Preparing school students for the slow university

Royal Geographical Society Annual International Conference, London, 1 September 2017

In 2002, Maurice Holt of the University of Colorado argued that it was time to start the slow school movement, and was quietly ignored. In 2006, Brian Treanor, a philosopher at Loyola Marymount University, challenged his colleagues to join him in making a commitment to a slow university. Only one did. Change can be slow to arrive, but now, a decade on, there are signs that slow education’s time has come: Treanor’s ideas have gained a foothold in his own university with SLOW LMU being launched “to consciously carve out slow time in the fast lives lead in university life today”, while Berg and Seeber have made waves with The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Slow education is also making on impact on early childhood education with Montessori nurseries thriving and forest schools becoming increasingly popular. However, slow education has yet to make much of an impact on secondary schools.

Drawing on my work as a teacher preparing students for higher education, I argue that, while a great deal is done in schools to prepare students for university entry, not a great deal of preparation happens to enable them to thrive slowly when they get there. Nonetheless, there is a growing awareness of the need for slow principles – albeit not often expressed in those terms – to be applied in secondary education. My contention is that developing “the slow school concept as a distinctive institutional strategy for schooling,” as Maurice Holt argued 15 years ago, would bring benefits to students while they are still in secondary education as well as preparing them more effectively for both fast and slow universities.

Catholic Fiction in the 21st Century


Far from being moribund as various writers have alleged, the Catholic novel is alive and well in the 21st Century when seen from a global perspective. In this paper I briefly discuss the continuing influence of the Bible on mainstream literary novelists, before focusing on Catholic authors from outside the Anglophone world.

Drawing on the work of Jean-Louis Chrétien and on recent developments in the debate about secularization and the secular, I argue for an understanding of Catholic literature that centres on form, style, and what Chrétien calls cardiognosie. I then use Chrétien’s understanding as a means of analysing the resurgence of post-secular fiction in the Francophone world and the reshaping of the Catholic novel that is being effected by contemporary Asian novelists.

As Brian Sudlow has argued, “Doubts about the possibility of Catholic literature are quiet but persistent in the canon of literary criticism.” By breaking free from a narrowly Anglophone approach and, counter-intuitively, by acknowledging the radical secularity of the novel, we can now lay at least some of those doubts to rest.

Death in the Desert: On Three Ways of Blurring Lines in the Sand in Contemporary Literary Fiction

The 18th Biennial Conference for the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture, University of Glasgow 9-11 September, 2016

Taking their characters into the desert, a place of death and discovery, contemporary novelists have explored the space between religion and the secular in a variety of challenging ways. In this paper, I examine death in the desert in Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus, Boualem Sansal’s 2084 and Jim Crace’s Quarantine and explore the blurring of religious and secular understandings of modernity through a reconsideration of the relationship between past, present and future in contemporary literary fiction. By analysing these three prizewinning novels, I also attempt to shed light on the construction of literary, religious and generic borders by writers from quite different literary and religious traditions. Specifically, I shall explore how Vodolazkin, who is an expert in Old Russian Literature, reconfigures the modern novel by exploiting the resources of premodern literature in the context of a Russian Orthodox cultural and political revival, how Boualem Sansal rewrites the Orwellian political novel in the context of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in North Africa, and how Crace, implicitly drawing upon particular understandings of secularization theory, reimagines the Biblical story of Christ’s temptation in the desert.

Modern barriers to a Liberal Arts education

Benedictus Research Forum, Blackfriars, Oxford, 24 June 2016

Presentism, ‘A Secular Age’ and interdisciplinary approaches to virtue education in British secondary education

Cultivating Virtues: Interdisciplinary Approaches, Oriel College, Oxford – The fourth annual conference of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham, 7-9 January 2016

Drawing upon François Hartog’s work on regimes of historicity, I argue that what Hartog calls “presentism” often undergirds the enacted curriculum in UK secondary schools. This “omnipresent presentism” also shapes the worldview of many students, which necessarily has an impact upon any attempt to ground virtue education in philosophies such as Aristotelianism or religions such as Christianity whose foundations were laid in pre-modernity. I further argue that any attempt to construct an interdisciplinary approach to virtue education must, following Charles Taylor, take seriously the nature of the secular age in which we live and especially his argument that modern unbelief “is a condition which can’t only be described in the present tense, but which also needs the perfect tense, a condition of ‘having overcome’ the irrationality of belief”. Drawing upon the ideas of Hartog and Taylor, and focussing on the proposals for the teaching of English and History in The Jubilee Centre’s Teaching Character Through the Curriculum, I suggest other possible approaches to the practical application of virtue education in schools.

Reading and re-reading the Bible through contemporary literature

The Use of the Bible in Contemporary Culture – University of Chichester, June 26, 2015

The Bible, or at least re-workings of canonical and non-canonical texts, is surprisingly prevalent in contemporary literary fiction, with Naomi Alderman, Richard Beard, Emmanuel Carrère, Françoise Chandernagor, J.M. Coetzee, Ki Longfellow, Simon Mawer, Christopher Moore, Petru Popescu, Philip Pullman, Nino Ricci, Gilbert Sinoué, C.K. Stead and Colm Tóibín, all recently having published significant novels, to say nothing of end-of-the-century works by Jim Crace, Didier Decoin, Sylvie Germain, Joseph Heller, Torgny Lindgren, Norman Mailer and José Saramago.

Drawing on the work of Charles Taylor, François Hartog and Jean-Louis Chrétien, I argue that these novels are responses not only to the Bible and to the hermeneutic communities within which the Bible is read but also to different understandings of secularization theory. In particular, I examine Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary in the light of Taylor’s analysis of our secular age and Hartog’s notion of presentism, before looking at the continuing strength under changed conditions of 19th Century liberal readings of the Bible in the work of Beard, Carrère and Pullman, before moving briefly onto the contested territory of Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus.

By avoiding a narrowly Anglophone approach – by examining novels from Britain, Ireland, France and South Africa through a Canadian and French critical lens – I aim to shed new light on the ways in which the Bible has been read and re-read through contemporary literature. Finally, by looking at the work of Chrétien, I hope to suggest an alternative reading of the relationship between the Bible and contemporary fiction based upon his argument that the interiority explored by the modern novel has a theological and biblical origin: “le coeur biblique”.

Humanising Work: Teaching

Humanising Work Colloquium – St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, March 1st, 2014

Drawing upon different connotations of “secularisation” and, in particular, on secularisation as the differentiation of the secular spheres (which is often understood as an “emancipation” from religious institutions and norms), I argue that British schools – including faith schools – are now very firmly part of the secular sphere and, as such, are subject to external impositions.

After examining different ways in which public examinations shape what is taught in schools, I investigate other possible approaches, drawing upon the Theos report ‘Doing God in Education’ and the work of José Casanova, Charles Taylor and, to a lesser extent, Christopher Dawson.

Arguing against attempts to redefine the secular as a realm from which religion should be excluded, I reconnect with the original meaning of the word in the context of contemporary secularisation theories. I finish by arguing that faith schools need to resist particular narratives of secularisation if they are to be true to their identity.