With the release of the Sydney Pastoral Plan and the recent pastoral letter of the bishops of NSW and the ACT (Catholic Schools at a Crossroads) we now have a renewed recognition and commitment to ensuring that Catholic schools fulfil the evangelising mission demanded by their Catholic identity.
Setting this goal is a necessary first step as it specifies 'what' we need to do. However, the next, and far harder, step, is to plan in detail 'how' to accomplish this goal. The three books discussed in this article present the scale of the problem and provide important guidance on the way ahead.
In Recovering a Catholic Philosophy of Elementary Education, Curtis L. Hancock does a marvellous job in examining the foundations of education by unearthing and inspecting the philosophical presuppositions in current educational theory and practice and contrasting these with a detailed and positive restatement of a thoroughly Catholic philosophy of education.
On the first page he goes right to the heart of the matter: 'Metaphysical and moral principles are the first (and ultimate) measures of human knowledge and human choice. We cannot possibly divorce education É from our thinking about human nature'.
Hancock, referencing Mortimer Adler, goes on to illustrate how it is at this foundational juncture that contemporary sophistries of materialism, pragmatism and modernism have infiltrated and perverted true education. He points out that materialism and modernism are false because 'they take no account of spiritual realities or even the reality of mystery', while 'Pragmatism is wrong because not all human truth, not every human good, is practical.'
The solution, of course, is Catholic truth, a Catholic understanding of the human person and the role of education: 'In its precise sense, human education is the education of human faculties in their own good exercise, in human goodness - virtue - [hence] Catholic education is a liberation movement that gives us mastery of all our learning faculties by qualifying them through direction by right reason.'
Hancock then proceeds in more detail to look at the human faculties and how they integrate knowledge (i.e., truth). He also fleshes out the common cliché about 'educating the whole person' and notes, 'Those who reduce the distinctiveness of a Catholic school to faith-formation alone are É not doing justice to the complex vision of the human person that the gospel presents É Only the proper use of human potentialities - the intellectual, the affective, the moral, and the physical - can ensure that we actualise ourselves as human beings.'
In other words 'Salvation builds upon humanity. Grace does not destroy nature; it perfects it É Our human nature and our supernatural destiny go together; they are intertwined and complementary. The Catholic school, therefore, is Catholic even apart from its mission to provide religious instruction É we cannot compartmentalise these two aspects of the school. The success of each will be manifest in the unitary life of a human being.'
Hancock next discusses teaching. 'A Catholic teacher', he writes, 'is an informed and interactive facilitator É and has something authoritative, directive, and substantive to offer. She facilitates the discovery and exploration of content and is not merely a facilitator who keeps order in the classroom', or, I might add, merely keeps the students entertained.
Other topics considered include habituation, the role of parents and the home and then in the final chapter, in a question and answer format, he dissects contemporary ideologies, attitudes and behaviours that are incompatible with Catholic education.
On an organisational rather than philosophical note, Hancock quotes Mortimer Adler on the barriers to evaluating or reforming education. He notes how 'the great mass of teachers É have been indoctrinated by the reigning philosophy É [and] so inadequately educated that they would be hindered from understanding the principles or taking part in the execution of the reform being proposed.' The net result of any such indoctrination is over-training and under- education.'
It is this under-education that the three books discussed here go a long way to rectifying. William Kilpatrick's Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong, although longer and written in the early 1990s, is fascinating and still relevant. This is because progressive educational theories are continually being recycled via the expedient of relabelling and the educational bureaucracies' obsession with fads. These fads, their origins, philosophies and impacts are analysed in depth by Kilpatrick.
To touch on just one particularly important issue, he notes, 'For a long time the general curriculum has been under É pressure É to shift from an emphasis on content to an emphasis on process. Thus, it is argued, children don't need to learn to calculate so much as they need a process for thinking about math; they don't need historical facts so much as they need ways of thinking critically about the historical process. And the same applies to science, literature, and geography: the facts are not nearly as important as strategies for thinking about them. Process-centered learning has been the rage now for several decades. What has been the result? One main effect is that students É simply don't know many facts.'
What lies beneath this obsession with process at the expense of content happens to be articulated clearly in Gene Edward Veith, Jr's Modern Fascism when he notes that a commonplace of contemporary thought is 'that knowledge is a matter of process, not content.' Why? Because relativism means that there are no absolutes, and therefore no objective truth, and hence knowledge is an illusion.
This results in a focus on process for finding one's own truth rather than the truth. Thus, a 'scholar is not the one who knows or searches for some absolute truth, but the one who questions everything that pretends to be true.' This is existential metaphysics and it is rife in our universities. As one can see, it is a complete perversion of education and 'the inversion of values', which sums up post modernism nicely.
This world view has filtered down and is the hidden substrata for the current educational emphasis on experience over reason; praxis over doctrine; leadership over character, competence and subject knowledge; technical skills over knowledge of the good, the true, and the beautiful; image over language; choice over morality; and how over why.
In addition, it also explains why and how the professional educational bureaucracy and some school principals are subtly marginalising parish priests and the institutional Church by translating the community from the parish to the school and reducing faith to social activist deeds. All in the name of responding to the 'signs of the times' of course, and carried out under code words like 'reimagining'. This is not to dismiss process but it is important to get the balance right and not to use it as a vehicle for deconstructing truth.
Although small, Hancock's book is profound and along with Kilpatrick's book should be made a foundational text and required reading for all Catholic school teachers and those within the Catholic education system. Veith Jr's book, although focused on the intellectual roots of fascism, is a true education on the sources and trajectories of contemporary world views. All three demonstrate just what a Herculean task it will be to fix Catholic education which is in thrall to non- Catholic world views. Therefore the following prayer seems apposite.
Saint John Fisher, Pray that bishops may have the courage to combat heresy and irreverence.
Saint John Bosco, Pray that our children may be protected from immoral and heretical instruction.
Recovering a Catholic Philosophy of Elementary Education by Curtis L. Hancock (Newman House Press, 2005, 142pp, $40.00. Available from Freedom Publishing);
Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong by William Kilpatrick (Touchstone edition, Simon & Schuster, 1993, 368pp);
Modern Fascism: The Threat to the Judeo-Christian Worldview by Gene Edward Veith, Jr (Concordia Publishing House, 1993, 187pp).
Chris Hilder is a public servant in Canberra working for the Australian Department of Defence in Contracting. He has a Degree in Law, a Graduate Certificate in Strategic Procurement and is currently studying for a Master of Arts (Theological Studies).