Hans van Mourik Broekman during the online meeting

A headteacher on ‘Education as Self-Communication’

A contribution to the dialogue on Julián Carrón’s book Education. Communicating One’s Self. “Schools believe that we can teach children to be happy, fulfilled, free by literally teaching them about the virtues that they need to pursue."
Hans van Mourik Broekman

On Saturday, 24 April 2021, an online presentation and dialogue on Fr. Carrón's book Education. Communicating one's self took place, with a contribution from Hans van Mourik Broekman, headteacher of Liverpool College, UK.

One year ago, I read Julián’s book Disarming Beauty. At the time I knew next to nothing about him or about the charism of Communion and Liberation. The book made a big impression on me for reasons that will become clear during these brief remarks. Now I am on a zoom call with all of you and Julián himself discussing another book. I am both surprised, humbled, and delighted at the paths of friendship, connection and engagement which have led me to this zoom conversation. I feel very privileged to offer what I hope will be a small, positive contribution to tonight’s theme: Education as Self-Communication.

I do so from a particular context. I have been a teacher in the UK and USA for 32 years, and a head teacher for 23 of these years. I have been the head of Catholic and Anglican schools. Currently, I lead Liverpool College, a secular school with Anglican affiliation for 1600 day and boarding pupils aged between 4 and 19, a school with 200 employees. My wife Eleanor and I are also parents of five children between the ages of 23 and 16. In short, I have been busy, like many of you, with education as a pupil, student, teacher and a parent my whole life. Julian’s books have been, for me, a provocation for reflection and also an opportunity to establish criteria for judgment on what I do as an educator and what I do as a parent.

Julián’s book is not a book about the usual crises English headteachers and politicians worry about. There is nothing here about lower academic standards, poor behaviour, inequalities in educational outcomes, lack of government funding, failure to recruit sufficient teachers, changing curricula: the crises we read about in the press in the UK, USA and the Netherlands when we read about education. It is a crisis visible only to those who match what they see happening in families and schools not with a technical standard of academic progress but rather with a vision of a young person’s movement to full maturity and growth in capacity to adhere to reality. It is only when this definition or standard of education as an introduction to the totality of reality is applied that the contours of our problem become clear. In this sense, Julian’s insights are prophetic and not self-evident. Shockingly, perhaps sadly, this is in itself interesting and at the very least original. I must confess that I would not have recognised the crisis he alludes to without meeting and encountering him or his thoughts; and his lucid explanation of the way reason itself can be reduced and the concomitant reduction in the human person which follows, leading to pupil boredom, and alienation from the educational enterprise itself. I consider this inability of educators of all stripes to recognize the true nature of the problem as great a problem as the problem itself. In my experience, too many educators are so far removed from an understanding of education in this broad sense and have so completely embraced a technical and limited understanding of their job that they can not see the real pain and confusion of their pupils. This blindness in turn leads to a vicious cycle of ever more intensive measures in pursuit of technical and pedagogical solutions, whether they are ever stricter school rules, greater investments of technology and staff time, and constant change to curricula and practices, in the mistaken belief that with a little more effort, a little more skill, a little more change, all will be well. Julian’s diagnosis of the problem makes clear that these marginal changes will not lead to the fundamental transformative change that is needed and desired.

When reading the book, I tried to verify it with my own experience, to look around me and see and feel if its central description of the essential challenge of education matched my own experience, and whether its description of education as self-communication matched my own deepest desires as a parent and educator. What we see in schools today is a massive increase in mental health difficulties in young people, increased self-medication through drug and alcohol use, slavish devotion to a panoply of ideologies that lead to less interest in one’s own and other people’s actual experiences and views, to divisions among pupils and staff, and increasing difficulty in motivating particularly less able and older pupils to engage with the things we feel they should learn. In short, there is a problem of affectivity: when I ask my classes whether they believe that existence of the universe and of their own life in itself is good, bad or indifferent, about 50% vote for indifferent. For many, the gift of life itself, or even of Being, is not clearly positive. Finally, there is a problem of freedom. Many pupils pursue keeping all options open by not making choices as the fulfilment of freedom. This leaves many of them unable to commit, whether it is to a sports club, a boyfriend, their country or community, or even a faith or experience of it. For example, the number of “couples” among pupils in the school declines every year. All these problematic phenomena are usually explained by the emergence of social media and excessive internet use. Research reveals that these new technological trends in the life of young people can explain the timing of the acceleration of these problems in schools. What research does not reveal, does not try to reveal, and cannot propose, is a solution, a way forward, a diagnosis which is also a potential cure. In short, in Western European education we are very good at pointing out that our children are not thriving, but we are not so sure what to do about it. Latest ideas and proposals seem to reject Aristotle’s insight that we engage in inquiry not to know what goodness is, but rather to become good. Schools believe, rather like the hapless interlocutors speaking with Socrates in Plato’s early dialogues, that we can teach children to be happier by literally teaching them about the virtues that they need to pursue in order to become happy, fulfilled, free. We have turned life itself into an academic inquiry, a subject for dispassionate study with a neutral gaze. This book serves as a marvellous corrective to this Cartesian and positivist error.

Particularly striking is the repeated insistence in the book that the problem and the solution begins with adults’ understanding that to educate is to communicate ourselves, to incarnate a hypothesis for life in its totality that our children or our pupils can verify. The book eschews and decries the fashion for new policies, new theories, new plans, and new strategies. Indeed, the book reminded me of Fr. Albacete’s statement: we are saved by a person and not by an idea. This will disappoint and confuse many headteachers and teachers who despite working in the ultimate human enterprise – the education of human beings – are prone to seek solutions in concepts, ideas, and ideologies. The book calls us to take responsibility by recognizing that if we are educators, we cannot avoid committing the whole of our person to the communication of our own experience of the totality of reality. This is true and it is sobering, overwhelming even in its implications. Whence will this movement, this deliverance come?

The book is clear on this. It will come from people who are themselves seized, changed; people who have encountered someone and something which totalizes their own experience and who are able, in their person and in their very being, to communicate and propose a hypothesis about the totality of experience. This is manifestly true, but it is also difficult to accept because the current climate in schools actively militates against the emergence of such people. In the book, Julián offers us an example of what a teacher should be: the story of a teacher who drives around Dublin, taking a poorly behaved pupil to face his responsibility, eventually dropping him back off in town. This teacher would, in my school, fall foul of several safeguarding and professional protocols and be fired.

My own situation is no different. Our school is deemed by inspectors, parents, colleagues, government ministers, journalists, to be the example par excellence of what an English school should be. At one level, there is absolutely no reason for me or my colleagues to question what we are doing, to change our approach, to expand our ambitions, to question ourselves. But I am experiencing a deep desire to do so, to risk my own and our status and our conformity in pursuit of a vision of school that corresponds to our humanity, to regenerate my and our vocation as educators by taking a different approach, with a different gaze, a different practice. This desire arises from that part of me which I recognize as being authentic, a part which cannot be reduced or ignored. My heart is the source of this desire, and the best thing about Julián’s book for me is that he has given me an explanation of this desire, and a method to pursue it. In this, he has pointed out that my experience and desire are reasonable and undefeatable. My colleagues and I are now on that journey of risk to create the preconditions of a culture, which is at least open to the possibility of education as self- communication. In my experience as the author of books inspired by Julian’s message but directed at teachers, parents and pupils who may not have encountered Jesus, there is both a hunger and a thirst to discuss what education should be, to discuss what ails our children, to discuss the possibility that our so called solutions are failing because the anthropology of the pupil and teacher we use is so desperately reduced because we have not started from the human desire for totality, and that this reduction is itself the problem. I have found that as a headteacher I owe it to my colleagues and pupils, and also to myself, to allow this conversation to be formalized and recognized, however inchoate and incipient it may be. I know that sounds suspiciously like a plan, or even a strategy, But I hope Julián can forgive me.

Thank you, Julián, for reminding me of what I am as a teacher and as a father.