Monday, 14 April 2014
What's wrong with Catholic education
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.