Youth Day on June 16 can all too easily be reduced to just another holiday commemorating yet another figure or group engaged in South Africa’s democratisation. To do this we sell the youth of 1976 short while we praise them, unless we see the critical role of education in the process. For the spark that lit the fuse on June 16, 1976 was education – equal access to good education. Sadly this dream has yet to be realised 36 years later: our education system is a mess, our youth are still short-changed by the system. What can the Church do about it?
Vatican II addressed education at length – catechetics, seminary formation, universities, media literacy and schools. It drew upon centuries of experience educating at all levels.
Whether we are talking of great universities of Europe founded in the middle ages or primary schools in rural Africa, to catechism classes in inner city parishes, the Catholic Church must be seen as the most comprehensive and long-running educational institution in the whole of human history.
In many ways Catholic religious teaching orders created the modern school system. Moreover, around the time of the Council, in Brazil the most radical new approach to literacy, education for critical political consciousness, was being pioneered by educationist Paulo Freire, helped by mainly young Catholic activists.
The Council’s Decree on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis (1965), in its preface welcomed contemporary circumstances that gave rise to renewed commitment by all people to youth and adult education, noting that people who became more conscious of their inherent dignity “are eager to take an even more active role in social life and especially in the economic and social spheres”. Science, technology and communications made this easier; new experimental methods in education were also welcomed.
As a point of principle, the Council Fathers noted: “It is the duty of the state to ensure that all its citizens have access to an adequate education and are prepared for a proper exercise of their civic rights and duties. The state itself, therefore, should safeguard the rights of children to an adequate education in schools. It should be vigilant about the ability of the teachers and the standard of teaching. It should watch over the health of the pupils and in general promote the work of the schools in its entirety” (6).
We can see from this that Vatican II heartily endorsed what we might call a holistic and non-discriminatory approach in public schooling: insisting that none should be discriminated against on ground of race or gender—which would violate “natural rights of the human person”—the Council recognised that education had to address the whole person.
Unhealthy or hungry poor pupils had to be cared for, as much as they had to receive proper academic and civic formation that could make them good productive and well-rounded citizens. Though Freire is never mentioned, the vision was clearly one of education for freedom.
In addition the Council insisted that religious education should be given to young Catholics, both within and outside Catholic schools. While young Catholics should ideally be educated in Catholic schools, they recognised that this was not always possible. In these cases Christian education should be provided within parishes. In all cases, they added, the first faith formation of children should be at home. The family was the foundation for all faith formation.
Since the Council stressed here and throughout its teachings the priority of justice, the challenge was laid out to Catholic schools everywhere: move away from exclusively educating the rich, get involved with the poor.
Dramatic shifts in Catholic school systems followed Vatican II. Many Catholic teaching orders shifted their focus from educating elites, moving into ghetto schools or devising ways of bringing talented but poor pupils into established institutions.
They also “opened up” in other ways, like admitting non-Catholics and even non-Christians. By the mid-1970s the Church courageously defied apartheid laws and opened all Catholic schools to all races.
Inevitably there was unease, even resistance particularly among parents at elite schools. Conservative Catholics also objected to introduction of justice themes into catechesis programmes.
Others objected bitterly that the introduction of non-Catholics to the schools “watered down” the “Catholic ethos” of schools. Few, however, understood what they meant by “Catholic ethos”, outside some reference to all pupils attending catechism and school Masses!
If, however, we see what happened as the Church practising what the Council preached – opening up the Church in generous engagement with the world – we can see that these changes were in fact a deepening of the “Catholic ethos’.