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Is your school ‘tastefully’ Catholic? The branding of education

Unthinkable: Snobbery surrounding First Communion shows up deep divisions in society

Karl Kitching says he‘partly wanted to investigate how accusations of religious inauthenticity were laid at the feet of working class and Traveller families deemed to not be doing Catholicism properly’
‘Children are active participants in both having faith or a worldview, and being consumers.’ Photograph: Getty images

The annual spectacle of thousands of Irish children doing their First Communion attracts familiar commentary. The hardened atheists call it “brainwashing” by the Catholic Church, the Holy Joes grumble about drive-by piety, while social observers of all types decry the extravagance and expense.

What’s missing from this narrative, which plays out in the media and society at large each year, is the voice of the participants – the children typically aged 7-8 who navigate the rite of passage under varying influences. Dr Karl Kitching, of University College Cork’s School of Education, is seeking to put this right through a series of studies aimed at capturing the perspective of “Communicants”.

This includes a paper published last month examining the case of Lily, a girl who delights in wearing a leopard-print dress and high heels to a preparatory Mass for her Communion and who is eagerly anticipating the big day itself, in part because she is due to get the money for a mobile phone. What seems like a cliché of consumerism, however, is unpacked by Kitching to reveal a more complex persona as Lily shows capacities for creative forms of “faith, wonder, fantasy and, in her concern for neighbouring children and adults, an anti-individualism that involves, but may also exceed, religious commitments”.

Kitching – this week’s “Unthinkable” guest – argues that children like Lily are judged against the standards of “tasteful Catholicism”, which is really a guise for middle-class snobbery and gender stereotyping. His paper, A Thousand Tiny Pluralities, draws on fieldwork conducted for a broader UCC study Making Communion, while riffing on the work of the late Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher who explored the relationship between capitalism and human identity.

Kitching’s work may come across as esoteric (he admits it’s “heavily conceptual”) but there’s a simple idea at its heart: “If we think about the world as involving pluralities of new, creative encounters, we can begin to identify new inequalities, allow each other to be complex, and always remain positively dissatisfied with any model of schooling or ‘correct’ child development.”

How does Gilles Deleuze help us to understand childhood, religion and schooling in Ireland?

Karl Kitching: “Writing with Félix Guattari, one of Deleuze’s major interests was the way capitalism takes hold of us, by ceaselessly commodifying and exploiting our desires in new ways. This happens through varied walks of life, from consuming the repackaged lives of celebrities, to commodifying childhood religious ceremonies. In fact, it was the annual media outcry over the so-called materialism of certain First Holy Communion ceremonies that led me to develop a research study on this and related topics.

“In the Making Communion study I partly wanted to investigate how accusations of religious inauthenticity were laid at the feet of working class and Traveller families deemed to not be doing Catholicism properly.

“I observed how those accusations gained traction through media products such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and sensationalist news articles. I found much of the outcry over religious materialism and misconduct overemphasised public and visual aspects of religion: ceremonies, sacraments etc. It failed to consider the everyday ways people observe faith and/or spirituality.

“From a Deleuzian point of view, sensationalist media imagery exploits and commodifies our existing ideas of ‘them’ as being lesser than ‘us’. So new, destructive desires to stereotype take hold.”

What can we learn from Lily?

“I called my article A Thousand Tiny Pluralities to reflect Deleuze and Guattari’s argument that our encounters and desires are always changing and complex, and can actually outpace or resist capitalism’s capacity to commodify or brand them.

“One desire that has become a media brand of sorts for the Catholic church - and schools - is that of ‘tasteful Catholicism’. I was interested in this desire because it is a direct product of the often destructive austerity, religious authenticity and choice logics that have been circulating in Irish public and policy discourse.

“I examined some of the ways one white working class girl called ‘Lily’ was captured by, but also confounded, the ways austerity, authenticity and choice logics worked together.

Lily negotiates the world in ways that defy local requirements for her to exhibit tasteful Catholicism

“For example, Lily said she wanted to make her Communion so that she could wear her dress, get her hair done and get more money for a new phone; these kinds of motives were regularly seen by adults in the study as tasteless, and religiously inauthentic. But at the same time, Lily encountered a number of people in her community that had died in difficult circumstances, and prayed for them. She illustrated the unseen ways religiosity can be enacted, particularly in a low-income community.

“Lily’s encounters with the world also demonstrate that children are active participants in both having faith or a worldview, and being consumers. They also demonstrate that life is not a simple matter of choosing to opt in or out of one set of ideas and practices or another.

“Lily negotiates the world in ways that defy local requirements for her to exhibit tasteful Catholicism. Her desires are more complex than stigmatising, media-driven assumptions allow.

‘Children are active participants in both having faith or a worldview, and being consumers.’ Photograph: Getty images

“My point in studying Lily was not to paint her as a heroic child who should be held up as an example for everyone to follow. Rather, her case sensitises us to the new ways that a cocktail of ideas – religious and non-religious authenticity, choice and austerity – have together become idols for Irish society to follow in ways that we haven’t even realised or named yet. None of us, including Lily, are ever entirely defined by our idols and ideals.”

The movement to secularise Irish schools is aimed at reducing the influence of the Catholic Church. But could it have the net effect of creating a more market-driven, commodified education system?

“In short, yes. The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism was used by governments since 2011 to put together a strange, but somehow meaningful policy cocktail. This cocktail advocates for parental choice in the school market, religious or non-religious authenticity, and budgetary austerity.

“As I have stated above, religious and non-religious authenticity has emerged as an issue of public debate with the effect of re-stigmatising marginalised groups. But behind this debate are governmental austerity logics, which place undue responsibility on citizens, communities and patron bodies, and downplay any suggestion that the state purchase ‘back’ private properties from Catholic patrons.

“Aside from the campaign to repeal the Baptism barrier, the focus has been on making patrons compete for new schools, and a vague promise to divest a fraction of schools to community national schools. At the same time, parents are encouraged to actively choosing according to their authentic conscience. Indeed, around the world, governments have been using the right to choose from a diverse range of religious and conscience-focused schools to encourage parents to become active education consumers in a more marketised system.”

Isn’t parental choice a reasonable objective in a pluralist society?

“Yes, parents’ right to choose should be protected. But in a market-driven system, parents who are active, confident, consumers tend to be white middle-class parents, and the effects are obvious around the world.

“The marketisation of religious and conscience-focused schooling puts pressure on schools to project an authentic, perfected religious or non-religious brand. It has tended to favour historically established middle-class Christian school groups, and excluded working class, minority ethnic and minority religious parents in various ways.

“So marketisation actually limits the plurality of schools by making certain school communities – Christian and/or middle class – viable and others non-viable.”


Ask a sage

Q. Should mindfulness be on the curriculum?

A. The Dalai Lama replies: “If every eight year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”