Michael Merrick presented this lecture at the Perennial Truths in a Time of Change Conference. Aspects of this piece are reprinted with kind permission of the Catholic Herald and Unherd.

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 judgement, 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 artifacts 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 artifacts, 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 the 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.

Choosing Well

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 RE 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 RE 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 RE classroom. [Even when we make progress on this, it is too often said, “oh we need to bring more Art and Music and History and Literature into RE”, 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 RE.

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 RE 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 towards 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 John Paul II, “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 friend 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.