What is the core of Catholic Education? Stratford Caldecott encapsulates it here:
"The fundamental idea, drawn from the tradition of the liberal arts that goes back to ancient Greece, is that schooling is not primarily designed to churn out efficient components of an economic machine, able to “compete in a global economy,” but to nurture human beings and to free the soul from the forces that hold it enslaved. Not to impose faith, but to liberate the mind in such a way that it becomes able to make an objective judgment about faith for itself—not one dictated by the newspapers or social media, for example.
The three fundamental elements of the liberal tradition of schooling are Memory, Thought, and Speech (corresponding to Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric). Once these three elements are fully developed, a Christian ethos will be present in the school, because the ethos depends on belonging to the tradition of faith (Memory), on thinking intelligently about faith (Thought) and on forming a community in which this faith is lived and transmitted “heart to heart” (Speech)."
"To free the soul from the forces that hold it enslaved": is there a greater statement about why the core of Catholic education is really the core of all education? This vision, which holds that there is a truth knowable to the reason, discoverable in nature, the mark of the mind of a creator God in which all truth beauty and goodness have their source, has its origins in Christendom. It is worth remembering that the modern secular West could never have come about without this fertile soil in which to grow. Pope Benedict XVI talks eloquently about it here.
And yet how many people now view faith education in this way? Since the 'Trojan Horse' scandal in Birmingham, I can sense a hardening of many people's view towards faith schools, as if what they had already suspected had now been confirmed definitively: that they are hotbeds of religious indoctrination. This is an example of just such a viewpoint.
Of course the other problem is the reality on the ground of many Catholic schools is very different from the ideal liberal tradition set out above. I work in a Catholic school that is one of the top achieving comprehensives in the country, and the effort to maintain the 'outstanding' tag given by Ofsted is relentless. This drive to academic achievement unfortunately sidelines in my view the 'nurturing of the human being' that should be at the heart of faith schools, because everyone, staff and students, is in a race to constantly show that progress has been made. That is not to say that there aren't excellent staff in the school, doing all they can to nurture and liberate the souls of those in their care, but their efforts inevitably are drops in the ocean, because the examination machine is always there waiting, the hard utilitarian reality beneath the romantic ideal. In a way this is a balance that has to be struck, and I think my school tries its hardest to keep it balanced, but I do sometimes wonder why we have to swallow all the latest Ofsted advice and so on.
The current debates about education, the multitude of proposals for what constitutes the best method of education, or even what constitutes education, all reflect a deeper cultural change that has been taking place over the last 15 years or so. This is represented by a deep confusion about what education is for.
I think we need to recover a sense of the importance of the souls of those in our care. If we truly had at the basis of everything we do, a focus on the aim of freeing the soul from the forces that hold it enslaved, we would see our teaching in a heroic light, which is to give it a solemnity it sometimes lacks. This is not to create a fake pomposity or egocentricity in teachers, but really to always help teachers to understand how important they are.
We can do this by focusing on creating critical thinkers, who don't see themselves as consumers of facts, but who would be capable of holding their own in any subject, because they can evaluate and analyse independently.
One very good way of doing this is P4C, or Philosophy for Children - the website is here. I put the link to this because allowing more of a spirit of questioning and developing of critical skills is really at the heart of a liberal education, but so is the ability to make links and respond to the ideas of others, which P4C does really well.
Of course, a school truly founded around the principles that Stratford Caldecott outlines in his books will go way beyond this, but it is somewhere everyone can start.