New Approaches to Education
Louise Kirk finds a lifeline for a culture in danger.
Last year, the BBC website carried an article under the heading “Fertility rate: ‘jaw dropping’ global crash in children being born” (15 July 2020).
It cites research from the University of Washington published in the Lancet which suggests that by the end of the century most countries in the world are likely to have shrinking populations. Lead researcher Professor Christopher Murray’s states: “it’s incredibly hard to think this through and recognise how big a thing this is; it’s extraordinary, we’ll have to reorganise societies.”
LGBT trends only affect the behaviour of a small minority of people, but the feminism which is behind this worrying decline in population affects all of us, not only in our own country but throughout the world. So deeply is feminist ideology engrained that Murray, while clearly disturbed by his own figures, goes on to “warn against undoing the progress on women’s education and access to contraception.” Philip Collins picked the report up in The Times a couple of days later (17 July) and agreed that “a fertility rate has to be compatible with the right of women to run their own lives, the availability of contraception and abundant opportunities for women in the labour market.” The rest of his article pushes the case for more government-funded childcare.
It is easier to dismiss demographic problems in writing than in real life. True, the picture is much more varied than bald figures assume, and it is easy to be unaware of their full import. Those who come from thriving intact families and move in like circles create their own supportive networks. It is those who come from broken homes, who have failed to settle into permanent relationships and who have no children with whom they are in touch, for whom life and old age look bleak. In addition, in the UK and right across Europe, approaching 40-50% of families who do have children now have only one (Eurostat, Household Composition: Statistics Explained, May 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/pdfscache/ 29071.pdf). We are creating a future where single adults have no siblings, aunts, uncles, or cousins. The mind boggles at how the state is going to pick up the caring role for all these loose adults. It is not only the money. In the UK, we are already running out of staff for both nurseries and care homes and Covid has shown that there are medical as well as societal dangers in having staff moving from one place to the next.
The picture in the rest of the world is also more varied than may at first appear. A headteacher from Zambia, for instance, told me that in her country the fertility rate among professional people is similar to the West: it is only the poor and country people who are still breeding. In India, while the overall fertility rate is currently above replacement, in 13 of its 28 states and in 8 Union territories it is below (Marcus Roberts, “India’s Fertility Rate is Falling,” mercatornet.com, July 16 2020). It may not be long before poorer countries wish to retain their work forces and richer countries will be fighting for immigrants.
At the World Congress of Families in Verona in 2019, there were calls from international delegates for women to be given the freedom to choose to concentrate on a career or to concentrate on family life, or to combine the two. This must be right. Catho- lic education should keep this balance as the lodestar towards which girls are directed so that they are truly prepared for both roles and thus better able to make free and wise decisions.
André Gushurst Moore’s book on Benedictine education has got me thinking. Glory in All Things: Saint Benedict and Catholic Education Today is an inspiring read which I recommend to anyone involved in Catholic education. It is also opportune, having been published just before the Covid outbreak and the many questions people are now asking about how best to school the young.
Gushurst Morre writes of the education of “the mind and heart, of the body and the soul.” Boys and girls both need to understand their specific callings if they are to be given an “integrated vision of who man is and who he is called to be”, open to the “goodness, truth, and beauty of reality, such that a life in the Gospel is possible.” Getting this education right for girls is, however, especially important not least because, in many less developed countries, the fight is still on to open up opportunities for women. It would be a shame for poorer and more vulnerable people to pass through the mistakes that we have seen in the West.
Break the trend?
The reality is that in the UK today it is difficult for girls to break the trend and to marry and have children within their most fertile years. In 2017, Professor Adam Balen, as chairman of the British Fertility Society, was sufficiently worried to bring together a conference on the subject, including educators, doctors and government representatives. He cautioned that 20% of UK women would never have a child, up from 10% a generation ago. He further warned that women “do not have the control over their fertility that access to contraception might make them believe” and urged that young people be taught at school that the best time to think of starting a family is in their 20’s or early 30’s. He recognised that this would demand a major societal change but said that “the facts are too urgent to ignore.”
Presently, the position of Catholics in this is (sadly) hardly distinguishable from their secular counterparts and, even among Mass goers, many are more concerned for the environment than family. In his sermon at the 2020 Mass for Marriage, my own Bishop, Mark Davies, lamented that “we have strangely neglected the human ecology, so bound up with the well-being of marriage” and have also seen “an undervaluing of celibacy which …. stands in support of the true and faithful love of marriage.”
Gushurst-Moore describes how in earlier dark times St. Benedict’s vision helped to create our Christian culture and how it has continued to influence society until our present age. He draws on an impressive variety of sources to argue his case, but at its heart is St Benedict’s own Rule whosefaith.org.uk
wisdom continues to guide monks and laypeople alike. It proves to be a powerful tool in conveying to the young the truth, beauty, and goodness of vocation in Christ. Glory in All Things is beautifully crafted and a pleasure to read, but as I reached the end it occurred to me that there was something missing, and that was the subject of how to prepare girls for their specific role as women in the family and likewise boys in their specific role as men. The two are different from each other. The omission can be understood in that the Rule of St Benedict was devised for a male community of monks, but most Catholic schools today are mixed sex and most young people find their vocations within family life. It is not that Gushurst-Moore ignores marriage as a vocation – his last full chapter is on “Living” and speaks compellingly of its importance. Instead, I think it a reflects a long-standing absence in Catholic education, where a post Pill update of Edith Stein’s work On Woman is urgently called for (partnered, as she said it needed, by an equivalent for men). As it is, a vacuum of clear teaching about sexual roles has allowed all manner of harmful ideologies to slip in, almost unchallenged. The LGBTQ+ ideology stands out as the most influential, but I wonder if it is the most harmful.
Making the change
How does one make the change? Girls at leading Catholic schools expect to go on to university or other studies. They are just as talented as the boys alongside whom they work and are naturally drawn onto the long tramline of a professional qualification followed by a demanding career. The costs of housing can appear prohibitive, and young couples find themselves relying on dual incomes with every inducement to wait that little bit longer before taking the plunge into marriage and children. Richer, more educated couples are still marrying at some point: it is low earners at the bottom of society who are suffering the brunt of relationship and family breakdown with middle earners now following suit (Harry Benson, Marriage Foundation Blog, www.marriagefoundation.org.uk, 11 January 2019).
As secular researchers admit, delayed marriage has come about because of contraception. Without it, life would assume a different profile. In 2019, at a conference for the Association of Catholic Women, I argued that a prime way to reverse the trend is through making use of Relationships and Sex Education to educate the young in the truth and beauty of their fertility and so encourage them away from contraception and towards respect for chastity and natural methods of family planning. I continue to think this vital.
However, the compulsion towards earning a living and keeping pace in the modern world is so strong I think we need to go further than this.
The reason why girls face a particular tension in their career paths which boys do not face is because God has also given most the desire for an occupation of another kind: giving birth, caring for children and looking after their families and homes. Many will argue that women have always also worked on non-domestic tasks, and so they have. This creates arguments about home versus career, about the opportunities that women should have in the wider world, about equality and rights. Why should men not take an equal part in the caring roles of the home?
The argument falls because of biology and what Mary Harrington in a visceral article for Unherd calls “the physical reality of being, not a parent, but specifically a mother” (Mary Harrington, “How motherhood put an end to my liberalism”, Unherd, unherd.com, 9 October 2019). Her article echoes an extensive survey into what European mothers want, carried out by the Mouvement de Mères Mondial in 2011 (“What Matters to Mothers in Europe”, https://makemothersmatter.org,2011). Over 11,000 mothers responded and a repeated complaint was that nobody had warned them of how their priorities would change as soon as they had a child. Erika Bachiochi takes this argument further in her talk at Steubenville “On Vulnerability in the Mother-Child Dyad” (“On Vulnerability in the Mother-Child Dyad”, youtube.com, 19 June 2015). She claims that it is not men but Mother Nature which lays the heaviest burden of sex on women. She further explains that girls are not less capable of looking after themselves than boys, but in order to care for their dependent young, they are asked to sacrifice their autonomy, becoming themselves dependent on a protector and provider, the role given to men. This is, she argues, God’s design for family, in which interdependence and self-sacrifice fulfil the human desire for love. She points out that, in one way or another, autonomy is an illusion, and we are all dependent for most of our lives. She also makes the pertinent comment that our androgynous society tends to rate the masculine characteristics of competitiveness, assertiveness and autonomy over their feminine counterparts of nurturing, caretaking and selflessness, even though it is the latter that are especially prized in Christianity.
Most cultures have recognised the vulnerability of women to sex and have sought to protect unmarried girls. This is now considered old fashioned and unnecessary: “consent classes” take the place of segregated accommodation at colleges, and these have only been introduced because of the numbers of young women crying foul. Received wisdom is that the Pill has equalised the playing field and any girl worth her salt should know how to use assertiveness to protect herself. Such “wisdom” ignores the many failures of contraception, the fact that girls are the more susceptible to STDs and to psychological damage from casual sex, and that their bodies are asked to bear the brunt of contraception. More than ever boys and girls need to be taught how to understand themselves and each other before they leave school. This is not only for protection but so that they can enjoy full social lives together, make many friends and be ready for healthy permanent commitment when their turn comes.
The consequence of skewed priorities falls not only on women, but even more on children. Abortion rates continue to be shocking in our country with a growing number among older women who have already had children but who presumably do not want to burden their lives and delay their work with further births. It deprives the children that are born of the brothers and sisters whom God designs as playmates and lasting friends. It also deprives children of the nurture which science tells us is critical to their physical and emotion- al health, especially in the first three years of life. In her book Being There, the psycho- analyst Erica Komisar describes how nature has given mothers an exceptional role in the early years which cannot be fully taken by anybody else. Perhaps the mental health of UK children is deteriorating partly because they lack this maternal care? Komisar further comments that her US clients can struggle to rely on their husband’s money because they find it demeaning.
The fact is that care of our fellow human beings takes up a lot of time, and it is work of a type that can rarely be hurried. As a result, it will never be fully covered in the paid economy. Richer families can pay for help, but the crunch comes for the poor. How are they to divide themselves between paid jobs and their personal family responsibilities? Given that many of those who take on caring roles are women themselves, one is also faced with the ridiculous position whereby it is “a career” to look after somebody else’s child or grandmother, but “a waste of resources” looking after one’s own.
God must be telling us something in arrang- ing society in this way. I have a hunch that, apart from binding families together, it in- cludes strengthening us against the tempta- tion to trust in Mammon. We often connect the desire for wealth with luxuries, but the greater desire is for security, to feel self-re- liant, respected and in charge. By arranging family life so that much of our daily activity is carried out for love, God puts a check on us, helping us to keep material possessions in their place, as he does also by instructing us to rest from work and keep the Sabbath holy.
Here Gushurst-Moore’s book is very helpful. All the way through, he speaks of the importance of teaching the young that life is about much more than passing exams and making money. He describes what he calls the co-curriculum in which the hard work and enthusiasms of teachers and pupils can be harnessed for no reward other than satisfaction. Subjects include sport and the arts, but they also include unpaid service within the community. It would be easy to link this idea with what St Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, used to say about adult work more generally. Professionalism has nothing to do with pay. You can be as professional in your works of charity, or in your caring roles in the home, as you are in your paid job. We all need money to live, and it is honourable to earn a decent living to serve our families and society, but our worth as a person should never be rated by how much we earn. There are many phases in the course of a lifetime during which both men and women will work for free. Giving young people this sense of balance, and that all their labours are first and foremost offerings to God, would do much to ease the tension between career and family life.
It is family which is both the first cell of society and God’s intended model for all societal relationships. Within the family, the masculine and the feminine are most clearly revealed.
Each family member shares a like dignity and importance, but in a unique and irreplaceable way. You would not dream of giving a toddler the same rights and responsibilities as the father, or as the 7-year-old, the 13-year-old or the 21-year-old who has left for university. The demands parents make of one child will be unsuited to the character of another, while we all enjoy the differences between boys and girls from the moment they are born. Transferring the idea of family to society as a whole comes naturally to Benedictine education, and it is here that I think Gushurst-Moore’s book has riches to offer. In his chapter on “Leadership”, which is based on the role of abbot as laid out in The Rule, he points out that the very word Abbot comes from Abba “Father” or more accurately “Daddy”. To run a family well takes skills of leadership but it is a leadership of self-sacrifice and service, the same skills that are needed to run a business well, or an association, or a country or a society of any kind. The skills forged in the home and in the Catholic school can then be transferred to of any sort of establishment, big or small, but always with the same demands of love, discipline and humility that should be the hallmark of Christian discipleship.
Whole societies are going to see marked changes in the years to come. This is the time to prepare for those changes, and for Catholic schools to take a confident lead at the vanguard of education.
Louise Kirk is working on a UK edition of Infant School resources for Alive to the World, alivetotheworld.org. She is also the author of “Sexuality Explained: a Guide for Parents and Children”.