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April 03, 2011

Religious Education in Schools?

The question of religious education in schools is undoubtedly an emotive issue. Revelations that religious education is apparently not the optional curriculum component in Victorian schools that had been widely assumed has sparked levels of concern ranging from moderate to outrageous. The notion that Victoria's status as a secular state automatically precludes religious education, however, is both ill-conceived and wrong-headed. There are many valid reasons to include religious education as an essential component of a good education.

Politics around the world is influenced by and the product of different faith traditions. While we in Australia imagine clear lines of definition between politics and religion, this distinction is at best illusory, and in many parts of the world non-existent. If we are to truly educate our children to understand difference and engage in the global village, some understanding of religions and their belief systems is important. One third of the world professes Christian faith in some form, and a significant percentage of those who do not identify have been impacted by Christians belief systems and values. Understanding the source of many of these beliefs may help future generations deal with their excesses and address them from a common source.

A further 22% of the world professes Muslim faith, and many of the world's leading and emerging nations are founded on Islamic belief systems. With increased international migration, many Australian residents and citizens now base their lives on Islamic teachings. Burgeoning international trade has also brought us into closer and more regular engagement with our Islamic neighbours. Bringing down a hijab on understanding by banning religious education can only serve to heighten ignorance and further misunderstanding. It has also been highlighted in our media that many terrorist organisations claim Islamic tenets for their actions and positions. Out of ignorance we are then doomed to assuming they represent the faith accurately.

Christianity and Islam represent the belief systems of over half of the world's population. Dare we claim to educate our children well by excluding study of these faiths from our education system? The notion of a secular education and a secular society was to create an environment where freedom of religion could abound - as distinct from freedom from religion. The claim to offer an education which does not include religion is not the same as a value-free education, nor one which does not promulgate a particular belief system. All systems prioritise values, and create structures of meaning. Better to allow our students the tools to deconstruct and analyse for themselves rather than make decisions based on ignorance and prejudice.

And without moving outside of the education system itself, we should recognise that a great deal of literature and history studied by students is better understood and engaged when the socio-religious influences are acknowledge and explored. Better understanding of much of the employed imagery and metaphor emerges when its foundations in religious imagery is acknowledged. We might also ask how one can study the Second World War without some understanding of the Jewish and Christian belief systems and how they impacted Germany? What about the influence of religion upon US politics? Shakespeare is replete with biblical imagery, along with the works of many great writers. Do we forget the religious influence upon art and architecture? Upon science? Upon adventurers and other “heroes” of history? We diminish both our children and their education if we isolate religion from their educational experience.

I find myself somewhat bemused by the protectionist approach suggested by some. Education today focuses on developing skills of critical thinking and analysis, particularly in an age where all sorts of ideas and thinking is readily accessible via the internet. Is it suggested that in religious education classes students suspend these skills, and are unable to bring what is taught there to others for information and analysis? Does the authority of a religious education teacher usurp that of a parent? I struggle to believe that one R.E. teacher in one hour a week can undo the learning and skills of the rest of the school system, let alone familial and societal values reinforced in so many different ways. My experience as a teacher tells me that students have a capacity to question and challenge what they perceive to be questionable.

There are valid questions of competency which need to be clarified. Religious Education Teachers should be subject to validation and scrutiny as befits their place in the education system. But where do we draw the line? Schools regularly invite community representatives in to inform students about their work, with either an implicit or explicit expression of the values which underpin their approach, for which we require no formal accreditation or skill set. I have sat through some such presentations where it was obvious that the speaker could not communicate effectively with the students, and others where the values expressed drew some expressions of concern from staff and students alike. Clearly more effective scrutiny of religious education teachers is required than situations such as this demand. Whether the accreditation of a non-profit organisation such as ACCESS ministries is sufficient, or the establishment of a government agency to accredit across faith lines is needed ought to be a matter of public discussion and community consensus. Two issues are important: the skills and competencies of the volunteer teachers, and the protection of children from would-be predators. Systems already exist to address the latter, and I am not suggesting that this is presently inefficient. The community needs to be comfortable with the standards of teaching across all aspects of education, including religious education, and arguably greater transparency would help.

Perhaps the real issue is not that we have religious education in schools, but that it is left to volunteers and their organisations to ensure that the education of our children is well-rounded; one where all the social, epistemological, value, and educational perspectives are considered in an environment where safe critique can be undertaken with respect. Leaders who emerge from our education system without a healthy understanding of religious perspectives and a respect for those who hold them might find themselves walking unwittingly into territory which is unknown to them, but well-charted.

Posted by gary at April 3, 2011 10:43 PM

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