Suggestions for Catholicising the English Curriculum

Roy Peachey FAITH Magazine July – August 2011

In what is a continuation of his March-April 2011 piece "Bringing Catholic Culture back into the Classroom" (see letters page for a response to that) Mr Peachey makes some specific suggestions concerning the teaching of English Literature and Language. He is an English teacher at Woldingham School, Surrey, and maintains a blog – - where some of the books mentioned in this article are discussed in greater depth.

There is a great deal more to the teaching of English in Catholic schools than the teaching of literature written by Catholics. However, there is also clearly an argument that great Catholic authors should not be neglected either. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, may have surprised many by repeatedly calling for the teaching in schools of authors such as Chaucer, Dryden and Pope but his suggestion deserves a response from the Catholic community, for each of these great writers was a Catholic and each of them is horribly neglected even in Catholic schools today. Perhaps the recently announced review of the National Curriculum may provide us with the opportunity to give that response.

Practical Suggestions

One way to bring Catholic culture back into the school curriculum is to make more use of the Church's liturgical year. By definition the great feasts of the Church fall in the school holidays but that clearly does not prevent the Catholic teacher from making use of these feasts in the classroom. Christmas alone provides multiple opportunities: Dickens' Christmas classics can be supplemented, for example, by Willi Chen's Caribbean or George Mackay Brown's Orcadian short stories. Older students could usefully look at Oscar Hijuelos's Mr Ives' Christmas or Alice Thomas Ellis's The Birds of the Air. Another approach might be to use Christmas carols and poetry to examine language use and language change. Robert Southwell's 'The Burning Babe' could be studied alongside 'Dingdong merrily on high' and Christina Rossetti's 'In the Bleak Midwinter', for example. T.S. Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi' is widely studied but placing it alongside Michael Symmons Roberts' 'The Gifts', in which the poet speculates about what Mary and Joseph did with the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, adds another dimension to it. The great feasts may fall outside term time but saints' days may well fall within the term, thereby providing an opportunity for students to look at the work of, for example, St. Thomas More, St. Robert Southwell and now Blessed John Henry Newman.

There is also plenty of good children's literature written by Catholics such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Rumer Godden, Otfried Preussler and Frank Cottrell Boyce that can be studied in the classroom. There is even teenage high school fiction from a Catholic perspective emerging from the USA, with a group of graduates from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and Christendom College writing under the name of Christian M. Frank. Other work which was not written specifically for children can be read by a wide range of students, the most obvious examples being G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories and George Mackay Brown's short stories and novels. A further option is to study bestsellers like David Almond's Skellig alongside Antonio Tabucchi's The Flying Creatures of FraAngelico, or Orwell's 1984 alongside Thomas More's Utopia to provide an alternative perspective.
There is, of course, a good deal more to the study of English than the study of literature. The teaching of non-fiction texts, especially at Key Stage 3 (age 11 -14), is often a rather haphazard affair and so, if Catholic teachers are not careful, Catholic perspectives on the world can easily be written out of the curriculum here too. Non-fiction texts are important in their own right but they can also provide useful contextual information for fictional texts. One does not need to believe that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic, for example, to appreciate the need to see him in his Catholic context. Students can only benefit, linguistically and in other ways, by looking at some of the writing in publications like Early Modern Catholicism: An Anthology of Primary Sources (Miola2007). There is also plenty of more recent non-fiction that could happily fit into the Catholic classroom. It is possible to argue with Ian Ker, for example, that Chesterton's non-fiction outstrips his fiction by some margin, placing him in the same league as "Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, and especially, of course, Newman." (Ker 2003, 75) Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold and Newman may not be taught much in British schools these days - though the beatification of Newman has provided a clear opportunity to raise his profile - but Chesterton's prose would seem admirably suited to the classroom. Non-fiction also provides an opportunity for teachers to redress the rather Eurocentric imbalance that can overwhelm English studies. Takashi Nagai's The Bells of Nagasaki, for example, deserves a placeon any curriculum for its powerfully restrained description of the bombing of Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Teaching Catholic non-fiction does not mean teaching theology (or hagiography) but that does not mean that great Catholic theologians and priests need be excluded from the curriculum either: there could well be room for extracts from St. Augustine's Confessions or Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan's The Road of Hope when looking at autobiographical writing, for instance.

We can also bring Catholic culture back into the curriculum by studying the English language itself. The ideas and examples contained in Dennis Freeborn's From Old English to Standard English (Freeborn 1992) and the associated website, for example, can be adapted in an age-appropriate way to show how the English language (including its spelling and punctuation) has changed over time. The great value of Freeborn's book is that it illustrates its analysis with a wide variety of pre- (and post-) Reformation texts, thereby providing the Catholic teacher with a genuine opportunity to teach the English Catholic literary heritage while also teaching spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Studying the past does not mean neglecting the present. The growth of militant secularism in Britain and the largely one-sided reporting of Catholicism in the secular press in recent times have drawn particular attention to the need for Catholics to be aware of the power of the media in shaping students' responses to the world. Studying media texts is now an integral part of the school curriculum and teachers are used to drawing attention to the power of manipulative language when looking at advertising. They may also feel no compunction about teaching the calculated use of language by the military to justify "friendly fire incidents" and "collateral damage". However, the secular status quo has so pervaded even Catholic schools and colleges that these same teachers usually feel reluctantto expose the thinking underlying such loaded terms as "dignity in dying", "terminations" and "assisted dying". Catholicism has been forced into the fortress of the Religious Studies classroom but, as Catholic educators, we do our faith no favours by allowing it to be compartmentalised in this way.

Indeed it is striking how rarely we allow our faith to influence our English teaching even when there are opportunities to do so. The Model United Nations movement, for example, has become something of an international phenomenon and yet, despite the Vatican's presence with permanent observer status at the UN, it is virtually unheard of for students to assume the role of the Vatican at such conferences. A great deal of what we need to do as Catholic educators, in other words, is to redress the balance not by overturning English curricula as currently instituted but by refusing to allow the Catholic voice to be expunged altogether.

A Return to Beauty

However, there is more to the English teacher's task than simply allowing the Catholic voice to be heard. If each person is created in the image of the creator God then the creative act itself, as Pope John Paul II suggested in his Letter to Artists of 1999, assumes a greater significance than is usually given to it in English curricula. As Tolkien put it:

The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined in living shapes that
move from mind to mind. (Tolkien 1989, 98)

If, in writing, we become sub-creators (in Tolkien's words) or craftsmen mirroring the Creator (in the words of John Paul II) then surely we ought to take children's creative writing more seriously than we usually do. Creative writing in schools gets very mixed treatment: while it is privileged at key stage 2 and, to a certain extent, at key stage 3, it usually receives less attention at key stage 4 and almost none at key stage 5 (though there are signs of change here with a renewed emphasis on recreative writing as an A Level coursework option). By giving creative writing a much more central place in the curriculum, Catholic educators would be responding to authentic theological analyses of the arts while simultaneously demonstrating that bringing Catholic culture back into the schoolcurriculum does not mean indoctrination or the abandonment of thought and choice.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2011