Awkward Recusants

It’s Easter Sunday and I’m back from a family retreat at my old school, Stonyhurst College. In amongst the helpful musings on Christ’s death and resurrection, the thing I will take away from the weekend more than anything else is actually just one word – ‘recusant’.

I love words, the stranger and sillier the better. Not just in English too; renaquajo, the Spanish word for tadpole, is a beauty. I like chupatintas too, to describe what we would call a ‘penpusher’. I used to love ‘Vic Reeves Big Night Out’ (circa 1988), its genius lying in its ability to throw in a whole load of random vocabulary and emerge with some surreal conversation between absurd characters. Vic and Bob were preceded by the likes of the Goons and Monty Python, both of whom revelled in the crazy use of words and phrases.

One word that they all might have missed is the word ‘recusant’. What a fabulous word; apply this to an absurd character and you have half a sketch already. But the meaning of the word is not funny. Recusants were Catholics whose non-compliance with post-reformation Britain meant they were hunted down and punished. Grisly executions almost always followed. They insisted on maintaining their Catholic faith despite huge risks.

These recusants fit into the tradition where strong, oppressed believers are treated barbarously by powerful opponents . Malala Yousafzai, who stood up to murderous terrorists in Pakistan, is a striking example for our current century.

However, I won’t detail the stories of the many Catholic recusants and activists, people such as the Carroll brothers, Joseph Plunkett or Thomas Meagher, all Stonyhurst old boys. As this is a blog about education, I’m more intrigued by the teaching they received..

You see, these men are linked by their Jesuit education, and one of the central tenets of a Jesuit education is the value placed on argument, through questioning, contention or, in some cases, just being really awkward. Students are taught to look at things independently, and to come up with their own conclusions. And if this puts them in conflict with a prevailing ideology, then they are emboldened to have the courage to stand up for their beliefs.

The marketisation and standardisation agenda have rendered much of this type of education redundant; it is very difficult to measure outcomes for ‘awkwardness’. And if there was a measure, I’m not sure it is one schools would be very attracted to. Imagine the banner on the school fence; ‘Outstanding in Awkwardness’.

But in a world where people lazily succumb to conformational bias through their social media feeds, and are herded like sheep through a door marked ‘conformity’, this really matters. Thank goodness there are some journalists and independent thinkers out there who are uncovering a multitude of ‘fake news’ crimes that are the undoubted consequence of an unquestioning populace.

But there aren’t enough of these journalists, nor are there enough schools who place a high value on this. Too many people are accepting of what they are told; it is the unintended consequence of compliance and standardisation.

In my opinion, any school, or educational establishment worth its salt, should encourage independence of thought, careful analysis and a culture of curiosity. In doing so, we may then be educating the bold (and, yes, awkward) leaders that we so desperately need.



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