Armagh minus Armani;Opinion

12th March 1999 at 00:00
CATHOLIC EDUCATION:Inside OutOutside In. Edited by James C Conroy. Lindisfarne Books pound;12.99.

Chris Arthur finds a home-spun catechism on the contribution of Catholic schooling short on style

AN epigraph should say, in a few words, something that sums up the essence of the work it prefaces. This book begins with Paul Muldoon's intriguing remark: "You can take the man out of Armagh, but you may ask yourself, can you take the Armagh out of the man in the big Armani suit?" However, rather than offering a deft pointer towards the heart of the matter, the connection between Muldoon's (excellent) question and the rest of the book is gnomic, to say the least. The fact that it is referenced as "in Hay (1998)", and that there is no mention of such a work in the bibliography, also suggests a certain carelessness.

Several of the contributors note the recent increase in public interest concerning Catholic education. In such a climate, it is good to have a collection of essays that look at the subject in a wide-ranging manner, identifying reasons for its new-found prominence and discussing some of the issues it raises.

The book had its origin in the annual lectures hosted by St Andrew's College to mark Education Week in the Scottish Catholic Church. It has the expected strengths (diversity of approach) and weaknesses (absence of linear development) that one expects from any volume of collected pieces by diverse hands.

There are some first-rate contributions likely to be of interest to anyone concerned not just with Catholic education but, more generally, with the relationship between religion and education. John Hull's paper on "Spiritual Education, Religion and Money", for example, contains thought-provoking observations on what many see as the tutelary deity of the age. As Hull says, "money is the outstanding fetish of our society, and like all fetishes it manifests a concentrated erotic or numinous power".

His claim that "forms of self-deception" often constitute the Christian response to encountering the culture of "money spirituality" suggests some interesting links with Alex Rodger's comment that to be Christian is more important than to be a Christian - "to be accurately described as the latter is no guarantee of the former". Rodger's distinction between "shell" and "inner reality" is a reminder of the considerable gulfs there can be between people's behaviour (fiscal, educational and otherwise) and what they say their religious beliefs are.

James Conroy's comments about the "distinctive contribution Catholic education has to make to the polity through the deployment of laughter" contain some fascinating insights into the relationship between humour and religion, though it is more of a theoretical prolegomena than a practical syllabus.

A teacher looking for ways to promote the sort of "playful laughter" he has in mind will find few clues here.

Likewise, although John Haldane draws attention to the key role played by converts to Catholicism in what he terms "higher thought and culture", although James Macmillan's perspective on inspiration offers welcome insight into his musical thinking and although Albert Price's educational creed outlines an interesting vision statement, it is often hard to connect these and the book's other deliberations with the actual practice of Catholic schooling.

Moreover, it is disappointing, particularly given the enormous contribution Catholic scholarship has made to this area, that so little mention is made of non-Christian religions. The contributors may talk of the third millennium, and (very hesitantly) of postmodernism, but nowhere does the book really come to grips with the globalising forces that have done so much to shape the contours of the cultural, political and financial realities in which education now takes place.

Nor does it engage with one of the most notable religious consequences of these processes, namely our awareness of many varieties of faith. (What little mention is made of non-Christian religions is more than a little suspect; see, for example, David Carr's comments on "polytheisms".) Obviously no single collection could address all the issues raised by a critical consideration of this complex and controversial subject. However, it is disappointing that no attempt is made to link the debate about Catholic education to the emerging discussion about Muslim schools. And although Lagan College, flagship of Northern Ireland's integrated education movement, is briefly mentioned by Malcolm Mackenzie, with the suggestion that such schools might usefully be set up in parts of Scotland, this point is not taken up by other contributors or developed to the extent that its importance warrants.

It is also disconcerting to find two chapters presented as "phenomenological" approaches, with no indication of what type of phenomenology they claim to demonstrate (something not evident from either their style or content).

In short, whether from Armagh or elsewhere, readers are unlikely to view this book as offering Armani-quality cladding to its subject. It is much more homespun and piecemeal.

Chris Arthur is in the department of theology and religious studies, University of Wales at Lampeter.

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