A reflection for Catholic Schools Sunday

‘NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.’   These are the opening words of Thomas Gradgrind, at the beginning of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. It is a grim model of education for a machine-like world driven by economic imperatives.  Imagination, human relationships and play have no place here.  The children before Gradgrind are empty little vessels, simply waiting to be filled with their daily quota of facts.

Contrast an alternative. In the Book of Proverbs (8.22 ff) Wisdom appears as a person, a woman, present at the side of the God who makes the world.   We see her ‘playing before him all the while, playing on the surface of the earth’.  We hear her say ‘I found delight in the children of humankind’.  It seems to me that this passage captures something deep about what education and especially Christian education should be about, far removed from Gradgrind’s ‘facts’. Wisdom delights us and delights to be with us.  She mediates a relationship between us and the created world, our creator, and our fellow human beings.   Wisdom is practical and creative, a builder, a craftswoman, and she is so, because she uses her imagination, and plays.

The best of education throughout the ages has this character of creative freedom.  We find it is relationship and moments of insight that delight us and draw us to deeper exploration.  Most of us, when we reflect on the teachers who have made a difference to us can recognize this.  How hard it is, though, to build it into the daily routine of a nationwide education system.  Every child in every school learns, not simply because they have to, but because they have been inspired to want to know more?  How?   Learning a language, deepening understanding of the natural world, mastering a craft (or an instrument or a sport) helps each child become a rounded human being, a virtuous citizen?  How can this be?

Governments around the world are under pressure to produce measurable results that ‘prove’ they are educating a workforce to meet the economic imperatives of the coming decades.  Teachers get intimidated by targets and become anxious as new teaching strategies push them beyond their comfort-zone.   Passive resistance prevents change that could transform lives for the better.  Students come to see exams or degrees as mere currency, valued according to their usefulness in the job market.  In all of this education gets squeezed back into its lowest form, information-processing.  We return to Gradgrind’s ‘Facts’ and the rows of empty vessels waiting to be filled.

Perhaps all of us involved in education in one way or another – teachers, parents, students, politicians – need to meet Wisdom again for ourselves and rediscover that presence of creativity and delight.   We need reminding that we are not engaged in a soulless, mechanical process, but working in a relationship with human beings in a service whose value has no price.  We are passing on the great gift we have received, the Wisdom that creates, transforms and delights in our world.

Fr John Moffatt SJ
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