New Zealand Catholic college's intellectually challenging RE program

New Zealand Catholic college's intellectually challenging RE program

Bernard Moran

Located near downtown Auckland, St Peter's Christian Brothers College is a school in the Edmund Rice tradition with 1200 students. It is now seven years into pioneering its daily religious studies curriculum as a core subject.

Over sixty percent of the students aren't regular church-goers, but RE teachers say that their parents support serious religious studies and the students like the opportunity to discuss the spiritual and philosophical dimensions of their lives.

This challenging religious studies program is encouraged by the Principal and the College's Board of Trustees.

Boys turning up for their religious studies classes are first inspected for personal tidiness before they enter the room. The message is that these classes embody the core rationale for the school.

Curriculum

The full curriculum covers Years 7 to 13 and includes an Introduction to Catholic Christianity, Study of Scripture, History of Christianity, Introduction to Philosophy and Theology, Ethics, Spirituality and World Religions, Philosophy and Theology. The program is intellectually demanding and requires serious effort from the students.

Out-of-class Special Character events run in tandem with the academic syllabus. These are directed by a religious studies faculty teacher, Hayden Kingdon, responsible for organising the liturgical events, the student retreats, the Special Character activities and community service groups.

Year 13 boys study Philosophy in the first semester. The topics include 'Who was Socrates and what arguments did he use in his trial?', Plato's 'Theory of Knowledge', Aristotle's 'Metaphysics', Descartes' philosophy and his famous saying, 'I think therefore I exist', and finally a study of a contemporary metaphysician with a critique of Wittgenstein's Picture Theory of Meaning. Assessment is through two formally written essays, an exam, seminar and class discussions.

In the second semester Year 13 studies Theology beginning with the relationship between philosophy and theology, including an analysis of Pope John Paul II's Fides et Ratio. (A 1,500 word essay is required on this topic). This leads to the study of Thomas Aquinas with his five arguments for the existence of God. This semester finishes with an examination of the central theological insights of the Gospel of John, which requires students to read the Prologue of John from the Greek text.

Dr David Legg, the Canadian philosopher-theologian who is Head of Faculty, says the aim of the syllabus is to open to the students the breadth and depth of the Catholic and worldwide intellectual tradition. 'We are planting seeds in adolescent minds, preparing them so that they can hold their own intellectually in any situation. We are teaching the boys how to think, how to sift the truth. The more we have lifted the academic standards of the religious studies curriculum the more we've attracted highly qualified teachers.'

There are presently six full time specialist teachers and three part time teachers in the faculty. The curriculum's structure was developed by Dr Legg, partly modelled on the Five Strand approach of Dr Peter Vardy of Heythrop College, University of London, England. St Peter's College is a member of the Dialogue Australasia Network which encourages an academic approach to religious education. Its website lists many schools as members in both New Zealand and around Australia.

Dr Legg explains, 'There is a critical edge to what we are doing here, which could be called 'Our Mission Statement', that is, to show students what it means to seek the truth, to be critical of flawed thinking. Unfortunately much of what passes as post-modern thought is flawed, based as it is on shoddy thinking. Students like to learn the truth. They also like to learn how to know the truth.

'They emerge from the study of philosophy, not arrogant, but knowing that they don't know everything. These are ordinary students, we're not a wealthy school; they reflect Auckland's population and ethnic mix. We are making available to the boys the powerhouse, the breadth and depth of Catholic intellectual tradition.

'We are planting seeds in adolescent minds, preparing them so that they can stand up in any situation, their minds filled with the best of pearls. We are teaching the boys how to think, how to sift the truth.'

Initial impetus

The initial impetus for a new curriculum in religious studies began in 1998 when American academic, Dan Stollenwerk, arrived at St Peter's College with a background in religious education and a dissertation on the theologian Bernard Lonergan, gained at the Pontifical University at Salamanca, Spain. He had been Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Puerto Rico, when his Italian wife received a job offer to run the Italian Department at Auckland University.

Dan Stollenwerk is greatly influenced by Lonergan's emphasis on the importance of an articulate Catholic faith. 'Arriving in Auckland, I was disappointed that in New Zealand's Catholic educational circles there was such a low regard for academic religious education, as well as a lack of teaching of world history.

'I would get into debates about faith and knowledge and the usual response from teachers was: 'The most important thing is that students live their faith. You can know all about the Church and the Gospel and still not lead a Christian life. The important thing is values.'

'I thought that a 'values' approach was self-defeating. Christianity teaches a very basic truth, namely that Jesus is the Son of God and that through his incarnation, life, death and resurrection, we will one day be in complete union with God. This basic teaching gives Christians a 'cosmovision', that is, a way to understand and interpret the universe, our world, our past and our present. It provides Christians with a means of directing the future. In other words, Christian knowledge informs our values and not vice-versa.

'The more we have lifted the quality of the content, the more we have attracted the teaching talent to teach the five disciplines covered in the syllabus: Scripture, Biblical Studies, Church History (including Christianity and European culture), Philosophy, Spirituality and Ethics, and Theology.'

Boys' response

Asked how the boys respond to this new curriculum, Dr Legg replied, 'Well, I had one parent say to me, 'You've turned my boy's lights on.' We now have increasing numbers of boys going into university to study philosophy and theology. Overall the teachers find that about 40 percent of students are very positive about the program, about 40 percent float through it - and about 20 percent drag the chain, but then some students will always drag the chain whatever the program.

'The reality is that many students don't like hard work - and this syllabus is hard work. It forces adolescent boys out of their comfort zone; it's a cost to them. So we have routines, and insist on classroom discipline, in order to take them through the pain barrier of learning.'

Dr Legg enjoys the students' reaction when they are introduced to the arguments for the existence of God. 'We start with St Thomas Aquinas' case for why God doesn't exist. The boys are intrigued because you are challenging the very basis of doing religious studies. We then take them through Aquinas' five arguments for the existence of God and build the case from there.'

He makes much use of the works of Mortimer Adler (1902-2001), former editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. 'When he was at the University of Chicago, Adler fought a titanic battle with John Dewey (the architect of progressive education) over the direction of American public education. Adler argued that education should entail passing on to the next generation the best of the classical thinkers and writers.

'The great educator lost the battle and decided to take the message to the general public writing 60 books presenting the Classics to the modern mind and hosting a popular series, 'The Great Ideas', on Public Service Television. He was steeped in the Thomistic tradition and eventually talked himself into becoming a Catholic.

'In Year 11, we introduce the boys to Adler's masterwork How to Think About The Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization. It's a very practical book and a great asset to the RE syllabus, helping us challenge sloppy thinking and uncritical relativism. We want a Catholic education system that equips young Catholics to stand up and argue for their Faith.

'The historical and scriptural aspects of the curriculum bring students into a world they otherwise would not enter. When they leave here they know they live in a wider world from those who are ignorant of this background - that's what successful education achieves.'

The history component of the curriculum has been developed by John Hall, who has created a course for the Year 10 students called History of Christianity: Its Art and Architecture. Dermot O'Brien is respon- sible for the Scripture component which includes a study of the Old and New Testaments in their historical contexts.

By the end of his first year at St Peter's, Dan Stollenwerk's ideas were beginning to gel. The principal Kevin Fouhy and vice-principal were supportive and offered precise suggestions, encouraging Stollenwerk and the then Director of Religious Studies to develop a plan.

'We dedicated Year 10 to a serious, structured study of the Bible, Year 11 to Catholic Church history, Year 12 to Christian art history, world religions, ethics and life skills, while Year 13 was dedicated to philosophy and theology.

'We put together a booklet of short briefs on some of the philosophers and theologians who have most influenced the Western world. We began in Greece with Homer, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, then on to Rome and Epicurus and Seneca. Before moving into the Middle Ages, with Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, we looked at Biblical Wisdom Literature and especially Job.

'Pico della Mirandola, Machiavelli, Martin Luther and Galileo introduce the students to the Renaissance, the Reformation and the scientific revolution. In the modern age we read passages from Descartes, Jefferson, Wollstoncraft, Marx, Darwin, Freud and Nietzsche, and finally the two living spokesmen for the West, Elie Wiesel and Alexander Solzhenitisyn.'

Students have to read the material before coming to class, where there are quizzes and tests, followed by teachers giving the historical context for each reading selection.

Three times a term, students have to write a 750- word essay on the themes in the readings, with strong emphasis on well-written English essential for university preparation. Discipline is firm with lunchtime detentions for late assignments, or not reading the assignment.

The Mass

Dan Stollenwerk says that at the heart of St Peter's syllabus is the Mass. 'We have the Mass every other Wednesday for the entire school, executed with all the energy, professional standards and talents that the school can muster. Inspirational solos on guitars are out; Gregorian chant accompanied by the full school orchestra is in. Gregorian chant enables them to listen and meditate; it produces a contemplative response - and the boys like it.'

David Legg says a crucial factor in impressing the students about the seriousness with which the College approaches their Catholic formation is the support and encouragement given to the faculty by the Principal and the Board of Trustees.

Interested schools can contact Dr David Legg at dlegg@st-peters.school.nz

Bernard Moran is the editor of Pro-Life Times and a former correspondent for the now defunct NZ Tablet.

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