52 Authors: Week 20 - Penelope Fitzgerald
Late for Pentecost, but not quite too late

Propaganda in the Catholic University (or College)

Francesca Murphy has written a fascinating piece for First Things about the push for revision of the curriculum to make it more "goal-oriented." Like most bits of educational jargon, the phrase seems vague and harmless on its face, but in fact means, for those who are in the trade, something more specific. In this case it seems to be in part an attempt to get all that useless intellectual stuff--in particular theology and philosophy (at Notre Dame)--out of the way of the vocational training which is what most students go to college for, and in part--the bigger part, I suspect--a justification for propagandizing, which no one will be surprised to find directed toward the inculcation of standard secular liberal views. It requires only the slightest familiarity with contemporary higher education to know that one of the more popular goals, "critical thinking," is likely to involve, for instance, rather more criticism of patriotism than of the United Nations, and more of colonialism than of communism.

Who could argue with the idea that education ought to have a goal, or goals? The goal of a course on Shakespeare is for the students to read and understand Shakespeare; one hopes that they will appreciate him as well, but the reading and understanding are the course. But this sort of goal is apparently not a goal in the sense that the curriculum revisers use the word. For them the goals of education are, as Dr. Murphy bluntly puts it, "right-mindedness." 

Catholic higher education has in modern times been considered to have a very dubious relationship to the pursuit of truth, to be more concerned with inculcating Catholic belief than with real intellectual achievement. Supposedly that ended after Vatican II; the universities declared themselves independent, proudly announced that they were not in the business of catechetics, and in practice often not only neglected but actively opposed the idea of a duty to transmit the faith. No doubt there were serious defects in what they were reacting to. But one might suppose that the old desire to teach correct doctrine did not disappear, but only adopted new doctrines. This is implicit in the arguments against the deep thinking and learning required to become literate in specific disciplines with definite content.

In a shift that reflects trends in higher education more broadly, the [curriculum] review questions the very idea of discipline-oriented requirements that specify courses taught by particular departments. Are disciplines the building blocks of university education and thus the proper focus for a core curriculum? Or should we recognize that academic disciplines are “artificial” and reorient our thinking around curricular “goals” such as “critical thinking skills,” “effective communication,” “ethical decision-making skills”? Or the capacity to “comprehend the variations of people’s relationship with God and develop respect for the religious beliefs of others,” as one Catholic university defines a distinctively religious goal?

The article demonstrates at some length that this represents, implicitly if not explicitly, a shift away from liberal education and toward propagandizing .

Rather than pursuing the truth through missteps, failed experiments, and odd hypothetical suggestions, the propagandist defines the learning goal, and then designs courses and textbooks to get the students there efficiently. We recognize the propagandizing mentality easily wherever it appears by its illiberal mien, suppressing questions and punishing dissent. But it’s also present when students are taught to assent too quickly to easy moralisms, substituting self-righteous feeling for serious ethical reflection, something that’s only too easy to imagine when one reads the social justice or “global engagement” goals of many Catholic universities.

I've only given a bare introduction to the article, and you really need to read the whole thing. Since I'm not involved in these curricular battles, what strikes me is that this matter is bigger than Catholic education, and bigger than education in general: it is an aspect of the increasing predominance of a secular religion which is as confident as Christianity is defensive, and which does not question the universal applicability of its doctrines and a consequent duty to go into all the world and preach them.


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This really is an excellent article. Between work and the reading of books that I am committed to read for several reasons, I very seldom have time to read an article this long, and I really didn't have time to read this one, but it's a topic that is dear to the heart of anybody who has homeschooled for any length of time.

I do think that she was overly optimistic when she said, " It is in high school that my students first encounter amalgam courses, whose goals are to inculcate right-mindedness." It begins a long time before that. I was horrified at my granddaughter's social studies book.

The section about the students' lack of literacy really reminded me of this paragraph from Dorothy Sayers Lost Tools of Learning.

For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of "subjects"; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education--lip- service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.


Wow. That's brilliant. If anything more applicable now than then. I'm sure you've heard people say "It doesn't really matter what they read, as long as they're reading." That always sort of horrified me.

By the way, I don't mean to sound like I'm minimizing the importance of the curriculum battle that's the subject of the piece. It is extremely important, especially for Catholic schools.

Also by the way, it took me well over a week to find time to read the piece. Granted, I was travelling for four of those days, but still...

I think it took me three days to really get the whole thing read.

And yes about the "doesn't matter." Hey sweeetie, would you like to read some pornography today? or how about some propaganda from ISIS?


"Since I'm not involved in these curricular battles, what strikes me is that this matter is bigger than Catholic education, and bigger than education in general: it is an aspect of the increasing predominance of a secular religion which is as confident as Christianity is defensive, and which does not question the universal applicability of its doctrines and a consequent duty to go into all the world and preach them."

Indeed. I'm sometimes really gobsmacked by how confident (and arrogant) adherents of this secular religion are.

"I'm sure you've heard people say "It doesn't really matter what they read, as long as they're reading." That always sort of horrified me."

It definitely horrifies me. Good parents don't feed their children just any old muck. I mean, we eat a small amount of junk food, but I wouldn't let my children live on it. And the soul is much more important than the body.

I haven't yet read the whole article, but I will try to over the weekend. What I have read already is very good.

Like the author of this piece, I am unfamiliar with the education of anyone younger than say 18!

Like when I described O' levels and A' levels as if they still existed and Paul corrected me. As for the education of small children I have not got a clue. Of course I hear bits and pieces from the students but that is nearly always about their recent experience at school.

On a personal note, I have recently been engaging with a couple of secularists about the very issue of secular propaganda. Every time I feel to scared to go back and look at their latest remarks, I read something like this post from Maclin (while also listening to something beautiful - currently Corelli's Church Sonatas) and then I find the strength to get back to it.

I don't know how useful these arguments are, but I think it's something I ought to do.

I am just saying that the roots of the problem are even deeper than she thinks.


Well in one way yes I'm sure of that because Murphy is not a deep thinker by the looks of things. But in another way, it's even shallower than any of us think or Murphy can say because the administrators just want to make a buck. And this way of dealing with professors and students is the quickest way to make a buck.

I will put in one small word for the administrators--they have to worry about keeping the place going financially. Which may not be that hard at Notre Dame but is a major problem at less wealthy schools. And a lot of the administrative growth over the past 20 years or so has been because of government and accreditation requirements, and student-parent expectations for physical facilities, which are VERY high. But all that being said, it is true that administrators (and, for instance, IT staff) are likely to have a much more shall we say pragmatic view of what ought to be taught than do faculty. I was floored some years ago when someone on the admissions staff was complaining that we didn't offer a major in hotel and restaurant management.

Louise, by all means, if you can manage those conversations without alienating the people you're trying to reach, by all means do so. I tend to avoid it and am never sure where the discretion end of valor becomes cowardice.

Many people think the reason college/university is so expensive is the vast growth in administrators


These folks have to create a role for themselves. They do it by inventing objectives for tgeir schools which have nothing to do with education and which undermine the educational mussion of the university

I actually work in goal-oriented, market-oriented, professional education. The goal is that students acquire disciplinary knowledge in a limited field, but also a broad but superficial acquaintance with a number of other disciplines, some practical IT skills, an ability to identify problems that are likely to complicate the provision of satisfactory services, research and assess the solutions available, negotiate indeterminacy, and adopt certain professional standards of pride in their work and of humility in recognising where they need to improve to work to a standard a client would reasonably expect. I don't see where propaganda comes into it. But I don't see how you can teach Theology on this model, either. Homiletics perhaps, or pastoral care, or some other clearly defined service to one's neighbour.

Those are not goals. They are ends

There's a terminological distinction I'm not familiar with. How are ends distinct from goals?

Well in one way yes I'm sure of that because Murphy is not a deep thinker by the looks of things.

I don't know, I tend to think her rather as a Goddess of Acadæmia.

But that is a thought--about the bottom line.


Oh Dear. mea culpa


I fixed it. The remaining italics are appropriate for Latin, I guess.

"Goal" in this context--among education professionals--seems to have a more specific meaning, Paul. And by "education professionals" I don't mean teachers, but Departments of Education, people for whom education itself is the object of study. Just to see what would happen, I Googled "education goals"--a nice vague phrase. And this was the first hit. Looks like a perfect example of what we're talking about.

One may agree that most of the items on that list are good things. But what Murphy seems to be describing is their being substituted for actual academic achievement, and subject to some sort of measurement. "Assessment" is another hugely popular buzzword in academia.

"Many people think the reason college/university is so expensive is the vast growth in administrators"

I know. And I've seen that NYT article, which is quite popular among teachers, not surprisingly. But that piece is about publicly-funded universities. I suppose it's applicable to wealthy private ones as well. But the situation for small private colleges is *very* different. Except for deep-pocketed rarities like Harvard (or a bit down the prestige scale, Sewanee), they are engaged in a constant struggle to keep the doors open from one year to the next. I'm not exaggerating. Trust me, nobody is getting rich at those places. And nobody's adding paid positions that don't have a strong justification.

You could however blame the administrators at big schools, as well as the professional ed camp, for an ever-increasing demand for the sorts of things administrators do. Big schools get hold of an idea like "assessment," pushed by the educationists, and devote staff to it. Pretty soon smaller schools look like they're not doing their jobs right in comparison, and accrediting groups may punish them, and so the new and fairly well-paid position of Director of Assessment comes into being.

I've been thinking, mostly because of the vote for same-sex marriage in Ireland, but even before that, about Lewis's "men without chests." By the chest he means, "emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments." And you all know, I'm sure, that he says that the head rules the belly through the chest, and that today we have men without chests.

As I look at the same-sex marriage discussion and the sort of thing that is being taught--especially some of the courses I saw in the seminary--I think that it's worse today because now men are not just lacking chests, but also heads. Everything is ruled by the gut. How we feel is the only important thing.

I would write more about this on my blog, but I have to much scheduled there already.


My experience of the administrative side of private colleges and universities is that the only department on the administrative side that might create a new position would be "advancement"--stinking term. All other positions are being cut and the people left are drowning in work--trying to do the work formerly done by two people.


Yep, pretty typical. I think your institution may have been even poorer than mine.

And re your previous comment--I have to go do other stuff, too, but: I think it's pretty clear that as a culture we're losing our mind. It becomes very important to keep one's wits about one.

Paul, I'm surprised you think that end and goal are only terminologically distinct. But not in a snarky way - actually surprised! When someone thing fulfills its own inner purpose it has achieved its end. When something does what its made to do it achieves its end. The practitioners of philosopher achieve the end of philosophy as they learn to love wisdom - by various philosophical means. Those who are studying to translate languages achieve that end when they can translate well and fluently. Those who are studying theology achieve the end of that discipline as they come to know God better (directly) and as they come to know more about God (indirectly). The goal of theology is achieved by the direct and indirect methods of theology. Ends cannot be described aside from the things of which they are the fulfillment, eg the academic disciplines.

Even in ordinary language, 'goals' sound different from ends. An educator or administrator can create goals at will. For instance, one common educational goal is that the students learn to be better and more confident oral communicators. One can use a variety of means to achieve this - talk about literature, philosophy books, psychological problems, put on plays, hold debates, etc. If the goal of that course fulfills the ends of any of the disciplinary subject matter which are put to use in that course, it is by accident. Educational goals are extrinsically related to the subject matter which they use as their means.

Here is a second example. In the curriculum reforms of some Catholic universities, it is mooted that if a course achieves the 'goal' of being 'missional' that should enable it to substitute for a theology course. For instance, a history course about Christian attitudes toward slavery could be missional; so could a course on Christianity and Ecology.

Being 'missional' is not the end of a history course or even a theology course. But it can be made to be the goal of that course.

If you teach in a translation college, and the students are being trained to translate, the work is subject to ends, not to goals. In my definition, which I don't think is terminological but which rather serves common sense realism, most technical courses serve ends, not educational 'goals'.

"And a lot of the administrative growth over the past 20 years or so has been because of government and accreditation requirements, and student-parent expectations for physical facilities, which are VERY high."

That sounds about right.

"Louise, by all means, if you can manage those conversations without alienating the people you're trying to reach, by all means do so. I tend to avoid it and am never sure where the discretion end of valor becomes cowardice."

I know. It's not easy to tell when to speak up and when to be quiet.

Grumpy thanks for the lesson about ends and goals.

In Translation Theory, skopos is a key concept. It's the Greek word in Philippians 3:14, which the New Revised Standard Version renders: "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus." (Knox: "I press on with the goal in view, eager for the prize, God’s heavenly summons in Christ Jesus.")

This use of skopos doesn't seem to me highly distinct from telos in Matthew 10:22, "the one who endures to the end will be saved" (NRSV; Knox: "that man will be saved, who endures to the last").

I can see, in common parlance, that a number of goals might be subsidiary to a single end, but surely if the goals don't serve the end then they aren't really goals, just busy-work masquerading as goals?

Grumpy, I can see the distinction (although it did need pointing out to me), but to take up the example given: one of the courses I teach is "English oral expression", the purpose of which is specifically to enable students to be better and more confident oral communicators in English. I do use a variety of means to achieve this: the students play games, recite poems, act out scenes from films, role-play professional situations, give presentations about general and specialist topics (that they have to read up on individually), and hold debates. I also give short lectures about phonetics.

As a professional translator I am quite capable of producing a good English translation of texts written in French and German, which are languages I can read, but speak comically badly. So a person can be a good translator without these oral skills. Nevertheless, there are two reasons for teaching this course. Firstly, if students want to go on to be interpreters, they will have to be able to express themselves confidently and fluently in a foreign language: without this course, that is a career path that will be closed to many of them (not all of them, as a few have fantastic ability even before training). Secondly, even if they have no interest in being interpreters, as translators they will be operating in a global business environment in which English is the single most important language of communication; a good translator who has to speak with a client in English, and speaks English as badly as I speak French, will have an enormous credibility gap to bridge.

So I can see that means (poems, plays, debates, presentations) are distinct from the goal (speaking English confidently and fluently), and that the goal may only be tangential to the end (a competent professional translator from English into French). But if this goal did not contribute to the end, there would be little point teaching the course.

I suppose the thing you mean is if some cunning bean-counter decided that they could save a hire by telling me to make the students read up about economics and give presentations to one another about that, so that there would be no need to schedule a distinct economics course to provide them with a basic familiarity with that field. Or if they told the economics lecturer to incorporate student presentations into his course, so they would no longer have to pay me to teach oral skills. Is this what academia has been reduced to in the English-speaking world?

Thanks for this Paul. Some people say that Murphy doesn't really explain why 'disciplines' are superior to goals. I nonetheless agree with Murphy - and thank you for the opportunit to think about why I do.

The word 'goal' is a metaphor. When Paul uses skopos, he is taking it from contemporary athletics. I don't think the word 'end' is a metaphor, as Aristotle uses it. As applied to human life, reaching goals is a metaphor taken from human activities. I find it impossible to imagine 'skopeology' replacing or substituting for 'teleology'. The word 'telos' includes 'purpose' in a way that the word 'skopos' does not.

'Goals' are pragmatic: the skopos Paul is completing is running a race. Ends are not precisely pragmatic. Nothing is 'won' when a pupa (is that what they are called?) turns into a butterfly, but the pupa seems to have reached its end.

Now take your case, of reading poems outloud to ensure the students can communicate orally in the language in which which the poems are written. Poems are meant to be spoken outloud. So they achieve their end, even where that end is subordinated to the extrinsic goal of oral fluency in a foreign language. Here goals are not precisely substituted for ends, but rather, ends are subordinated to a goal which does not pervert or entirely replace the ends of the works in question.

Nonetheless, 'doing' is being substituted for 'being'. Ends relate to 'being' whereas 'goals' connect to 'doing'.

I think we both agree that College or University education in which 'being' is subordinated to 'doing' would no longer be College or University education.

One debate along these lines I've seen before is related to the teaching of History in schools. In some countries, politicians tend to think that History should be taught to make people proud of their country and to inculcate good citizenship. Historians tend to think History should be taught so that people have a reasonably accurate idea of what we can know happened in the past and how to assess what evidence there is for any competing claims about what happened in the past. All too often what happens in practice is that History is taught with the purpose of making people suspicious of any putative claim of a reason for pride in their country.

I suppose in this scenario, 1 and 3 would be goals, and 2 would be a discipline?

I'm not disagreeing with anything. I'm just trying to get straight in my own mind what's actually being said. My experience and use of "learning goal" relate pretty directly to skills and knowledge that are not easy to fake, but that I just couldn't see applying to Theology (except, as I said, in some of its more practical aspects).

I think the source of my puzzlement might be that what I do now is radically goal-oriented, but exposes me to a lot less "bullshitting" than working in a university Humanities department did. But these goals are intrinsic to the end.

I think I also tend to treat "goal", "aim" and "desired outcome", when used of teaching, as pretty much synonyms of "What will they get out of this class?" (And if the answer isn't skills or knowledge, something has gone wrong somewhere.)

Doing something urgent: back shortly

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