National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD)
EMBRACING PLURALISM AND DIVERSITY IN POST-PRIMARY EDUCATION
Speaking Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland
Second National Symposium, Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Thursday 28 February 2008
I was very much struck by an initiative taken by Pope Benedict XVI in these past weeks to write a letter and have it distributed to the parents and teachers of his diocese of Rome on the theme of education. The letter was entitled An Emergency in Education. It was not, as I had imagined when I first heard about it, about the Catholic schools system. Neither was he addressing a particularly Roman or Italian emergency, but a fundamental “emergency” or uncertainty about the deeper purpose of education in a growingly pragmatic and utilitarian world.
What is education about? Another Italian philosophical writer, Luigi Giussani – and you will excuse my reflections beings influenced by the country in which I spent more than half my life – spoke of education in a somewhat complex definition: “as helping the human soul enter into the totality of the real”. This definition might appear abstract. But it is really about two concrete things: it is about the human soul, not in the technical sense, but in the sense of a truly mature and rounded human person. And it talks about the concrete reality of the world, but reality in its totality. Education is about helping a concrete young person to enter fully into the concrete reality of life in its totality.
To permit the individual young person to enter maturely into the reality of the world of his or her time, education must lead young people to assume responsibility for shaping their own destiny in freedom and personal integrity. Giussani’s understanding of education leads us way beyond the idea of education as a mere means of imparting techniques and information, to involve a personal encounter between teacher and student. Education requires a sensitivity of the part of the educator to the cultural situation in which the young person lives. Education involves “a common path of educator and student” as this is the only way which will really work, in that it takes the human personality of the young person seriously.
This is a very demanding path and a very time-consuming one in an educational environment which is already at times very full. There is however no alternative. There is a real difference between technical progress and progress in moral and personal growth. In the case of technical, scientific and financial progress, today’s advances can be added to those of the past, making a cumulative progress. Moral choice requires freedom. Faith cannot be imposed. In the case of moral growth and formation to responsibility, the young person’s freedom is ever new. Pope Benedict notes that “each person and each generation must make his or her own decision anew, alone. Not even the greatest values of the past can be simply inherited; they must be claimed by us and renewed through an often anguishing personal option”.
Education in this sense is much more than formal education. Authentic education, following in the train of Pope Benedict’s thought, needs closeness and trust between pupil and teacher which are born from love. This is evident in the care and education and love of parents for their children. Yet as teachers and as leaders within a school community you know that to educate always involves giving a part of yourself. It is in recognising your giving that your pupils are led to overcome the selfishness that is in them and become in their turn capable of authentic love.
An initiation of pupils into knowing and understanding cannot be limited to providing notions and information. It must address the question of responsibility and thus inevitably the fundamental questions about truth and what truth can be a guide in life.
In speaking to parents at confirmation I try to explain their task as educators of future teenagers in terms of another Italian usage – and this will be the last time that I will refer to that other culture which as you can see is still very much a part of me. I ask: “What do children in the adolescent years need most from their parents and teachers at what is perhaps the most delicate point in the task of education?” The answer surprises. What children need most at that moment are “wings and roots”. They need the wings of freedom, to explore, to find new horizons, to rise above the day-to-day and to rise above themselves. Yet they need roots in values, in tradition and in discipline. Education is about finding the right balance between freedom and discipline. Successful education means accompanying the young person towards the correct use of freedom.
The young person must attain responsibility within the realities of the culture of the day, influenced by ideas, by life styles, by the basic self understanding of society. The young person must learn how to discern within that world where true progress is to be found in their own personal lives and in society as a whole. At the same time, the child has to learn that society is not an abstraction or a force which is absolutely determinant regarding his own her own values and life style. Education will take place in a particular context, but all of us have the ability and indeed the responsibility to change the context within which education can take place.
This challenge of discernment and verification of values coincides for young people today very much with the age of second level education. The young person at that age is challenged to draw the connections between what he or she has received (tradition) and his or her evolving life. This occurs at a moment in which parents and teachers today often feel that their efforts are not having success. It is very often precisely at this age that many parents loose their nerve in speaking about faith with their children. In such a situation it is easy to revert to playing safe. Yet faith requires risk; enhancing freedom entails risk. Rather than engaging in dialogue parents and teachers can feel that it is best to leave it up the young person alone to find his or her way regarding faith. Parents loose their nerve, perhaps also because the Church has let them down by providing very few services to help them in their task.
What is the reaction of young people at that moment? The author I have already quoted, Luigi Giussani, notes three. The first is indifference, “where the young person feels abstracted from everything that does not directly touch him or her”. The second, perhaps less obvious in Ireland but in a certain sense growing, is traditionalism or playing it safe, “where good natured or less lively young people hide behind rigid beliefs to avoid being threatened from the real outside world”. The third is worldwide, namely, hostility, “because an abstract God is certainly an enemy, someone who at the very least is a waste of time”.
Indifference, traditionalism and hostility all indicate a reaction among young people which is the opposite of what Giussani sees as the aim of this process of education, namely conviction. Religious formation requires the young person to “verify” the tradition that he or she has inherited and to see how personal conviction can be arrived at, rather than superficiality, flight or hostility.
Where must this verification take place? It cannot take place except in the real world of the young person. Each generation should be able to build conviction within its own world. It must also take place within a community. This is one of the great challenges which face those passing on the faith in Ireland today. In the past, the fundamental cultural community which provided the structural support for someone who believed was Irish society as such. Even with all its lacks, with its anti-clericalism and its superstitions, Irish society was genuinely impregnated with religious values. Today that is no longer so in the same way. Young people today need Christian communities where they can experience the support of peers with similar interests and experiences. Without such support the young person will be gobbled up in the centrifugal spin of a pluralism without an anchor.
The young person needs to belong to a community where together with his or her peers he can encounter the experience of the values he aspires to. This is where the Catholic secondary school belongs. The Catholic school must be such a community of support in the faith. This is the special contribution which a Catholic school places at the service of those parents who wish to transmit their values to the upcoming generation, not as some external or only partially relevant addition to education. In speaking to young people I like to challenge them to make their religious values more than an occasional “pop-up” on the computer screen of their lives which interests them momentarily but which when they click on the “close window” button vanishes back into some unknown dimension of their life.
The Catholic school must not, however, become a ghetto or an illusory safe haven. The young person has to be led to face the real world and to survive and indeed flourish there. Christianity can never be exclusivist or elitist. This means concretely that a Catholic school, while maintaining its specific ethos, can and should be welcoming of others who wish to explore that ethos, or who share some dimensions of it or who wish to critically engage with it. But for that to work the ethos must be there and must be strong and part of the real world of the school community. If there is no strong ethos to confront and be confronted with then the adolescent will end of without challenge.
But what is ethos? One problem is that the term ethos is very much an ethereal concept, one that is hard to pin down concretely. Ethos is more than a framed “mission statement” in the principal’s office. Ethos cannot be separated from witness. In the past, in most Catholic schools ethos was linked with the witness of a concrete tradition of religious life. How long can ethos remain without concrete and focussed witness? I believe that the efforts of religious congregations to maintain the ethos of their schools after they themselves no longer have the numbers to be present personally will be stronger the more they can find new ways to permit their witness to live on through new forms of community committed to a coherent value system. Ethos is about real lives rather than just about ideas.
The real heart of a Catholic school is and must be that coherent, integrated vision of the meaning of life, based on belief in a God who is love, which the finds an echo in a community of believers who reflect that vision of life in their lives. Without that coherent commitment the originality of the Catholic school is lost. I challenge each Catholic secondary school in this diocese to see if it measures up to that standard.
The vision of education which I propose for the Catholic school involves a much more intense relationship between educator and student than might normally be imagined. It might seem difficult to achieve within the busy curriculum of a modern-day Irish school. But the key contributors to successful Irish education in the past, when physical structures were poorer and class numbers were larger, were those extraordinary teachers who transmitted a passion for learning and an integrated vision of what guided their own lives. This cohesion gave our country the edge in creativity and innovative capacity needed for a modern knowledge-based society and economy.
This approach is very demanding, but it is also an extraordinary expression of respect for the young person and of confidence in the fact that any young person, placed in front of the challenge, can rise to it if they encounter the right educator along the way. When many of our most successful figures in Irish life identify a teacher who changed their lives, then it was almost always a teacher who engaged directly with a young person regarding deeper dimensions of their talent and identity.
It is only a person who has confidence and hope who can speak about and propose risk that education exposes the young person to. In my school days conformism was the norm and the only risk was in affirming one’s autonomy. In my years studying theology in the seminary and in preparing for ministry I would say that we heard the word “risk” very rarely and when we came across the word we were not encouraged to take that road. Yet faith is about risk. It is about taking a leap in the dark. It is the ability to go beyond the purely empirical into the world of dreams, hopes, aspirations and mystery.
What is the place of such a model of a Catholic school in today’s Ireland where religious diversity is growing? Is the Catholic school necessarily divisive? Is it possible in a pluralist society to talk about truth? In a religiously pluralist society does the fact of there apparently being many “truths” mean that we have to banish all discussion of truth to the private sphere? I do not believe so. Dialogue does not mean abandoning identity. Identity within a specific religious tradition can also be one open to and respectful of other religious traditions and of those who do not hold any religious faith.
It is important here to understand the meaning of inter-religious dialogue. Inter-religious dialogue has as its aim the seeking both of the truth and of peace and co-existence. Fear of the other does not create an appropriate climate for fruitful dialogue. Inter-religious dialogue must be carried out in a spirit which fosters a search for truth in a climate of understanding and respect. It must foster a search for truth which does not paper over differences and wish them to disappear so that we can all be polite and go home.
Pluralism in religious belief has now entered into a new chapter in its history in Ireland. In this new reality the school must become a vital focus for fostering a climate of knowledge about various religions and about dialogue and mutual respect among different religious traditions. But there are limits to what a school can achieve and should be expected to achieve. Ireland is going to have a very different religious and ethnic demography in the years to come. To fully understand our pluralist Ireland we need much more differentiated scientific information. We need to look at all the factors involved. What are the factors which are leading to a concentration of immigrants in certain areas? Why is it that some parishes with very similar socio-economic background have large concentration of ethnic diversity and other almost none? Many of the factors leading to such an unbalanced concentration and possible ghettoes are not educational factors and you cannot expect the school to address them on their own.
There is no evidence that a totally “religiously neutral secularist society” is the best space in which to foster dialogue between religions. There is indeed a sense in which, when it comes down to religious diversity, a more secularist society may not be the best one to be able to understand and guide the phenomenon. Pope Benedict XVI has noted that: “The pathology of religion is the most dangerous sickness of the human spirit. It exists within the religions, yet it exists also precisely where religion as such is rejected and relative goods are assigned an absolute value”. There are forms of secular society in which hostility to religious values forces religious groups into a dangerously narrow perception of their culture and thus sharpen religious differences and misunderstanding of a pluralist society.
The desire of a secularist society to reduce religion to the private sphere may make it hard for some to embrace fully the strong religious commitment of many of our immigrant communities. My belief is that inter-religious dialogue can best be addressed by persons who are strongly rooted in their own faith, rather than by persons who have confused religious commitment or by people who are not religious at all. What is important, however, is that we all address the situation with a sense of mutual knowledge and respect.
All faiths have to avoid any form of fundamentalism, fundamentalism in their own faith, fundamentalism about the role of religion. Religions are obliged to respect the legitimate autonomy of the secular order and of reason. Imposing a specific political programme in the name of God is to make yourself into God. I quote from an earlier writing of Benedict XVI: “Whenever a religiously motivated moralism sidesteps this often irreducible pluralism, declaring one way to be the only right one, then religion is perverted into an ideological dictatorship, whose totalitarian passion does not build peace, but destroys it”.
I have on more than one occasion expressed my opinion that the fostering of plurality of educational patronage is something desirable and welcome in Ireland today, North and South, and could bring benefit to all, also in allowing the specifically Catholic school to be more distinctively Catholic. The Catholic school can only bring its real contribution to society when it is allowed to be fully a Catholic school, in that holistic sense described earlier.
In the Republic of Ireland all religious confessions have the right to expect the respect and the support of the State in education within one’s own denomination and tradition. The State should be neutral in addressing religious diversity in the sense that it does not favour any individual religious community, except where such a community may suffer disproportionate disadvantage because of size or other reason.
The Catholic school will only be able to carry out its specific role if there are viable alternatives for parents who wish to send their children to schools inspired by other philosophies. The government’s delay in provision of such alternative models makes true choice difficult for those parents, but it also makes it more difficult for Catholic schools to do their work and maintain their identity.
In widening the presence of different forms of patronage it is important that all patron bodies be treated on the same level and be challenged to be models of accepting diversity. There should be parity with regard to facilities, class size, the number of streams, so that no one form of school appears to more elitist and less open to diversity. All should receive appropriate financial and technical support to help them carry out their patronage and management services for the good of all.
Let me be clear that I am addressing these remarks to all patrons, including religious patrons. I would be unhappy if Catholic secondary schools were to become mainly elitist. I would be very unhappy to find that Catholic schools were being less open to diversity than others. I am unhappy when Catholic parents opt out of diversity and send their children to schools where there is less diversity, while I recognise that parents wish to get the best possible education for their children and that they have the right to choose the school they consider best. But the exercise of rights must also incorporate concern for the common good.
We are witnessing growing diversity of patron models, as we see in addition to the patronage of the various Christian denominations, and today of other religions, also models such as Educate Together or Gaelsoileanna. It is important that all be held to account to provide proof of the quality of teaching and curriculum and local authorities should be challenged to foster interaction between such schools to promote a spirit of community.
I look forward to the roll out of models of patronage by public education authorities. To put my position clearly, as I have said in the past, I personally favour the provision of denominational education in any form of State school that might emerge in the Republic in the future, along the lines of current community schools and colleges.
Would it not be better to have just one school system for all? I believe that it is utopian to think that there will ever be a single school model to which all children would be sent indiscriminately. Totally centralised unified models of education rarely work and they have rarely existed in their pure form. If we are honest, they did not even exist in totalitarian communist regimes. Pluralism of providers can indeed add edge to quality in education. Centralised monopoly administration brings its own problems. In systems with broad state school systems, Catholic schools exist and flourish and are regarded as being in the forefront in providing quality education.
As Archbishop of Dublin I invest time, energy and money into carrying out my responsibilities as Patron. I see this as a support to teachers and especially to Principals and Vice-Principals who contribute decisively to maintaining ethos and vision in a school.
This is the Confirmation season and I meet with teachers on most days of these weeks. My respect for them is enormous and grows every day. We have great teachers, young and old. I hope that through encounters like ours today we can foster open dialogue which rises above our own interests, however valid they are, so that we can work together in our different roles and with our different viewpoints, to ensure that our educational system brings out the best in all the children of this nation.
That is the spirit of my remarks this morning.