The first speaker at the excellent Porta Fidei conference was Adrian Pabst. He set the context for the whole day with a wide ranging survey of the context within which we need to consider Catholic Education in this country.
He started by exploring contemporary society and in particular contemporary liberalism. He traced an interesting convergence between the new left and the new right, with social liberty and economic liberty converging to promote a view of freedom that means one can do just as one likes. Equality, he pointed out, has come to mean a new form of sameness: we are all subject to the same societal norms, and these are often the norms of minorities.
Behind the modern liberal individualism, then, lurks social cultural conformism: we are all consumers. He also mentioned that this is nothing new, citing de Tocqueville’s observation in the US in the 18th century: the most free, yet the most conformist of countries…
Thus we have choices, but the conditions of those choices are never debated. And that is where the new left and the new right are most similar, not least as they ignore inherited ethics and the associated customs of society.
At the heart of this liberal tradition is indifference to notions of truth and goodness; and so ‘rights’ replace the Common Good, and as objective fact is separated from subjective reality, people become mere cogs in the system. All values are seen as subjective as we collectively slide into sophistry, with truth at the service of power, giving rise to artificial constructs like the ‘Social Contract.’
This results in a world view that is contrary to Catholic tradition, being fragmented and atomised; and that is no accident. But this world view flows from decisions, not knowledge; whether it is Rousseau’s decision to be pessimistic about social life, or Hobbes’ to be pessimistic about the individual; or Protestantism’s view that we are depraved by the Fall (rejecting the Catholic notion of the transformative impact of the Incarnation which now operates through the Sacraments and gives us the power to do good works). All those strands of thought lead to the same place, the liberal assumption that both society and individuals need to be saved by their political philosophy – that we need a Social Contract.
He then sketched out some of the implications of this liberal philosophy. In the first place, Liberalism redefines how we understand life; it is no longer a gift but a choice; therefore will and artifice dominate the idea of a telos, a meaning or purpose beyond our own wills.
That in turn leads to a focus on individual rights and on social utility. Education is not seen merely as a benefit to the individual, but also to the State, pursuing a utilitarian calculus. So education is no longer about truth, character and virtues; the Social and Natural Sciences are all utilitarian, and the arts and humanities have no value (and this is reflected in current policy trends…)
And so we are left with a mass education that doesn’t benefit individuals or society, but is full of half-truths and propaganda, creating fake desires to fuel the hedonism on which our society is increasingly based. If you don’t buy into the popular culture, you are not only seen as weird, but as someone who may need to be constrained.
The emergent ‘multicultural meritocracy’ leads to a self-righteous moralism, in which people imagine they have got whatever they have through merit, and therefore deserve what they get. The natural fruit of this is an elite that is so self-assured that it can justify whatever rewards it can gain for itself.
A Catholic Education, Pabst maintains, should be different. It should seek to link soul, brain and body, to be about truth and goodness, to promote virtue, and to teach how universal truths may be applied in particular ways.
A key question for Catholic Education is How do we form Virtue? A first step is to do away with false dualisms. For example, we should blend the hierarchy of the wise and learned, with equality of participation of the learners (who may, of course, in the fullness of time become the wise and the learned) with the intention of transmitting wisdom.
Likewise the government should not direct education in its minutiae, but nor should it abdicate its responsibility, but rather uphold the common good, by providing guidelines and promoting true subsidiarity.
At tertiary level, the relentless specialisation needs to end, so that scientists study the arts, too; and that we recognise the value of vocational training and education over Micky Mouse degrees that leave students with nothing except a huge debt.
At secondary level, a restrictive and prescriptive curriculum is very problematic; guidelines and local decisions would be a better model. Recruitment, training and employment conditions for teachers all need to be improved. And a key question for Faith Schools is How can we be a model that others will want to follow?
In short, Liberalism is not oriented to the Common Good: that should be our distinctive contribution.
Inevitably, I have reconstructed the themes of this presentation from my notes and my memory, so apologise now for over-simplifying what was a very rich presentation, and particularly if I have inadvertently misrepresented it in any way.
I understand it may be published in due course and will certainly link to that.
But I did find it a very thoughtful analysis, which provided an excellent context for the rest of the day’s discussions – to which I will return in future posts.