We need a revived Catholic curriculum to reclaim our cultural inheritance, from Bede to 'Lepanto'
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. Among her entries was the history “object lessons”: 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 reflection of our Catholic identity.
Today, there is little agreement about how Catholic schools should teach children about our heritage. Curricula vary widely. While those under local authority control mostly follow the National Curriculum, academies are free to set their own content.
This level of freedom can serve schools well: teachers can shape a curriculum as they wish, tailoring it to the needs of their parish and community.
But I wonder: are we making the most of that freedom? When the curriculum is left up to individual schools, what children learn is largely determined by whoever happens to be head of department at any particular time. Diocesan support is available for RE, but beyond that the curriculum is fair game for anyone who might wish to impose their preferences, or in some cases their prejudices, upon it.
If we wish children in our schools to know the wholeness of the faith, in all its creative and intellectual glory, then here we are currently falling 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 Catholic schools, universities or training courses, then links go unseen, knowledge goes undelivered, and our intellectual and artistic heritage are neglected.
In short, curriculum design is a specialist job. And for a Catholic curriculum, even more so.
Perhaps, then, we would all benefit from something more explicit, a collaborative effort to draw up a Catholic curriculum. It must be collaborative because it 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.
This would be our way of keeping pace with changes in the broader educational world. Recent years have seen a renewed interest in “cultural literacy”: an idea which has become a key part of the curriculum revolution currently taking place, under the supportive eye of the schools inspectorate.
Cultural literacy 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 culturally literate, which 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 without the religious context in which so much of our culture was formed.
By adopting the secular humanist paradigm, we subvert the very notion of cultural literacy: 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 a 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, while 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, all too often, the “Catholic bit” is what you do in RE, 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 TS 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 faith, or explicitly criticise it, so it passes.
In so doing, we present the faith in an emaciated form, rather than as a comprehensive human drama and experience.
By contrast, a Catholic philosophy of education cares what happens in the history classroom, the art classroom, the English classroom, every bit as much as the RE classroom. If we are to recover in our schools not only a sense of the faith, but of ourselves, we need a newly emboldened Catholic curriculum.
Over 1,000 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 want to pass on 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 RE. A century and a half after Newman sought to define a curriculum for a university, the time has come for us to do the same for our schools. If we succeed, we will have helped to define Catholicism’s place in wider culture.
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 truly Catholic spirit, 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.
In drawing up such a curriculum, we would be adopting recent insights about core knowledge. We would also recover our own place at the forefront of education, no longer passively accepting wider assumptions and trends but reclaiming our own.
Michael Merrick is a teacher in north Cumbria. He blogs at michaelmerrick.me
This article first appeared in the August 20 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here