Have faith that we'll learn to respect each other's views

30th November 2012 at 00:00
Leaders should discuss the common good, not focus on their differences of opinion

During a recent conversation with a leading academic, the professor of education lamented that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was continually "shooting itself in the head". Certainly, recent headlines proclaiming Cardinal O'Brien to be a "bigot" are unwelcome. The hierarchy has the difficult task of proclaiming gospel values to a largely unbelieving, secular society. But, perhaps, in the world of education we can lend a helping hand.

Having just completed an MSc dissertation for the University of Oxford about developing dialogic skills for inter-faith dialogue, two points struck home.

The first pertained to the review of the literature. The Catholic Church firmly insists that dialogue should be authentic and respectful and, indeed, Catholics can "profit from this dialogue by learning to appreciate better those elements of truth and grace which are found among peoples, and which are, as it were, a secret presence of God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994).

The second point was witnessing this truth being realised in conversations undertaken by the 20 S3 and S4 pupils engaged in the action research. Ten Catholic pupils were in paired conversations with their peers - five of whom declared themselves to be atheists - and four agnostics.

The evidence clearly demonstrated that all of the pupils adopted a deep approach to their learning through cumulative talk and exploratory talk.

It appears that, in comparison with adults, the younger generation is more open to heeding the advice of Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Universal Church, that one should recognise and accept the "rightness" and "truth" within another's argument. As the conversations took place, the pupils were less concerned with manipulating arguments in order to succeed. Rather, they adopted a Thomist approach of taking seriously their friends' counter-arguments and recognising the elements of truth within them.

Can this friendly reality at the microscopic level of classrooms not be writ large at the macroscopic level of Scottish education?

A suitable starting point for such critical, friendly discussion could be the desire of democracies to create "successful businesses, jobs and prosperity" (Scottish Executive 2002). At the heart of this desire is a need to create enterprise. Aquinas would recognise enterprise as solertia, which is a necessary pre-requisite of the cardinal virtue of practical wisdom.

Rather than banner headlines about disagreements between Cardinal O'Brien and first minister Alex Salmond, we may be treated to photographs of smiling politicians and churchmen discussing the common good of creating an enterprising Scotland in which the virtue of practical wisdom flourishes among its young people. Or is this too much to ask?

Antony Luby is a chartered teacher of Roman Catholic RE in Aberdeen.

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