that the Catholic educational leaders have fallen into the traps set by State-centred ideologies. And Ella Leonard - the weakest and fluffiest-minded of the contributors - says that education should be more about the Beatitudes than the Commandments. She also does a lot of worthy hand wringing about how 'so many chose a Catholic education', something which she ascribes to their desire to bring their children up knowing the faith. So many? So many, Ella? I had not thought death had undone 'so many'.

I confess nobody has asked me what is wrong with Catholic education and rightly so! But that isn't going to stop me proferring an opinion on the matter. Why break the habit of a lifetime, eh? So, what is wrong with Catholic education? I would answer simply in one word: societalisation. And I would approach that answer in two ways: from a historical perspective and from a contemporary perspective.


First the history. By societalisation I mean that process by which activities which were once organised domestically or in some ad hoc way by charitable initiative, become absorbed and redefined by the action of the State or some corporate body above you. This is a phenomenon which has accompanied the growth of large western states in recent times and is now affecting many others. One sees it in various sectors but obvious examples lie in the fields of medicine and care for the elderly. I suppose the concept of societalisation is also large enough to account for the absorption of such activities by businesses too when they act as agents of the State. The point is that the activity gets taken over by professionals from above as it were.

So, what has that got to do with Catholic education? I think it is a crucial factor in understanding how things went so badly wrong in the latter half of the 20th century. One of the unintended consequences of societalisation is that those whose activities are taken over often give up their sense of responsibility. Since the professionals are in charge, there is no need to think about the matter any more than you do about your drains or your house wiring. For Catholic education, this was a critical mistake. My parents and their generation, who were born between 1930 and 1945, sent their children to Catholic schools with the assumption that there they would ipso facto receive a Catholic education. This had arguably two consequences. First, it meant that few of them were really checking what the Catholic schools were actually teaching from the 1970s onwards. Second - and here I'm doing guess work - I suspect many parents unconsciously pigeonholed the Catholic education which happened at school, and did not do much about showing their children how it was realised in the domestic arena. It probably didn't help that the changes of the 1960s left many wondering if everything was subject to change in the new age of Vatican II.

The first error, therefore, was a moral one, and it was a matter of parental irresponsibility. But the second error (the pigeonholing) - far more devastating - was an intellectual and spiritual error. Paradoxically, in our own culture the institution of the Catholic school, established so as to preserve and promote the faith, contributed unwittingly towards compounding the separation of the faith from the rest of life; for the "faith" read another "school subject", and for "life" read "everything beyond the school gates". Once the faith was uprooted and disincarnated in that way, it would only remain for faithless curriculum writers to swap the dry but nourishing order of traditional catechetics for a hodge podge of formless gestures drawn from a dozen trendy obsessions, and thus deal a fatal blow to the Catholic curriculum. And so, I and many like me passed through Catholic schools in the 1980s almost certain not to have any structured understanding of the Creed, or of the depths of the faith, the riches of her spirituality or the drama of salvation around which all these things revolve. On this point, Kevin Meagher is bang on the money.


But that does not deal with what is wrong with Catholic education today. In our current hour, the problem conjugates very differently but it continues to reflect a societalised situation in which the grassroots have lost their grip on what they are in principle still responsible for. Now, we must reap what we have sown.

I was slightly amused but mostly irritated by Ella Leonard's claim that so many people send their children to Catholic schools because they want help forming their children in the faith. I'd love to know who these masses of faithful people are. No doubt there is a scattering of such individuals across the country but in general such a characterization of the parents patronizing today's Catholic schools in England is, I beg to submit, pure caricature. No, the problem now with Catholic schools is not so much that the children don't know the faith; the problem is that their parents have never known it well enough to teach it and pass it on to them. And it is not just a matter of knowing the faith or not; almost every single contemporary of mine from my Catholic school appears to have ceased practising the faith.

People are talking a lot about the New Evangelisation at the moment. By that they mean an outreach to people who have fallen away from the practice of the faith. Of more immediate concern to Catholic schools is the mass of people who send their children to Catholic schools - indeed who themselves will go week in and week out to Mass so as to qualify as Mass attenders for their children's sake - but who have no intellectual or spiritual, let alone existential, commitment to Christ and what he calls us to.

The problem for Catholic schools today is thus deeply complex. Most dramatic of all, however, is that the schools, the deputies of parents who hold full responsibility for their children's education in the faith, are meant to communicate a faith to the children which many of their parents neither understand nor feel attached to. And there we have not even addressed the problems which arise from so many schools being staffed by teachers whose faith is half-hearted, partial or inexistent, or the challenges posed by poor teaching materials and 'child-centred' liturgy. Truly, the crisis of Catholic education could not be worse.


All this goes to underline the fact that, in the end, education is not some separate activity which can be undertaken by some agent of the State or even by some business corporation as if those agencies were sufficient in themselves. Education is a function of the ambient culture. Education will only ever reflect the culture in which it is born, unless it is deeply and consciously counter cultural.

So, what's wrong with Catholic education and how can we put it right? Like the Irishman you stop in order to ask for directions, I would tell you that you mustn't start from here, i.e. do not start with trying to say what is wrong with Catholic education as if that were the end of the line. Start rather with what is wrong with Catholic culture.

And that will have to be a whole other blog post.


Patricius said...

I like your word "societalisation"- I think you are very close to the truth here and I shall look forward to your next post on this subject.

Sue Sims said...

I became a Catholic in 1998, when my middle son was 9: he was also baptised with me. The following year, when he was in Year 6, it seemed the obvious thing to send him to the local Catholic secondary school, which had a reasonably good reputation academically (I'm a teacher). We went through the interview, which was fine, and he was offered a place. About two weeks after that the school held their open evening. My husband and I went along to look round, and discovered:

1. There were more or less no signs of Catholic identify (no crucifixes, statues, pictures of saints, etc): the only exception was a very large statue of Our Lady of Lourdes which had been placed outside the gymnasium, a separate building about as far as one could get from the main entrance.

2. There was a chapel. It was attractively decorated with a large rainbow flag, floor cushions (no chairs) and booklets about loving yourself, Being Nice To Other People, etc, on a table near the door.

3. The 'chaplain' was a middle-aged lady in a tweed skirt and frilly blouse who said she was Sister Bernadette.

4. The RE curriculum looked very like the one at the (secular girls' grammar) school I teach at - i.e., plenty about other religions and about 'generic' Christianity.

Jonathan went to the local boys' grammar school.

Dawn Young said...

I think it unfair to say that the parents in the 1970 and 80 were irresponsible. My mother's father was Catholic and her mother Anglican, her three older sisters were baptised and raised Anglican whilst she and her brothers were baptised Catholic. (odd I know but it would take too long to explain the reason) Culturally the family was Anglican and my Mum went to an Anglican Primary school. However her parents then sent her to a Catholic secondary boarding school that taught her the faith. My Mum tells me that not one person in her year has apostacised and she has a deep gratitude to the nuns at her school for imparting the faith fully to her. Naturally once her children came along she wanted us to also benefit from being schooled by religious and so sent my sisters to a convent and my brother to a monastary. Too late for my sisters she cottoned on that they were growing up ignorant in the faith and of my brothers school felt the monks cared more for money and the reputation of the school than imparting the faith to the pupils. Because of this my mother did not send me to Catholic school. She then did her level best to make up for what my siblings lacked in their schooling.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

I wrote a whole book on this: Designed to Fail, Catholic Education in America.

I walk you through the Church documents and practice on education and show you how the American Catholic school system has ALWAYS been screwed up. It has never followed the documents.

The biggest error is the one identified here: the parish specifically prohibited parental involvement. This error is most glaring in relationship to sacramental preparation.

At current rates of shrinkage, Catholic schools will be gone within four decades. Goodbye. Good riddance.

Steve Kellmeyer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ches said...

Thanks, Steve. The book sounds fascinating.

Dawn, surely your mother's case is an exception the proves the rules. If not, where have all the well-educated Catholics gone? When I go to church there are hardly any men of my age (early 40s) and even fewer in their 30s or 20s. It is not that there is nobody of that age; just so very, very few! And there, we have not even gotten into what people actually believe.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

One of the points I make in the book is that the pre-Vatican II schools were no great shakes either. If they had been, there would have been no massive apostasy after VC II.

Everyone, from the people who ran VC II, who promulgated VC II teaching to the Church and the Church itself, were all educated in pre-VC II schools, by definition. So, if the education was good, it would have been impossible for the post-conciliar heresies to either take form or to be accepted.

Obviously, the educational system was actually already in a shambles by the 1940s and 50s, or we never could have gotten the 1960s.