Thursday, 28 August 2008

French government interference

The French government is about to impose on private schools ('ECOLES HORS CONTRAT') a new set of terms and conditions for employment of staff. The main issues concerning us here are:
1. The right of staff to express their own opinions on religious and moral matters etc, a right which they may well already have had, but which we were never obliged to include in contracts; and 2. A scale of remuneration which obliges us to pay high salaries, commensurate with qualifications and experience, even if we cannot afford them and the teachers don't want them.

Let us look at a hard case. I am hypothetically faced with a teacher of history, religion or biology who denies the existence of God and the creation. Both facts, I know with unshakeable certainty, are truths known by natural reason. As such, these facts are an intrinsic part of all three of those disciplines. I suspect that on the teaching of religion we would find a way around the problems. But for history and biology, the State would no doubt propose that the existence of God were a question of completely private religious conviction. But my reason (as well as my acceptance of the teachings of Vatican I on this very subject) would lead me to take an exactly contrary position: the Creation by God, and the existence of God are truths that may be arrived at by reason alone. Moreover, it seems to me that no teacher of any subject may deny reason and yet fairly expect to remain a teacher. I hope I will never have to deal with such a situation.

When I told one of our teachers that the new state-dictated contracts included a 'freedom of religious expression' clause, the response came: "Great, then we can express our Catholic faith without fear, then ..." It is going to be interesting to see how this particular right is going to sit with the same State's pathological obsession with stamping out 'derives sectaires' (or 'extremism', for short) in schools and elsewhere.

Perhaps the teachers at Chavagnes could express their new legally-enshrined freedom of religious expression with a collective pronouncement of the Oath of Fidelity to the living Magisterium of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Now there's an idea ...

Someone has been reading my blog ...

It appears that some people have been reading my blog, because I recently received comments from three different readers. The counter had not been moving very quickly so I had imagined that all my visitors were in fact no more than google robots.

Just to keep you, and the robots, posted then, about what I am thinking about: I had an interesting conversation today with an American academic about a number of things. One thing that sticks with me is what he said about the corpus colossum and communication between left and right brain.

What I know on the subject is a kind of hotch-potch of information from my PGCE (right brain, left brain, 'brain gym', etc) and magazine articles about how men and women are different.

Today, however, we were speculating about whether there are fewer people (and specifically men) around these days who can exploit the full potential of both sides of their brains; or rather whether they can think effectively with both sides at once ... It struck me that if the ability to think with both sides of the brain were in fact a symptom of mental agility and even intellectual plenitude of some kind, then we are much the poorer for not having artistic scientists and novelists who still remember their algebra.

We mused that the Greek and later medieval notions of the Trivium and Quadrivium adressed this issue well, expecting the intellectually mature man to have mastered all seven of the liberal arts: spanning from astronomy and geometry to music and rhetoric.

The nasty part of all this is that bad our intellectual habits, our forgetfulness and our laziness are not just psychological handicaps, but actually scar the brain for life. Just as a physically inactive man runs to fat and becomes less active as he becomes more sluggish; so too, it would seem does a bad education change the function of the brain so that we veer to using one side or the other more than we should, and have a diminishing ability to connect the insights of both sides into a unified and balanced cognitive process.

All this talk of right brain and left brain leads me to believe that the ideal man - one who strives for 'life and life in all its fulness' - should seek to use all the mental faculties that God gave him in as perfect a unity as possible. This is what I understand must have happened to our Lord when he returned to the care of his parents in Nazareth (after the finding in the Temple) and grew in wisdom and stature in the sight of God and men.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Chavagnes on Vatican Radio

Just in case you missed it last month:
Chavagnes on Vatican Radio

Educating Catholic heroes

Here are some snippets from the 12-minute first section of a talk, which, as an experiment, I am uploading as a recording (see below) - I'd welcome comments from anyone who finds this helpful, (or unhelpful). ...

When one looks at the world today, with all its many problems and challenges, and worst of all its lack of hope about solving these problems, one can be tempted to despair, or one can be – which is no doubt better – tempted to rush around madly trying to fix our broken culture.

We are in a sandstorm at this time in history. Massive winds of cultural change have made the landscape unrecognisable, and shifting the sand around to try and put things back the way they were, or the way we think they were, is just too difficult for us. We won't fix things that way, by political and social schemes.

But we can plant solid young trees every few hundred yards, with miraculously deep roots. Once they are established, with God's grace they might help things settle down, because the people caught up in the storm will instinctively look to those heroic young trees with their deep roots. As they get older those trees might just provide enough shelter from the storm for other people to imitate their virtues and put down roots of their own, tapping down beneath the sands of change to the living waters beneath.

These trees are our young people, called to a life of particular heroism at this time in the world’s history, called to be salt and light; the leaven in the loaf of humanity that could yet help us all rise up out of our sleepy sinfulness into the light of God’s grace. And it is our job to educate these boys and girls. And so that explains my theme: educating Catholic heroes.

What makes a Catholic hero? First, in the manner of every good schoolboy, I’ll define my terms. Heroism ... When we read accounts of the heroes of Greek and Roman mythology, what traits of heroism can we pick out? Well, there is certainly devotion to the gods: when we study Homer, we see that the one solid and unshakeable trait of Odysseus’ character is his tender devotion to Athena and it is often her divine intervention that provides the means for him to get out of most of his scrapes with cyclopses, sirens and all manner of other strange beings, including other gods.
..... (here you have to click on the recording below to hear what I have to say!)


Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Rare pillow fight at Chavagnes ...

This doesn't happen very often at Chavagnes ... thank goodness.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Change at the Chalkface: some reflections

A leading labour politician (Ed Balls) was recently quoted as saying that teachers “should not teach subjects, but children”. This was in the context of a debate about the content of the curriculum in our schools, and whether it ought to be adapted to contain material more interesting to modern, urban children. The suggestion was that if children were failing to succeed in the study of traditional academic subjects, then we should simply teach them something else. The aim of education, it is suggested, should be to open the children’s minds, to teach them thinking skills, to teach them how to learn; but not necessarily to teach them any specific and important data.

One of the reasons why I took the trouble to begin my own school was that I profoundly disagree with this approach to education. It seems to me that education exists to hand on a tradition, and to initiate the young into their intellectual and cultural heritage. It is an inherently conservative activity because it conserves and perpetuates the best in our culture. For our civilisation to flourish and be stable, strong and confident, we need to endeavour to give our children the same kind of education that the great men of our day received. We cannot afford to take the risk of inventing a different aim and content for the educational process; this would be simply to turn our children into guinea pigs.

Government attempts at regulation and standardisation in state-funded education have been motivated by the belief that reducing diversity and enforcing uniformity would lead to a rise in standards. The reverse has occurred, because teachers spend so much time ticking boxes that they do not enjoy teaching as they might were they only allowed more freedom. The private sector has not escaped this movement and has allowed itself to be drawn into jumping through many of the same hoops as the state sector.

These more or less political convictions, together with a deeply held religious sense that Catholic education was losing its way in the UK, prompted me to make an educational and entrepreneurial leap of faith that led to the founding of a boarding school for boys. However, another important and more personal source of inspiration was my own positive experience of school, and an enduring sense of gratitude and respect for my teachers, all of which made me wish to be part of providing a similar experience for children in the next generation. Many of my ideas about teaching were really about replicating what I had experienced in my own schooldays.

Over the course of the last year, inviting colleagues and friends into observe my lessons, and finding time to do some relevant reading, I have been confronted with some of the problems and challenges inherent in my own views about teaching, together with some of the logical consequences of these ideas; consequences that had perhaps not previously been fully worked out and incorporated in my own work as a teacher.

In the first place, children have changed and teaching has changed with them. St Ignatius of Loyola famously said “Give me the boy at 7, and I will show you the man.” He knew that in order to form a young mind, one needed to start early. These days, a lot of damage has already been done to young minds by the time they reach 11 years old; mainly because they are exposed to so many unwholesome influences from a very early age.

When I was starting school, in September 1976, television was something that started at about the time children came home from school and ended at what would have been thought a sensible bedtime for adults. At other times there was no transmission. No one I knew owned a cine projector, and there was no other way of watching a film except for going to the cinema. Children’s radio programmes such as Listen with Mother, and even television programmes such as Jackanory taught children how to listen, and furnished their mind with attractive and wholesome influences and moral sentiments. Most children would not have watched more than five to ten hours of television per week in those days, if they even owned a television. And what is more, the programming for adults was generally also suitable for children. Variety shows (such as the Val Doonican show), including singing, dancing and story-telling, were common and extremely popular. Even more daring shows such as The Monkeys were really no more than reworkings of timeless comedy themes in a modern setting. The first really modern show was Top of the Pops, which was only a weekly occurrence. I used to watch it when I was 5 years old and I thought it was funny, with the dancers prancing around in their flesh-coloured body-stockings, but I suppose, looking back at it, that it was the Trojan horse for our English youth. I can still remember one of the songs that was so popular back then, a Pink Floyd number: “We don’t need no education …”

When I was at school there was really no special provision whatsoever for children with learning difficulties. Children, both at primary and secondary level seemed able to listen. The teachers were also able to indulge in a great deal of creativity, which made them – and their lessons - more interesting. At primary school, when I was about eight years old, I remember my beloved headmistress Mrs Turrell came back from a holiday in Australia. The whole of the autumn term that year was given over to learning about Australia: its history, its geography, its culture (such as it is) and its wildlife. We must have learnt other things that term, but Mrs Turrell’s enjoyment of her first long-haul flight and subsequent month on the other side of the world, overshadowed – or rather cast a balmy antipodean light over – the whole four months until Christmas.

In 2002, when I opened my own school it had not occurred to me that teaching 11-year-old English boys would have changed much in the twenty years that had elapsed since I had been sitting at a schoolboy’s desk. The wake-up to reality was not slow in coming, although my own analysis of what has happened to children and to teaching has only really happened in this last academic year. This has been because Chavagnes has had a good year this year, all things considered, and I have had more space for thinking and reflecting.

I remember back in 2003 discussing with our first Head, who had taught for ten years in Zimbabwe, about the kind of pupils we were recruiting. He opined that we were just rather unlucky at having attracted an inordinate number of naughty and unteachable children. (Of course, looking back now, I remember them as angels!)

By the time he left in 2004, and having compared notes with colleagues in UK schools, he wondered whether some problems we had been having might have been to do with the fact that our teachers were – many of them – inexperienced in other schools in a modern British setting. My feeling is that the problem was really a mixture of the two factors, and a third. Firstly, our pupils were not the same kind of child that my colleague was used to in old-fashioned southern Africa, nor that I remembered from a 1980s grammar school; also, even if in the past, inexperienced and untrained teachers might have coped well enough with old-fashioned grammar school boys, with the new breed of child, teachers need to be much more professional and much more engaging (after all, they are now more clearly competing with television presenters for the souls and minds of their charges); lastly, there is the problem of expectations. Our expectations were perhaps just too high.

All of this brings me back to Ed Balls and his statement about teaching children rather than subjects. The lesson I am learning is that while we may defend the deposit of all that splendid knowledge and culture that we must hand on to the next generation, we must not be afraid to learn from our mistakes and to read the signs of the times. What we are doing perhaps needs to remain constant, but the way we are doing it may have to change. The ability to change, in fact, is often the secret of fidelity to tradition.

“But whatever be the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited. ... In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” (John Henry Newman, On the Development of Doctrine, Chapter 1, Section 1: “On the Development of Ideas”.)

My belief now is that teachers are getting better and better at the art of teaching, even if on the whole they know less and less about their subjects, while their pupils, dazzled by all that modern technology has to offer, are less attentive and less interested. It's a peculiar irony that there have been so many improvements in the teaching profession at a time when we are no loner sure what in fact we should be teaching to our children.

Our challenge, as faithful Catholic teachers, is - very much in the spirit of Gravissimum Educationis and Vatican II generally - to attempt to pass on the tradition (by that, I mean all that we ought to teach) in a new and engaging way.

An old speech I found while tidying up my files ...

Mr McDermott’s End-of-Year Speech: June 2004

This year has been almost biblical in its epic sweep.

The plagues of Chavagnes have been legion. Plagues of serpents. Well, we thought it was a viper, but Mr Baudouin managed to identify it as an ‘orvet’a legless lizard. It had teeth but no venom. And it fell under the thud of my sledge hammer; although I admit to quaking in my boots as I struck.

Plagues of bats; well, many of you had fun hunting them in the dorms, with your towels. The Chavagnes bat hunt might yet become an ancient institution.

Plagues of spiders: they are very picturesque, those spider bites, aren’t they? I’ve never seen anything like it in England. We asked Doctor Chyl what to do about all of your coming out in bumps from the blighters. With typically dry wit, she prescribed a vacuum cleaner. So, next year, we must be careful to hoover more carefully: even the corners of the ceiling and the gaps between the floorboards.

Plagues of mosquitoes: well, they are still with us, and many have the marks to prove it. We have all fallen victim to their thirst in the long watches of the night. At least it means we are all blood-brothers now.

Plagues of frogs – getting up at night and hearing the continual croaking and groaning of Frogs, happily propagating their noisy race down on the lake at the back of the College.

“I will plague your whole country with frogs. The river shall swarm with frogs; they shall come up into your palace, into your bedchamber and your bed, and into the houses of your officials and of your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls. The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your officials.”

So says the good book on the subject of frogs. And this has certainly been a good year for them, with our little gallic friends finding their way into every nook and cranny of our establishment. Let us hope that, in welcoming them ever more warmly in the future, you will all improve your French. Next year, we are expecting a few more froggies in our midst. And I hope that Froggies and Rostbifs will learn to live and let live, benefiting from such a splendid chance of exposure to each other’s languages and culture in our wonderful school.

Well, a few departures are on the cards. Inigo – one the temperamental Connollys. They say the Connollys always have to find a wife from another part of Ireland, because of the reputation they have “for the temper they have on them.” I will certainly miss my own dear cousin and very special firebrand, Inigo, who has decided to return to England. We wish you all the very best.

Guy – the whingeing pommes is an expression attributed to the Australians. It’s what they call us Brits. Well I’ll leave all of you who know and love Guy as much as I do to reflect on the ironies of that particular cultural cliché. The only whingeing we are going to give in to today will be to say : “don’t leave us, Guy. We’d love to have you back next year.” [in fact, he did come back…]

The return of the Catholic gentleman ... We have some fine examples of that breed here among us. Alex, yes, Greg; yes, also.

But I would echo a comment made to me by Mr Kelly, that, of all our older boys, one gentleman stands out for his steady, resolved, courteous and manly demeanour. That young man is Joe Millington, whose honesty, good nature and strong sense of duty have been a genuine adornment to the College during his year among us. We will be very sorry to see the elder statesman of the seniors take his leave of us, and we wish him well.

Hilaire Belloc published a collection of poetry under the title of Survivals and New Arrivals, and I suppose those of us left un-thanked all fall into that category: those of us who have fought the good fight, run the race to the finish, and now want to do it all again next year. And then there are those who have read about us in the paper or seen us on the television, and now want to part of the adventure. Well, an adventure it certainly is. It has all the right ingredients too: an undiscovered country, new friends, risk, excitement, originality; and - no doubt – a hint of madness.

Of the new arrivals, we are privileged to welcome one of them already, Mr Paul Jernberg, who is taking over as Director of Studies. Bienvenue, Mr Jernberg. I know that I speak for all the staff when I say that we are all very eager to start working with you, to make this College - so full of promise – all that it needs to be.

Josemaria Escriva whose feast falls today said ‘if you can only dare to dream, then the reality will far surpass your wildest dreams.’ He also suggested that our work should be not just good or even excellent, but HEROIC.

Let’s make that vision our own next year. Let’s commit ourselves to live up to the name of ‘Catholic gentlemen’, and even of ‘Catholic heroes’. After a good, heroic rest of nine weeks this summer, let’s commit to imbuing every one of actions next year with an epic quality. I want to hear you referred to as angels in chapel, tigers on the football field, Einsteins in the lab, Michaelangelos at the easel, Thomas Aquinases behind your desks.

This is what our Lord called us to when he taught us that wanted to us ‘live life in all its fullness’. Even in something that is not your specific gift, pledge yourself to be known for your heroic grit and determination; your will to do your best.

God bless you all.