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August 25, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — One of my favorite Twitter accounts is that of Katherine Birbalsingh (@Miss_Snuffy), the Headteacher of an experimental school in a deprived part of London, Michaela Community School. The experiment involves conveying knowledge to the children in an environment in which teachers and pupils do not live in constant fear of being assaulted. Naturally, this is an almost unique experiment, and she is constantly attacked by the progressive teaching establishment. There are precedents for her approach, however, and she expressed her dismay when one of these, the American Charter School chain KIPP, explained that in light of the Black Lives Matter movement that it had decided to change its motto and discipline policy. It explained:
We are retiring “Work hard. Be nice.” as KIPP’s national slogan; it ignores the significant effort required to dismantle systemic racism, places value on being compliant and submissive, supports the illusion of meritocracy, and does not align with our vision of students being free to create the future they want.
The obvious response to this statement is that if children cling to an attitude of angry non-cooperation toward their teachers, they are not going to learn anything or do well in any exams, and if they start off in deprivation, then they will stay there. KIPP, like Miss Birbalsingh’s school, has as its mission lifting children out of poverty and desperation, and if the school is giving up on that, this is a tragedy.
Sometimes a bit of angry non-cooperation may be appropriate. St. Clement Hofbauer denounced the heresy he was being taught in Vienna from the lecture room benches. But his experience wasn’t entirely an exception to the general principle: he lost his chance of getting ordained in Austria, although he was able to join the Redemptorists in Italy.
The more fundamental contrast is this. St. Clement was, like many orthodox seminarians since his time, protesting against the misrepresentation of the teaching of the Church, a misrepresentation being pushed by an anti-clerical cultural and political establishment: the version of this in his day was “Josephism.” The suggestion, being made in all seriousness by KIPP, and many educationalists responding to Miss Birbalsingh on Twitter, is that self-discipline, classical culture, and even correct English usage is bad, and so children, who may well have lots of things to be angry about, should be told by the cultural and political establishment to be angry about being taught those things.
I don’t think this is a conscious attempt by the elite to keep the underclass in its place, but if it were, it would be pretty effective.
Is old-fashioned school discipline a training in deference to the existing order? History does not suggest this. Great revolutionaries, both intellectual and political, usually had good, classical educations — in many cases, in fact, at the hands of Catholic teachers. This education gave them a grasp of how the establishment works and made them articulate and effective rebels against it — sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad. The French and Russian revolutionaries, for example, were people who could write convincingly and do sums.
The example of St. Clement Hofbauer should remind us of something else as well: that even a successful formation in Christian humility shouldn’t turn people into doormats. Reading the Life of St Bernard of Clairvaux in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, I was struck by this statement:
True humility removes a soul as far from pusillanimity and abjection as from pride and presumption; for it teaches a man to place his whole strength in God alone. Hence sprang that greatness of soul and undaunted courage …
St. Bernard was no shrinking violet. Similarly, Moses, the meekest of all men (Num. 12.3), and Jesus Christ, who tells us to learn of him to be meek and humble of heart (Mt. 11.39), were capable of anger and even violence.
At this point, we may have to modify our conception of what meekness and humility really mean. They mean not asserting ourselves or seeking our own good at the expense of others. The meek and humble man should be filled with zeal for God’s honor (John 2:17) and anger against injustice toward human beings (Mark 3:5). The proud man cares more for his own reputation and comfort and takes up good causes only as a cover for advancing his own interests. The soldier’s first lesson is not to place excessive importance in his own safety, and this makes him a model for the Christian.
Classical education doesn’t turn people into robots all running the same program. Cooperation with it, inasmuch as it is still being offered in schools, is not a matter of conceding to structures of injustice, but of encountering cultural artifacts that, while always imperfect, are good in themselves, and gaining the tools necessary to do anything useful in life, including dismantling structures of injustice. In the words of Katherine Birbalsingh, “I will die on this hill!”