It can be risky for headteachers to continue teaching pupils occasional lessons, after having long ceased to deliver examination curricula. You can quickly become rusty, out of touch with new classroom techniques and thematically repetitive, giving voice to themes previously aired in assemblies or speech days. So it is with some trepidation that I approach weekly classes, embracing Benedictine humility, as appropriate in my context, and expecting an element of critical debate.
At present every member of the sixth form at Downside has to suffer through some classes with the headmaster within the General Religious Studies programme. So there is a class on “Dante in 30 minutes” (where we treat The Divine Comedy as a computer game while reading extracts). There are two classes on faith and modern poetry (one on Siegfried Sassoon and another focusing on contemporary poetry) and then there is a class on “celebrity worship syndrome”.
Nothing could be more relevant to the politics of now than the last of these, although it is the hardest lesson to teach. Why? Because in the lesson we end up focusing on what the Church teaches about the saints, and young people nowadays often find it hard to relate to the idea of sainthood, even in a school that is overwhelmingly Catholic and largely prayerful.
The teaching path is oblique: the lesson begins with a reflection on personal role models. Then we discuss modern celebrity worship, looking at the craving for celebrity in popular culture, as reinforced through reality TV. After scrutinising articles on how this affects British and American society, we reflect on which celebrities we revere and why.
Obviously, the election of President Trump provides peculiar grist to the mill. Who, we wonder, will be next to obtain a position of political authority? The ability of the media to project people into positions of power seems irresistible at times.
In this disorientating arena, the saints are offered as an alternative. Benedict XVI’s speech to students in Catholic schools in Britain in 2010 spelt it out. “I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the 21st century,” he said. “What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness.”
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