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Catholic Primary Education: Facing New Challenges

24 July, 2012

182 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie

cathprimedThe essays in this book debate the current issues surrounding Catholic primary education in Ireland. In the first chapter presented here Michael Cronin argues for a radical critique of what he calls ‘post-boom’ Ireland. Neo-liberal economists advocated a radically free market, maximum consumption, free trade, business friendly tax policies and a light touch regulatory environment. This has brought about a market totaliarianism that has a systemic grip of both global and local economics. So today in Ireland all goals and policies have become subordinated to market sustainability. Values such as empathy – doing to others what you would want do to you – and the fair treatment of all citizens, especially children and the vulnerable no longer get a hearing. It’s not just that corrupt bankers or politicians are milking the system for their own advancement: the system itself is caught in a bind that is not amenable to correction or reform. It is frightening. He advocates resistance to this situation. We need in Ireland to get out from under this market totaliarianism and look towards a radical politics of self-reliance, responsibility, social justice, and hope.


Introduction – Catholic Primary Education: Facing New Challenges – Eugene Duffy
1. Educate that you might be free? Religion and Critical Thinking in Post-Boom Ireland – Michael Cronin
2. Catholic Education and the Primary School in the Twenty-First Century – Dermot A. Lane
3. The Catholic Church’s Current Thinking on Educational Provision – Bishop Donal Murray
4. The Catholic Church and Primary Education in Ireland: An Historical Perspective – Tony Lyons
5. How Catholic Primary School Education is Organised, Managed and Delivered in Sydney, Australia  – Kelvin Canavan
6. The Provision of Catholic Primary Education in Scotland – Roisín Coll
7. Providing Catholic Primary Education in Ireland: The Patron’s Perspective – Bishop Leo O’Reilly
8. Managing the Catholic Primary School in Contemporary Ireland – Maria Spring
9. Catholic Primary Education: A Parent’s Perspective – Ciana Campbell
10. What is it to be a Learning Society? Exploring a New Horizon for Catholic Education – David Tuohy


Catholic primary schools have been an integral part of parish life in Ireland for long over one hundred years and have been maintained with relative stability through significant social and political change. However, in the past few years their role and identity have been more critically questioned than at any time since the nineteenth century. There are approximately 3,400 primary schools in the country, comprising 92 per cent of educational provision at that level, serving about 1,360 parishes. These are remarkable figures by international standards. The economic boom that occurred from the late 1990s until recently saw a real change in the demographic make-up of the country. New immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia have changed the racial, ethnic and religious profile of most schools in the country. Over the same period levels of participation in church life have declined dramatically, so that the role the parish schools previously played in supporting parents in the faith formation of their children can no longer be assumed to be operative in all cases. The demands of business and industry are responded to more immediately now than in the past, so that a more utilitarian or instrumentalist view of education is beginning to take hold. Such an approach is a serious challenge to the Catholic view of education, one that is much more holistic and more open to the development of a child’s spiritual and moral development. Finally, some political agendas are seeking to determine a less majoritarian role for the Catholic Church in educational provision, a view not necessarily shared by all citizens. It is against the background of these considerations that the current collection of essays is being offered.

In response to some of these societal changes, the Minister of Education and Skills, Mr Ruairi Quinn, established a Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, in April 2011, to prepare a report on primary school patronage with a view to establishing how and where it aught to be possible to create greater diversity in primary school provision. He deemed this important because the vast majority of all primary schools in the State are under Catholic patronage, which is an anomalous situation given the demographic profile of the primary school population. However, as the research carried out by the Catholic Schools Partnership has pointed out, patronage is not a concept widely understood by parents: ethos and the teaching of religious education are identified as the defining elements of the Church’s involvement in primary education. This is but one example of the complexity facing anyone attempting to understand or to reform the current situation. The reality of faith-based schools is multi-faceted and there is no single issue, which if addressed, will provide an easy or neat solution to the perceived problems of the moment.

The Irish Episcopal Conference, also recognising the complexity of the current situation, issued a joint pastoral in May 2008, entitled Vision 08, in which the bishops set out their vision for Catholic education in Ireland into the future. In the opening paragraph of that document they acknowledged that the role of the Church in education has become an issue of intense debate, North and South, especially because of the growing cultural and religious pluralism on the island. Some of these issues made national headlines over the past few years as Catholic primary schools in the greater Dublin area were unable to cope with the numbers of children seeking enrolment and criteria for admission came under scrutiny. At the same time there are many primary schools in rural parts of the country with significant numbers of non-Christian pupils, thus presenting new challenges to teachers, pastoral carers and boards of management. In Northern Ireland the issue of denominational education has been regularly debated over the past forty years. Debate, too, has been taking place around the role of the Churches in education in Britain and France in recent years as the wider debate about the place and role of religion in public life has resurfaced with fresh intensity. Although secularisation may appear to be the dominant mood, religion and its concerns have proven to be remarkably resilient.

Since the foundation of the State the Churches and various religious congregations have played an enormously significant role in the field of education as teachers, principals, managers and trustees of our schools, often making huge financial investments in the enterprise. Over several decades there has been a gradual and almost imperceptible change going on here, so that now there are very few religious personnel involved directly in the day to day life of schools.

In the past there were so many clergy and religious involved in educational provision that they and others could assume that they were indeed providing a Catholic education for their pupils. For the most part, what was meant by a Catholic education did not have to be spelled out in any great detail. A quick look at the school environment and the timetable would soon inform you of the fact that you were in a Catholic school. Most of the teaching staff, too, were committed to their faith and, like the majority of other members of the Church, were largely unquestioning of its authority.

We are now in an entirely different situation and it has become more urgent for the Church to spell out more precisely what it means to be a Catholic school. The old assumptions no longer hold. The case for a Catholic school, or indeed any denominational school, has to be more persuasively made. This is what the bishops were doing in their brief pastoral letter in 2008. In fact, their pastoral may be seen as an initial contribution to this task, as it ends with an invitation to begin a wider conversation among all the partners in education, so that the role of the Catholic school might be better articulated and understood.

This debate about the future of Catholic education in Ireland is an important one for both Church and society. On the one hand, the Church and its educational mission cannot be merged uncritically into the dominant agendas of the wider society. On the other hand, it cannot attempt to create an enclave that insulates itself from society and thus become a sectarian enterprise. It needs to be able to articulate what is its distinctive contribution to education and the common good. The argument has to be made as to why it deserves its place in the educational enterprise. A genuinely Catholic education can never deny the person an opportunity to explore what is genuinely human, whether the issue is discussed by the humanities or the hard sciences. Neither can it deny the person an opportunity to explore issues of meaning and value, faith and conviction. A genuinely tolerant society will see the value of supporting such an exploration as it will allow all of its members to enhance their own self-understanding and their understanding of their fellow citizens.

As a response to the invitation issued by the bishops in their pastoral letter, Vision 08, the McAuley Conference held at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, in May 2009 addressed the issue of ‘Catholic Primary Education: Facing New Horizons’. The current collection of essays represents some of the papers presented at the Conference as well as a number of others that have been specially commissioned for this volume. The essays here do not propose to cover all of the issues that are currently being debated in the public forum. Nevertheless, they do address some of the key issues that have to be considered by anyone who wishes to be informed about the provision of primary education within a faith-based context.

The topics covered include some broad discussion about the very nature of education and the challenges it faces in a society so preoccupied by economics and technology and in danger of losing sight of its more deeply rooted values of truth, freedom and empathy. This is followed by an exploration of the rationale for the Church’s involvement in educational provision, especially in the light of its official teaching. This is further amplified by an exploration of the nature of, and challenges to, the Catholic Primary School in twenty-first century Ireland, taking into account current Irish and European legislation and directives in this area. In order to give further context to the reflections, a brief history of the Church’s involvement in primary education in Ireland is provided, as well as two points of comparison, one from Australia and the other from Scotland. There are then two reflections on the perspectives of patrons and managers on primary school provision, examining some of the more specific legislative and administrative issues in these domains. A parent then reflects on her personal experience of being involved with the primary educational system, showing the unexpected consequences for her and her family. Finally, the collection ends with a review of what it means for a school to be a learning community, contributing to the formation of a learning society.

As this volume goes to print, the report from the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism is still awaited. Its findings will inevitably evoke further discussion of the role of the Catholic Church in the provision of primary education. Meanwhile, it is hoped that the essays in this volume will make a helpful contribution to the ensuing debate and draw attention to important values and perspectives that have to be borne in mind as we reimagine and reconfigure the role played by Catholic primary schools in a country undergoing significant social and religious transformation.

Eugene Duffy





If you happened to find yourself in Prague on the St. Patrick’s Day 1977 and you went looking for flowers you might eventually ask yourself the following question. Why were all the florists closed? The answer was one man, the philosopher, Jan Patocka, alone responsible for this sudden dearth of flowers in the Czech capital. A founding signatory of Charter 77, he was repeatedly harassed by the state secret police. At the end of one particularly harrowing interrogation session, he died of apoplexy, aged sixty-nine. Determined that there should be no public display of support for the deceased thinker and activist, the authorities decreed that all flower shops remain closed on the day of his funeral. When the funeral orations began the police started revving up their motorcycle engines and a helicopter hovered low over the open grave. Five days before the interrogation session that cost him his life, Patocka wrote the following words in what was to be his last text:

Let’s be honest, in the past, conformism has never led to an improvement but a worsening of the situation [ … ] What is necessary is to behave at all times with dignity, not to be intimidated or frightened. What is necessary is to speak the truth (1),

In speaking the truth, many dissidents from Central and Eastern Europe were lauded by intellectuals in the West. On the other hand, after the fall of communism in 1989, the writings of dissidents were increasingly regarded as historical documents of interest rather than political interventions of note. Dissidence was part of the ideological battleground of the Cold War and once the War was over all was deemed to be quiet on the Eastern Front. Vaclav Havel, Patocka’s co-signatory of Charter 77, pointed out, however, that what Western Europe had failed to understand about dissidence in Eastern Europe would come back to haunt it. Havel’s main contention was that the totalitarian regimes which had wreaked so much havoc in Central and Eastern Europe were the manifestation of the darker sides of modernity and that any attempt to think through modernity had to accept the unpalatable realities of coercion, terror and mass murder (2).

Havel, in a sense, was aligning himself with a long tradition of Central and Eastern European writers and thinkers from Robert Musil and Elias Canetti to Czeslaw Milosz and Jan Patocka who, alerted by historical experience to the nightmares of reason, sought out new forms of transcendence that would drive emancipation for human beings (3). The drive for emancipation was articulated in a context of extreme crisis where peoples in the Soviet bloc were enslaved in the name of an ideology of emancipation. As Ireland goes through the most severe politico-economic crisis in its post-independence history, it is worth asking what kind of emancipation we might strive for and what the role of religion and critical thinking might be in a new project of human flourishing.

Political rationality
In July 2010 a detention order for a young girl in a County Cork industrial school was placed for auction on ebay. There was considerable adverse reaction from the victims of abuse in Ireland’s industrial schools and comparisons were drawn with an earlier controversial auction of letters detailing the horrors of the Irish Famine. Davoc Rynne, the owner of the company, Irish Celt, which put the letter up for auction said in his defence, ‘I can understand that [negative reaction] but we live in a capitalist society, so what can we do? I had to buy it’ (4). The MD of Irish Celt simply articulated what has become a fatalistic commonplace in late modernity. The writer and theorist Mark Fisher has dubbed this commonplace ‘capitalist realism’ which he defines as ‘the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it’ (his emphasis) (5).

To understand how even imagining alternatives has become impossible, it is necessary to begin by asking why one system has become both ‘political and economic’ in its expression? When neoliberal thought first emerged from universities and conservative think tanks, it was presented as primarily to do with economic arrangements. What neo-liberal economists sought was a radically free market, maximum competition, free trade, business friendly tax policies and a light touch regulatory environment. When neo-liberal thought became hegemonic in the economic arena, it began to shift from being a rationale for economic policy to becoming a fully-blown form of political rationality where all dimensions of human life were to be subject to market discipline (6). Education, health, the prison system, social welfare, the security forces, all become subject to neo-liberal political rationality. As neo-liberal political rationality subsumes the State to its own ends, immigration policy is no longer a matter of humane response to human suffering but a cold calculation of the economic cost of keeping people together in the one place and the CEO of one company, Intel, commands more ministerial attention than all the faculty members in the Schools of Education in the Republic of Ireland put together. The native expression of this form of rationality might be termed McCarthyism after the type of instrumental cost-benefit analysis which underlay Colm McCarthy’s 2009 report on the full range of the State’s activities and the logic for the extensive cuts proposed in the report. The sole criterion for judging the success of a State under the new regime is its ability to sustain and foster the development and extension of the Market. Health, Education and Law Enforcement, which previously served different, autonomously defined ends (physical and mental wellbeing, knowledge and wisdom, freedom and security) are now all subordinated to the one end, market sustainability.

One of the crueller paradoxes of the crisis which beset Ireland from 2008 onwards is that the crisis which directly resulted from the excesses of extreme neo-liberalism has led not to the de-legitimising of the rationality but on the contrary to an unprecedented intensification of the deployment of neo-liberal political rationality. As the Market proved itself to be the God that Failed, the response was not to dismantle a system or question a logic that had generated hitherto unseen levels of inequality, greed and environmental destructiveness but to use public monies to subsidise private losses and to introduce a series of austerity measures that primarily targeted public goods. In a sense, the Market has come to function as a dark version of transcendence, operating across geographical space and historical time and informing every aspect of the lives of human beings. Further confirmation of this phenomenon was provided in July 2010 where EU leaders met around the clock to discuss an aid package for Member States, the stated aim being to finish the discussions at all costs before the markets opened on the following Monday. The markets were treated as if they were a parody of a pagan deity, irascible, touchy, and only to be appeased with pledges, sacrifices and the burnt offerings of public services.

It is in this context that it is possible to argue that the greatest single threat to religious belief in Ireland is the relentless instrumentalisation of human beings implicit in neo-liberal political rationality. For when all is subordinated to the logic of the market, humans’ only value lies in their market value, understood in exclusively monetary terms. The inhuman reductiveness of the Market also points up the falseness of the opposition in Ireland between religious believers and secular, progressive thinkers. A constant theme of public comment and mass media presentation is the pitching of secularisng ‘pinko’ liberals against ‘hardline’ believers of the nation’s different faith traditions (more particularly, the dominant faith traditions). In this Punch and Judy Show of the Ancients and the Moderns, the enemy is alternatively the Godless or the Godfearing Other. The effect of this false dichotomy is to conceal the very considerable overlap in concerns and values between believers and progressive secularists, notably, the mortal danger posed to both by, what might be termed, Market Totalitarianism.

To contend that there is no alternative to the Market is to argue, in effect, that democracy is meaningless as democracy. If it is to mean anything, it implies a set of choices between alternatives. Free will, as understood by mainstream Christianity, becomes null and void as one is no longer free to will anything other than the Market. In a paradoxical way, the Market Totalitarianism which is the outcome of neo-liberal political rationality presents the ultimate triumph of the vulgar materialism which underpinned totalitarian regimes in the Communist bloc. All of human life and practices (superstructure) were reducible to the operations of the economic (base structure). The suppression of religious belief then was but one facet of this conviction in the supremacy of the material which is enjoying renewed vigour as an ideology in the fetishisation of the market. What I wish to argue for is the necessity of a new ‘Culture of Dissent’ in Ireland which will bring together critical believers and non-believers. In response to the Shock and Awe tactics of Market Stalinism I want to consider how a number of key concepts, central to both many forms of religious belief and to progressive politics, can enable a new coalition of the willing dedicated to the construction of a free, humane, meaningful and spiritually transformed polity and educational system.

One of the most celebrated poems by the Polish poet, noted dissident and Noble laureate Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) is entitled :

At times wind from the burning
Would drift dark kites along
And riders on the carousel
Caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
Blew open the skirts of the girls
And the crowds were laughing
On that beautiful Warsaw Sunday (7).

The title refers to the square in Rome where the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned on charges of heresy. However, the square described in the poem is Krasinski Square in Warsaw, the site of a funfair in wartime Poland. Adjacent to the Square was the Jewish Ghetto and it was here on the 19 April 1943 that the Wehrmacht began to burn down the ghetto and kill its inhabitants. The poem juxtaposes the carefree joy of the city dwellers making the most of the amusements on a sunny Sunday afternoon with the unmentionable horrors (‘dark kites’) of the slaughter taking place only yards away on the other side of the ghetto wall. At one level, Milosz’s poem, written in the year of the destruction of the Ghetto, 1943, is a telling indictment of the almost casual anti-semitism that condemns thousands of Polish Jews to atrocious deaths. But at another, the poem is a more general snapshot of the terrifying consequences of indifference to the plight of one’s neighbour. It is, above all else, a dark vision of the collapse of empathy.

A fundamental feature of a successful democratic society is the requirement for empathy. One of the duties of a citizen in a democracy is to learn what it is to be someone not like oneself and to be aware of the impact of choices that one makes on the lives of others. This can involve everything from the way we design entrances to our public buildings to the way we strive to avoid racial profiling in the policing of our streets. In a world of global interdependence, where our needs are catered for by people we will most probably never meet (the cotton shirt from India or the iPhone from China), forms of empathy need to be global as well as local. The capacity to imagine and understand the lives, feelings and historical experiences of others is crucial to the creation of sustainable human communities where citizens can remain equal in their difference. When we conceive of progress, it is typically in these terms. A particular group — the disabled, a sexual, ethnic or religious minority — is accorded rights of equal citizenship as a result of more inclusive forms of empathy. Conversely, bigotry, persecution, discrimination, exploitation are seen as undermining democratic promise because they fatally restrict empathy to privileged groups in a society. A singular contribution of the humanities and social sciences, from the disciplines of sociology, psychology, philosophy and anthropology to the teaching of history and literature, is to develop and strengthen the empathetic imagination. Without such imagination, the very cohesiveness of our societies is put in peril and the ability for a country to function in a globalised world becomes highly problematic. The rise of gated communities in urban centres all over the island of Ireland or the challenge, domestically and internationally, of humane responses to migration show that there is no room for complacency.

What we witness under conditions of market totalitarianism, however, is not simply the relentless celebration of individual gain but the popularisation of deeply anti-empathetic forms of Social Darwinism. What is striking about programmes from Big Brother and The Weakest Link to Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice is that the supreme value is the survival of the fittest (the notion of ‘fitness’ being variously defined). Rituals of expulsion, public humiliation, vituperative forms of denunciation are standard fare in the Circus slaughter of media innocents. Empathy for the feelings of others becomes a positive obstacle to the onwards and upwards strivings of individuals wholly devoted to a credo of ruthless self-advancement. It is precisely this credo that is repudiated by the teachings of the major faith traditions in Ireland. What Christianity, for example, has tirelessly argued for has been the absolute centrality of empathy — of doing unto others what you would have done to you — to its message (8). This explains, in part, the immense hurt experienced by many believers on learning of the nature and extent of clerical abuse scandals as they demonstrated, above all else, a catastrophic failure of the faculty for empathy. The brutal, anti-empathetic thrust of neo-liberal political rationality mediated by representations in popular culture is thus deeply inimical to a core value of religious belief in Ireland.

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum in her recent work Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Hurnanities (2010) speaks of the type of education presupposed by democratic self-governance. The type of citizen required is:

an active, critical, reflective and empathetic member of a community of equals, capable of exchanging ideas on the basis of respect and understanding with people from many different backgrounds (9).

For a society to function as a democratic entity locally and to flourish as a community of equals globally, it must incorporate the empathetic imagination into every aspect of its educational practice. Empathy, in effect, is a value which offers a crucial commonality to believers and progressive non-believers alike as they collectively resist the destruction of their capacity to care for and cherish the lives of others.

Michael D. Higgins, the Labour Party politician and NUIG academic, has argued that in Ireland, ‘an enormous price has been paid for anti-intellectualism, which has closed out political theory, the best scholarship and celebration of the imagination’ (10). Part of the price was the collapse of the Irish economy and the need for an IMF/EU bailout in 2010. What was readily apparent was the serious absence of critical thinking, more especially long-term, structural thinking, from the private and public sectors. The recourse to ill-conceived short-term solutions and active hostility to any serious questioning of an unconditional belief in the wisdom of markets led to the spectacular and costly failure of the banking sector and an unprecedented attack on the living standards of the least well-off members of the society. However, what the crisis revealed more generally was a paradox endemic in everything from systemic failures in the health service to governance problems in major financial institutions. On the one hand, for example, the credit crisis was blamed on particular individuals — named bankers or property developers — who were said to have abused the system. The system itself was not to blame only the proverbial bad apples. There was nothing inherently corrupt about present banking practices only isolated instances of corrupt bankers. On the other hand, when any attempt is made to go after individuals, the causes of abuse are said to be so systemic and so diffuse that no one individual can be held to blame. The bankers were only following orders, it is not they but the system which is to blame. This dual structure of disavowal runs as a common theme through the Blood Transfusion scandal, the catastrophic failure of foster care policies in the Health Service Executive (HSE) and the controversy surrounding the bank bailout. The ultimate result, of course, is consequences without causes. Nobody is to blame but everyone has to pay the cost.

This systematic evasion of moral responsibility has corrupted the language of public life. Public figures who have been shown to have done something that is patently wrong will only admit to an ‘error of judgement’ as if morality was a form of cost-benefit analysis and they had somehow got the figures wrong. When women die from contaminated blood products, children’s lives are destroyed by criminally incompetent fosterage arrangements and ordinary citizens face real hardship as they bear the collective costs of private losses, the sense of injustice is compounded by the abject failure to hold anyone to account. This, in turn, leads to an understandable and widespread discrediting of authority, whether it be vested in banks, institutional churches or the legal and medical professions.

The crisis in authority can, of course, be addressed in two ways. One way is to render authority more authoritarian by making the State and its agents more coercive in their response to forms of criticism and dissent (11). Another approach is through the development of what one might term a sense of structural responsibility, that is to say, a recognition of how personal, moral responsibility is determined though not nullified by structural constraints. The development of this sense of structural responsibility is dependent upon the introduction of critical, Socratic thinking at all levels in Irish education. Underlying such an approach to thinking are three assumptions. Firstly, people who fail to examine themselves deeply and critically are more likely to be easily influenced by others as was so apparent in the widespread consumerist materialism of Tiger Ireland.

Secondly, a lack of clarity about values, goals, aims or objectives resulting from deep thinking leads to the temptation to defer unquestioningly to authority figures, whether they be political bosses or senior bankers. Thirdly, when ideas are left unexamined, the temptation is to treat politics as a purely agonistic exercise, as all about Them and Us, where personalities are everything and policies count for naught. Crucially, when ideas are arrived at rather than simply given there is a much greater sense of ownership. It is easier to feel responsible for values that are freely and deliberately chosen than for those that are imposed or that are vaguely sensed to be part of a prevailing zeitgeist. The implication is that the sense of personal responsibility for deeds resulting from these values is all the greater in that there is a thoughtful engagement in the elaboration of the values themselves.

Central to the development of critical thinking must be an awareness of the structures that govern our lives. This is why I use the term ‘structural’ responsibility. If we are not aware of how larger politico-economic arrangements inform our lives then our notion of responsibility diminishes to a form of therapeutic individualism where the individual becomes the alpha and omega of the self-help industry. Nothing exists outside the mediated torments of the flattered self as exemplified by the relentless confessionalism on our airwaves. It is clear from the teachings of the dominant faith traditions in Ireland that believers are held to be accountable for their acts and that the teaching of religious morality is about, amongst other things, defining the nature and extent of a believer’s responsibility with respect to thoughts and deeds. Faith traditions, however, not only counsel against narcissistic individualism. They also offer their own version of structural responsibility.

Diarmaid MacCulloch in his discussion of Greek influences on Judaism and Christianity argues that Plato’s ‘view of reality and authenticity propelled one basic impulse in Christianity, to look beyond the immediate and everyday to the universal and ultimate’ (12). Plato’s view was articulated in his parable of the Cave where the particular phenomena humans observe are shadows of their ideal Forms which represent a truer and higher form of reality than the ones we habitually know. This would influence the development of the allegorical method of interpreting scripture amongst the sizeable Jewish diaspora in Greek-speaking Alexandria and the method would be later practised by converts to Christianity (13). Thus, a fundamental tenet of scriptural practice in Christianity is to look beyond circumstance and contingency to larger structures of significance. The notion of responsibility only makes sense in terms of these larger structures of significance that are the articles of Christian faith and belief.

If believers and progressive non-believers alike are committed to a strong sense of responsibility, this must inevitably bring them into conflict with vested interests which as recent history has shown in Ireland are extremely reluctant to be held accountable or responsible for their actions. Implicit in a renewed commitment to responsibility is the recognition of the ontological necessity of conflict in society, a notion that might on first reading appear somewhat objectionable.

A substantial section of bookshops in many richer countries is given over to self-help manuals. Implicit in these manuals is the notion that there is an ideal self which is somewhat out of kilter because it lacks confidence, vitamin B, the X factor or has failed to dejunk its life. ‘I am not myself today’ implies that there is a unitary, consensual self which is the desirable default value for the good life. That is to say, reading the right book, taking the right therapy, buying the right product, will lead to the finding of a ‘true self’ beyond disharmony or conflict. This psychologised consensualism finds its correlative at a political level in the notion that representative democracy consists of a collection of points of view which are all equally valid. The point of view of the workers’ representative where 2,000 jobs have been delocalized is as valid as that of the corporate vice-president who has engineered the ‘rationalization’. So everybody gets to have their say. But what they are saying is that real conflict is no longer acceptable. In other words, in reality, points of view are irreducible, as speakers are situated very differently, both materially and structurally. The false symmetrization of the mediasphere, however, conceals the very genuine conflict of interests through the irenic fiction of the representative soundbite.

In another version of the tyranny of compliance, when social movements oppose government measures, such as penalising public sector workers for the financial irresponsibility of the private sector, government spokespersons and stockbroker economists talk about a ‘communications deficit.’ If only the people understood what they were doing, they would realise it was ultimately for their own good. Opposition can only be conceived of as cussedness or stupidity. No allowance is made for the fact that there are grounded material interests and structural conditions which make opposition not only inevitable but vital.

As even the most rudimentary exercise in the study of others soon reveals, understanding is above all an initiation into unsuspected complexity. The simplest of situations involving other humans turns out to be not as straightforward as we thought. What this schooling in complexity reveals is the radical insufficiency of cultural shorthand. That is to say, the cultural categorisation of society as made of recognisable types designated by labels, ‘dyslexic’, ‘epileptic’, ‘Paddy’, ‘Gay’, ‘Muslim’, reduces the multi-dimensional complexity of humans to one defining trait. Once a person is described using one of these labels, it is suggested that is all you need to know about them. They become transparent. Thus, if someone is ‘Muslim’ or ‘Catholic’, they must be by definition, bigoted, anti-modern, misogynist and obscurantist. What gay rights activists and the womens’ movement, for example, in various parts of the globe and at different times have attempted to do is to restore multi-dimensionality and complexity to the lives of human beings who were deemed to be instantly intelligible as ‘gay’ or ‘woman’, gender or sexual orientation revealing all that was necessary to know about a person.

A multi-dimensional perspective on humans means opening up the infinite, internally conflicted, shifting desires, ideals and interests of complex, human beings in the lifeworld. It means resisting the quantitative policing of one-dimensional clinical labels (‘autistic’) or social typing (‘deviant’), to restore the infinitely rich constellation of human experience and possibility. It is in this respect that the current vogue for ‘transparency’ is a form of blindness that is more to do with the coercive narratives of macro-modernity (name and shame) than with any desire to account for the exquisite detail of human fullness. Putting a figure on a number of articles published or on the amount of minutes spent in consultation may make the education or health service transparent to auditors but it makes them and the society that pays their inflated fees blind to the open-ended multi-dimensionality of genuine education and healthcare.

Implicit in the understanding of humans advanced here, is the inevitability, the necessity indeed, of conflict. As Angelique del Rey and Miguel Benasayag have pointed out, part of the work of mourning for humanity is the acknowledgement that there will never be perpetual peace. Each time, they note, that there is a ‘war to end all wars’ which aims at bringing about the reign of everlasting peace, the scale of destruction and human suffering is greater than ever before (14). This observation is crucial as an attention to the local, the micro, ‘small’ places, ‘small’ nations can lead to a kind of consensual smugness in the present or a censorious nostalgia with respect to the past when no false note was to be heard and everyone lived happily before in the green houses on the prairie. Local community does not entail an end to dissent. Much of the disappointed reaction of post 1968 activists was partly to do with an overly benign notion of community. Having overly idealized the small community they could not tolerate the inevitable and indeed desirable persistence of difference and conflict. The notion that having found the larger group difficult it is possible to retreat to the haven of your ‘own’ — peer group, buddies, family — and expect the comforts of uncomplicated, consensual intimacy, is to invite the countermovement of disappointment. However, it is important to move the notion of conflict beyond the binary logic of specular confrontation where entities with fixed identities face up to each other in a zero sum of binary opposition. Conflict from the viewpoint of richly differentiated human subjects is not confrontation, it is conflict as engagement with the multidimensionality of human beings, their texts, languages and cultures. It resists the culturalist versions of contemporary biopower which in the name of avoiding a ‘clash of civilisations’ presents all conflict as confrontation through the binary stereotyping of Us and Them. The ultimate triumph of dictatorships as Miguel Benasayag and Angélique del Rey have pointed out is to present their opponents as pure adversaries (15). Confrontation thus invariably leads to elimination.

An agonistic conception of human community which runs directly counter to the beatific visions of universal understanding underlying many public pronouncements on the topic of globalization, takes as a basic premise the incomprehensibility of the other. That is to say, human interaction is not simply the revelation of what is already there. The reason is that in the movement to engage with the complex being of others, in the creation of some form of shared sense, some degree of commonality, the operation is not one of uncovering a universal substrate, waiting to be revealed in its pre-formed state, but the contingent construction of bottom-up commonality.

The recent history of Northern Ireland has, understandably, given conflict a bad name in Ireland. Indeed, the whole period of suffering and violence has often been summed in that one word, the ‘Conflict’. Churchmen from all sides worked to bring an end to the misery that resulted from inter-communal hatred. However, the natural ally of conflict is not hatred but dissent. Believers by acknowledging the infinite mystery of the divine made incarnate acknowledge the multi-dimensionality of humans mentioned earlier. Accepting the necessity of conflict is recognising the need for both believers and non-believers alike to protect the multi-dimensionality of the human and challenge the murderous shorthand of labels. As Stanley Milgram showed in his famous torture experiments and Solomon Asch demonstrated in his work on the reception of visual information, it often only takes one dissenting voice to prevent a group of people from erroneously misinterpreting as true clearly false information or more worryingly, participating in acts of extreme violence against other human beings (16). The participation by believers and progressive non-believers in an active culture of dissent is vital in an era of market totalitarianism where bearing witness to core values of empathy and responsibility and the non-instrumentalisation of human beings becomes more difficult by the day. It is striking in this respect that one notion which occurred repeatedly in the lexicon of dissident writers and thinkers in Central and Eastern Europe was one that is central to Catholic moral teaching, namely, conscience. Ivan Klima, Czeslaw Milosz, Karel Kosik, Arthur Koestler, Zygmunt Baumann all stressed the importance of recourse to conscience as a way of unmasking the public lie and establishing one’s personal duty or responsibility to bear witness against what is manifestly untrue and dehumanising (17). What is arguably central to the development of an informed conscience is the instigation of a culture of critical thinking in our educational system at all levels.

Fear is predictably a great enemy of thought. It is difficult to think or believe freely if we fear for our life or our health or our well being. Yet, fear is the predominant note of our age. Climate change, calamitous forest fires, catastrophic floods, extreme market volatility, pandemics (AIDS, SARS, swine flu), chronic youth unemployment, the list of contemporary terrors is endless. Each evening on the news, we are provided with updates on the state of fear. Each age, in addition, has its particular genre of fear. In Ireland, the Religion of Fear (1920s-1960s) has given way to the Economics of Fear (1960s-present), the Fear of the Priest superseded by the Fear of the P45. One could argue that the changing genre of fear corresponds to a fundamental shift at another level which is the shift from the figure of discipline to the figure of control. The figure of discipline is typically that of the worker as captured in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times or the prisoner as depicted in Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The figure of control, on the other hand, is the debtor or the addict. Characteristic of Ireland during the boom period was the prevalence of the figure of control as evidenced by the historically high levels of personal indebtedness and widespread instances of alcohol and drug abuse (18). Indeed, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has argued that in contemporary control societies, debt is the final form of enclosure, the ultimate form of imprisonment. It was the similarity of States of Fear in the East and the West that led Czeslaw Milosz to ask the question, ‘Why should we love societies based on fear, whether it is the fear of misery or the fear of the political police? (19).

In Ireland, particularly in the post-Famine period, the Church was often associated with a regime of fear and punishment that has been well documented on the printed page and on the screen. This, of course, is all the more paradoxical or poignant in that the founding message of Christianity was one of hope, of the banishment of and resistance to fear. However, progressive politics in Ireland has promoted its own states of fear notably through an overwhelming emphasis on negativity. The problem with perpetual opposition is that the most popular word is no. Like Ulster before, the mind becomes captive to a monosyllable. In a society where the punitive superego has variously taken the form of the coloniser, an unforgiving Church or the sententious stockbroker economist, the tendency is for critique to transform itself into the self-hatred of powerlessness. A more radical move is embrace a politics of hope which involves saying not no but yes. Yes to a better, fairer, more sustainable society. It is obvious that Irish society is at a decisive moment. The decisions taken now will affect not just the next few years but the fate of the island in this century and beyond. The core concepts underlying a new political solution are arguably self-reliance, social justice and freedom. A new way of ordering political and economic affairs means leaving behind a sterile politics of complaint and offering a vision that is both positive and transformative. In this context, it has to be honestly acknowledged that certain forms of political transformation, not only on the right (neo-liberalism) but on the left (revolutionary communism) have manifestly failed. There is nothing progressive about a politics which is scripted in advance by the social and political movements of the past. A truly radical politics is just that, a politics which may borrow from the past but is not a hostage to it, and more importantly, is a politics which engages with the unpredictability of the present in unpredictable and challenging ways. So what education in a new Ireland needs is the coming together of both believers and progressive non-believers in a mutual commitment to a message of justice and transformation underpinned by the shared values of empathy, responsibility and hope. As we seek to achieve this it is important to remember the last words of the Czech philosopher, that we should not be ‘intimidated or frightened’ and most importantly that we do not intimidate or frighten each other as we have done for far too long.

1. Patocka, Jan (1977), ‘Testament’, Politique aujourd’hui, 45.
2. Havel, V6clav (1989) Essais politiques, tr. Jacques Rupnik et al., Paris: Calmann-Lévy, p. 234.
3. Laignel-Lavastine, Alexandra (2005) Esprits d’Europe: autour de Czeslaw Milosz, Jan Patoeka, István Bibó, Paris: Gallimard, pp. 15-34.
4. McGarry, Patsy (2010) ‘Industrial school order placed on eBay’, The Irish Times, 17 August
5. Fisher, Mark (2009) Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative?, Winchester: 0 Books, p. 2.
6. Brown, Wendy (2005) Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 38-40.
7. Milosz, Czeslaw (1988)’Campo dei Fiori’, The Collected Poems: 1931-1987, pp. 46-49, translated by Iribarne and Brooks, New York: The Ecco Press.
8. McCulloch, Diarmuid (2010) A History of Christianity, London: Penguin, p.88.
9. Nussbaum, Martha C. (2010) Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Princeton University Press, p. 141.
10. Dillon, Paul (2011) ‘Interview: Michael D Higgins – Ireland’s “Political” Intellectual, Village, December-January 2011, pp.42-44.
11. Cronin, Michael (2009) ‘Rebel Spirits? From Reaction to Regulation’, pp. 109-122, in Ging, Debbie, Cronin, Michael and Kirby, Peadar, eds., Transforming  Ireland: Challenges, critiques, resources, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
12. MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, p. 31.
13. MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, p. 69.
14. Benasayag, Miguel and del Rey, Angelique (2007) L’éloge du conflit, Paris: La Découverte, p. 56.
15. Benasayag and del Rey,  L’éloge du conflit, p. 109.
16. Zimbardo, Philip (2007) The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, London: Rider
17. Laignel-Lavastine, Alexandra (2005) Esprits d’Europe: autour de Czeslaw Milosz, Jan Patoaa, István Bibó, Paris: Gallimard, p. 112.
18. Ging, Debbie, Cronin, Michael and Kirby, Peadar (2009), ‘Transforming Ireland: Challenges’, 1-17, in Ging, Debbie, Cronin, Michael and Kirby,
Peadar, eds., Transforming Ireland: Challenges, critiques, resources,
Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
19. Milosz, Czeslaw (2004) Abecedaire, tr. Laurence Dyevre, Paris: Fayard, p. 41.

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