3/2/2010 Education in the 21st Century

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National Library of Ireland Society

If Newman were around today – reflections on higher education in the 21st Century

Speaking notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland

National Library, 3rd February 2010
        There are many things I would like to speak about this evening, but there is one thing that I feel might better be kept hidden: my knowledge of Latin.   I did sit at the feet of Prof. John O’Meara in the early sixties as I had to take Latin in my first year in UCD.  I have a feeling that Prof. O’Meara never came to look on me as one of his better students and if that was the case I believe that Prof. O’Meara had got it right.

       Later in life I was sent to Rome where lectures were given in Latin but interestingly there was a strong movement to abolish the use of Latin and this movement was led by Italians.  I had indeed hoped that my Latin would be a help for me to learn Italian, but I found that Latin and modern Italian are not quite as close as I had imagined.  Arriving in Rome, without a word of Italian, I tried to instruct the taxi driver in Latin but without much progress in arriving at my destination.

       Curiously my Latin did help me when I began to study German, not because of any similarity in vocabulary but because of the manner in which I was taught both languages was on the basis of the rules of grammar, rather than as language as a means for communications and for entering into a different culture.

When I began to study theology in Dublin times had begun to change in Catholic theology.  Our Latin text books, after Vatican II, were beginning to gather dust and the flood of new theology came from Europe and America written or translated into English.  Professor O’Meara probably noted with horror a decline in the interest in Latin on the part of ecclesiastical students at that time.  And once again his horror may not have been far off the mark.

       Arriving in Rome I found that the enthusiasm for Vatican II was not of the same intensity in the Roman Universities.  I signed up for what looked like an interesting course – in Latin – on the Ecclesiology of Vatican II only to find that the most used phrase in the course by a French Dominican was to be “Concilium Vaticanum Primum”.   You did not need much Latin to know in which direction he was looking.

       I thought this evening that I would begin some random reflections on third level education today with the figure of John Henry Newman, who will hopefully be beatified by Pope Benedict later this year during his visit to Britain.  I do so because Newman was someone who understood change and development.

       Newman and his idea of a University are linked especially with this city where Newman attempted to put into practice his ideas of liberal education at the Catholic University. 

       The debate about the place of Catholics in education in Ireland had developed especially around the time of Catholic Emancipation and immediately after.  It is interesting that the Archbishop of Dublin at the time, Daniel Murray, was the only Irish bishop open to the National School system and to the attendance of Catholics at the Queens College.  He would not have considered a Catholic University a necessity.   There is material for an interesting “what if” discussion if Murray’s line had been followed.

       The other bishops and especially Murray’s successor, Cardinal Paul Cullen, felt that the only way to ensure real possibility for Catholics to take part equitably in university education was to establish a Catholic University.

       It was to Cardinal Cullen’s credit that he chose as the first Rector of that University someone who was quite different to himself and whose experience of university was quite the opposite of his.  Newman had come out of Oxford; Cullen had been Rector of Propaganda University in Rome, which was effectively the teaching arm of a seminary.   But Cullen had no hesitation in calling the leading intellectual and educationalist of English-speaking Catholicism to take on the task of being the first Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland.   Cullen wanted the Catholic University to be a prestige project, even if it was to be clearly a denominational project.

       Newman responded in his own way.  Whereas Archbishop Daniel Murray was less worried about the challenges that Catholics would encounter in a secular university, Newman understood that Catholic culture had to be open to the field of scientific research within in a broad humanist context.  Newman had no ambition to make his Catholic University any less than a true university.
       For various reasons the project was to fail.  Newman’s University was not recognised civilly.  Cullen became anxious.  The differences between Cullen and Newman began to grow.  Newman was unhappy not to find to find a pool of Irish intellectuals who would become the building block of his university.  No wonder, I might add, since Irish Catholics had for generations had only limited access to higher education.  

Newman never really settled in Dublin; his interest was torn between Dublin and the Oratory in Birmingham.  He had few friends in Ireland.  Earlier this year I celebrated the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Archdiocese of Brisbane, where the first Bishop, Dr James Quinn, was from Dublin.  Quinn had lived in Harcourt Street where Newman was a neighbour.  Newman wrote about his isolation in Dublin and recalled the kindness of Dr Quinn, who he said often invited him.  Newman noted that Quinn was learned and that the conversation at his table was stimulating, but that however “his mutton is very tough”.

       The heritage of Newman’s University was taken over by the Queens Colleges and then effectively by University College Dublin, which emerged, one might say, as the “appropriate” university for Catholics to attend as opposed to Trinity College which was a protestant foundation.  But there was interaction between the Universities. My archives show that my predecessor Archbishop Walsh and the Provost of Trinityhad much interaction.

The sharp hostility against Trinity which was enshrined in the norms which prohibited Catholics to attend Trinity without the explicit permission of the Archbishop of Dublin, came only at a later stage.   At the same time as this sharpening of hostility to Trinity was emerging, there was also a gradual tendency to attempt to make UCD a de facto Catholic University in the narrow sense.   This was interestingly something which the first chancellor of the NUI, the then Archbishop of Dublin, William J. Walsh, had attempted explicitly to avoid. Walsh respected the independence of the university, recognising its Catholic roots and composition, but always refused to “baptise” it.  

From the mid-fifties of the last century onwards a different vision of Ireland began to emerge where religious differences were to play a lesser role in higher education.  Times were changing.  Vatican II constituted a major change in Irish culture.  But it is today perhaps hard to understand just how momentous the cultural change and its consequences were in the context of the time.  The idea of a merger between UCD and Trinity was something that was hard for many to fathom.  People had been trained to look on both institutions as unsuitable partners for marriage and those who were in favour of even examining the question were not looked on with favour, certainly by the earlier occupants of my residence.

Religion and education have been intertwined in Irish education policy for centuries and the pendulum has swung in various directions as people reacted to changing positions.  There is a real danger when educational policy is decided on the basis of reaction.  I am on record as saying that today Ireland needs a National Forum on Education in which we can take the time to look at what we really want regarding the future of education and take time to listen to all the stakeholders and not just to occasional opinion polls. We need vision in education.  Vision however does not fit easily into the pragmatism generated by economic turn down.  Education policy, I believe, cannot afford to loose that dimension of vision.

It is hard to understand current Irish educational policy outside its historical evolution.   In the course of the years since the late 1900’s the pendulum has moved from an intended secular system, to one in which patronage of religious bodies in primary schools became the norm.  As this situation consolidated, there was an entrenchment not just of catholic education but of a Catholic education system dominated by clerics and religious orders, with little reference to the rights of parents.   I remember in my own youth being puzzled by talk of the primary rights and duties of patents regarding the Catholic education of their children, while in effect my parents had no say in anything about school policy and were never invited to anything in the school but fund raising.  Not that I was particularly enthusiastic to see my parents anywhere near the school.

In higher education the entrenchment in the position against Trinity College and a gradual Catholic take over of the ethos of UCD, gave way first to a new ecumenical understanding and then slowly to a greater secularisation of the culture of both universities.

What will be the relationship between Church and education in the future, not just in an institutional framework, but in the dialogue between faith and reason?  Will a new Ireland necessarily privatise religion altogether or will there be a new understanding of how faith and reason can engage with each other in a modern pluralist society? 

  There is of course a danger that one might overly simplify the reality of the New Ireland.  Ireland has changed and Ireland will continue to change.  Today’s New Ireland may not be the New Ireland of the next generation.  Ireland today is still hankering back to its recent extra-ordinary economic success and the changes that prosperity has brought.  Great advances have taken place but we now know that it was presumptuous to expect continuous growth and uninterrupted prosperity.

We realise the need for austerity and cut-backs in spending; we realise that our social services will have to overhauled to address the new vulnerable; we talk about the need to replace a culture of greed with a culture of solidarity.  Yet effectively we may actually be unconsciously attempting to keep greed and add solidarity. It is unfortunate that the need for major reforms in our education system is becoming more obvious precisely at a moment in which the money is not there to translate them into practice.  Indeed it will be even difficult to keep our existing educational system properly in place.   

Where does the Church fit into this changing face of education in Ireland.  I must be careful not inadvertently to convey the impression that the Church is somehow reactive or passive in relation to society.  The impression might be given that society is changing and that the Church is in the business of catching up.  This would not do justice to the much more subtle understanding that is required to adequately describe the relationship of Church and society. 

It is necessary to recall that the Church has also contributed directly to the New Ireland.  The quality of Irish education has often been identified as a key factor in the transformation of the Irish economy in the last decade or so.  The role of the Church in the delivery of primary and secondary education establishes it as an agent as well as the object of change in Ireland.  The well established commitment of the Irish people to the developing world, which has found a very welcome expression in the high level of funding of development aid by the Irish Government and voluntary organizations, owes much to our long tradition of Church missionary activity.  Various Church groups and organisations have been involved in the partnership process which undoubtedly in its time made a critical contribution to our economic development.

Theologically seen, it is in the nature of the Church that it must always seek to make itself new.  The New Church cannot be the product of a marketing makeover intended to recapture market share or to present an image of a Church putting its difficulties behind it but must be forged in fidelity to its mission to bring the timeless Good News of Jesus Christ to a new generation who live in an Ireland that is very different from the Ireland of the past.  The message of Jesus is unchanging, it is a message that continues to speak of God’s unconditional love for all people; the Church, which is called to proclaim that message and to make Jesus present in every age, must always be in the process of renewing itself to ensure that it can be an effective teacher of and witness to that message.  And sadly that has not always been the case.

There is, obviously, a further question that lies in the background here.  What place will there be in a New Ireland for God?  Is de facto atheism the new default position for all.  I would again take a theological perspective on this question.  Christian anthropology, the Christian understanding of what it means to be human, begins from the insight that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God: this is seen as a universal truth about our nature and does not depend on whether humans themselves recognise God or not.  To be human, therefore, is to exist in relation to God whether one believes or not.  Having being created in the image and likeness of God, it is rooted in our human nature that we should desire to be loved and to love. 

As a Church leader, in the face of the current climate of change and shame which the Catholic Church is experiencing, it is this insight that gives me absolute confidence that the core message of the Gospel will continue to resonate in the hearts of the citizens of this New Ireland, and the next New Ireland and of any New Ireland of the future.  In the face of the particular challenges that I have to face as Archbishop of Dublin I still retain my optimism, although at times, as you can imagine, it is not easy.

The Church has drifted in so many ways away from the fundamental revelation that God is love and that the basic command of Jesus is that we should love one another and that we should express that love in the service of our neighbour, especially our poorest neighbour.  It is this fundamental tenet of Christian belief that offers to us all a way of living that will enable us to be fully human and society to flourish.

There has been a sporadic debate in Ireland for a number a years centring on whether Ireland has lost its soul.  At the heart of that debate are the foundational questions of what it means to be human and the ultimate purpose of life.  The fear being expressed by those who are raising the possibility that Ireland may have lost its soul is more than a fear about the lose of influence of the Church or about lower levels of religious practice but the fear that Irish society has become overly materialistic and that more fundamental human needs for love and for unconditional acceptance cannot be addressed by material goods. 

If financial success and the lifestyle that goes with such success were to become the dominant criteria for evaluating a person’s worth then we would be sending a very dangerous message to young people, a message that would in the final analysis undermine many of our most important civic values.  A person who loses his or her soul has ceased to be human: a society without a soul would be inhuman.
I do not believe that Ireland has lost its soul.  There is too much goodness and generosity to be found in many different sections of Irish society, within and outside the Church, to come to that conclusion.  It is necessary, however, that we recognise that the ethos of self-giving, volunteerism and good neighbourliness which contributes so much to the well-being of Irish society would be threatened if our growing preoccupation with wealth and consumerism were to lead people to a more calculating concern for their own individual interests.  Ireland has not lost its soul, but it must continually search to find and understand that soul.
What are the most important characteristics of the New Ireland where the Church, which must always be in renewal – in the process of rinnovamento e aggiornamento to use the buzzwords of Vatican II, is called to proclaim the message of Jesus?   What are the characteristics of the New Ireland that could be said to offer a fertile ground for the Gospel?  The French Canadian theologian, Rene Latourelle, spoke of “points of insertion” for the Gospel.  Where are the “points of insertion” in Irish society?  Where are people most receptive to the message of the Gospel?  What are the moments in the lives of individuals where they are most in need of the words and presence of Jesus?  Are there such collective moments when the Church may have something unique to say to the nation?  What are the characteristics of the New Ireland that make it particularly difficult to speak of God and to touch the hearts of Irish men and women?

Our pluralist New Ireland needs a new theory of pluralism.  Our young people need to be helped to attain the science of intellectual searching and dialogue on the deeper questions for life and society. The young person in the New Ireland is called to grow towards responsibility within the realities of the culture of the day, influenced by ideas, by life styles, by the basic self-understanding of this concrete society.  The young person must learn how to discern within that world where true progress is to be found in his or her own personal life and in society as a whole.  At the same time, the young person has to learn that society is not an abstraction or a force which is absolutely determinant regarding his or her own values and life style.   Education will take place in a particular context, but all of us have the ability and indeed the responsibility to change the context within which education can take place.

This challenge of discernment and verification of values begins for young people today at a much younger age than heretofore.   It occurs at a moment in which parents and teachers today often feel that their efforts are not having success.   It is very often precisely at this age that many loose their nerve in speaking with young people about faith.   In such a situation it is easy to revert to playing safe.  Yet faith requires risk; enhancing freedom entails risk. Rather than engaging in dialogue with young people, people can feel that it is best to leave it up the young person alone to find his or her way regarding faith. 

Parents loose their nerve, perhaps also because the Church has let them down by providing very few services to help them in their task or because society adopts a policy of hostility or at best agnosticism to the fundamental questions about truth.  A society which looses the nerve to educate can easily find itself adrift.

A truly pluralist, multi-cultural society will be genuinely tolerant and respectful to all forms of search for the truth.  It has to do so not within the cultural of the past, but in the context of the new challenges and opportunities of today. 

This model of dialogue between faith and reason requires a mature secularism, rather than a type of adolescent secularism which finds it hard to break roots with its religion of the past or which reject its past with the aggressivity of the adolescent. Irish secularism still has a strange need to occasionally be blessed.

I believe that the place where this mature dialogue must begin and can begin is in the University.  That is the task of the university today just as it was in Newman’s’ time.   Universities must themselves defend their specific vocation.

We still have a long way to go in Ireland in this area.  We need a new style of Christian leadership.  Church leadership will have to regain something of the confidence of both Archbishop Murray and of Newman.  Murray stressed that Catholics should not be over fearful about developing their faith in a more pluralist or even hostile environment.  Newman felt that his faith and his Catholicism could be strong and clearly identified, and still be a partner with others in the search for truth.

In Ireland we are still living with some of the anachronisms of history in our educational system.  I believe that these anachronisms can be addressed and must be addressed. But they cannot be addressed one by one in separation from each other.  The role of the Church in education  must return to how the Church actually defines it own role, responding to the rights and duties of parents and being present in a cultural dialogue in society in a manner which springs from the realities of faith.

Secular Irish society also has some soul searching about the manner in which it must follow its own definition of pluralism.  Pluralism does not mean side-by-side cohabitation of different viewpoints in society, but openness and dialogue and respect and indeed working together on common projects and liking each other and indeed liking each other.   It is interesting that today that as the successor University to Newman’s becomes more secular, it has become less timid about it being identified as the successor to Newman’s Catholic University project.

All of this requires one extra ingredient which is vital for the future of third level education in Ireland and of educational policy in general.  That is politics.  The just ordering of society and the State is the central responsibility of politics.  Pope Benedict noted in his first Encyclical that:  “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State”

But he also adds that at the same time the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply”.
Newman set out a vision of University whose validity is a strong today as in the nineteenth century.  I hope that in this year of Newman’s beatification that vision will receive renewed attention.  But if that attention remained in the level of lip-service, then I for one will be disappointed.  We all need to talk to each other about the future of education.  Dialogue damages no one.