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April 09, 2011

We have nothing to fear... but truth itself

On a wall in our home hangs a painting which always draws comment from visitors - a striking sunset bouncing its light across the waves at the beach. It was painted by my wife at the age of 15. Her teacher's response was curt: "I'm glad you've got that out of your system, now get onto some real painting," (by which she meant abstract). It took some years for my wife to regain her confidence.

A friend who is now a university professor still vividly recalls the day he went to enrol in his first post-year 12 course. The person taking the enrolment looked at his grade and turned to a colleague, asking out loud, "Do I have to accept students with these results?" A few years later that same person sought to recruit my friend into his research lab, without success.

A young lass in her first season of basketball is told by her school coach that she'll never amount to anything, and is left on the sidelines for whole games when there was opportunity to give her time on court without jeopardising the team's chances. She hung on through the season and began to flourish under another coach in the ensuing years.

On my way out of school one afternoon a mother pulled me aside and informed me that her child had been told by the teacher that her parents were going to hell if they didn't go to church.

These four events are alike in every respect bar one: no-one seriously suggests that we should refrain from teaching art or encouraging students to take on challenges in education or sport because some teachers have performed badly. But to listen to many of the complaints about religious education in schools is to encounter this type of thinking underpinning the desire to banish it from our schools.

In every educational pursuit there are two questions that need to be addressed: what is the purpose of teaching a particular field of study and what are the qualifications of those who teach? Age-appropriate instruction by qualified staff is important at every level of education, and should introduce students to various fields of learning in the hope of awakening a thirst for further knowledge, alongside the need to prepare students to live as part of the human community. There is an unfortunate arrogance amongst those who would banish religious education which mirrors the very attitude which is despised in the worst of religious education: the belief that they are right and beyond question. The arguments are not primarily about quality of teaching, nor about its purpose, but about the right to be taught at all.

There is an interesting paradox at work here: this attitude which seeks to drive religious education from schools is the same attitude which drives parents to choose an education which is entirely framed within a Christian religious cultural framework: it is a fear of the truth. If we truly are committed to the quest for truth, and are convinced that our perceptions of truth are accurate, then what is there to fear? Questions can be raised and addressed, and students better equipped to deal with an error they have explored and resolved in their own minds. Instead we find the inherent insecurities of both extremes, fearful that their particular world-view and value system might have chinks in its armour exposed by engagement with difference. When a child comes home from school and reports beliefs and truths which run counter to those of the parents, there are two responses: to sit and dialogue with the child to assist growth in understanding of difference and to firm the reasons behind the familial belief, or to rail at the school for allowing one's child to be exposed to 'alien' ideas. The latter attitude is not uncommon to parents within faith communities and to those who express no faith.

Religious endeavour, at its core, is a response to the numinous: a recognition that there is still more to life than we have learned or experienced. While prone to magical thinking, the religious quest at its best seeks to address deeper questions of meaning and purpose, and inspire a sense of awe and wonder that flows from the unique life that we experience in this small corner of a vast universe. It is humbling to know that even if we were to draw on the entire fountain of human knowledge, we will still encounter mystery and unknown: huge gaps in our understanding remain, even while we are eating into those gaps. And we know that many mysteries will endure and multiply.

I recall a discussion with a geneticist not long after the completion of the human genome project and its accompanying observation that over 80% of our DNA was "junk." I queried this classification, suggesting that perhaps it serves a purpose which was yet to be discovered. My concerns were largely dismissed at the time. I was therefore interested to read recently of a geneticist who has made it his work to undo the notion of "junk DNA" arguing that it is only "junk" because we have yet to identify the purpose it serves. All fields of human endeavour are prone to over-extend their knowledge and the certainty with which it can be held. Many truths held dear today were once thought to be impossible. And there will be scientific and other certainties we hold today which we will need to discard in the future. No one seriously suggests that we dismiss the scientific endeavour for this learning curve.

Arguments that religious instruction should be excluded on the basis of freedom of choice are also misguided. We do not offer freedom of choice by taking away the very materials upon which such choice rests. Instead we provide a safe space for exploration and discovery, guided by those who have taken the learning journey already, and who are trained and equipped to aid others in beginning that journey. That there are those who have breached guidelines for teaching is important to address, but immaterial in this discussion. A teacher who has allegedly punished his grade one and two students with physical violence does not bring cries for the removal of these grades from our schools. Rather we seek to ensure that proper standards of behaviour are enforced for all staff.

Those who suggest that religion is based on myths and fallacies deny the basic tenets of epistemology which underpin every knowledge system. The recognition of the use and abuse of power in history of religion does not validate the same use and abuse of power against religion. It is ultimately ill-befitting the secular state which values open dialogue and discovery.

And an argument for a secular education cannot be sustained on the notion of a value-free education. Such a beast does not exist. Every epistemology and world-view, including atheism and agnosticism, promulgates implicit and explicit values. Indeed, every field of human knowledge prioritises certain information and processes above others, and therefore creates its own value system. The purpose of education in such an environment should not only include the desire to equip children in the three Rs, but to teach them to evaluate and discern truth amongst competing and sometimes complementary world-views. With access to the Internet only expected to increase as they grow, the ability to discern and sift and evaluate are important skills to learn across a range of human endeavours.

Should education provide only a narrow focus on selected beliefs, how are we to prepare students to live in a world where the place of religious organisations and institutions in both society and its economy is significant: contributing the bulk of volunteers, underpinning a significant percentage of the helping professions, let alone institutions for aid, development, and social and community service. The commitment of religion to global justice itself is significant enough to warrant engagement by students with it alongside other educational and motivational paradigms.

And then we need to remind ourselves that our children will grow up as natives of the global village, where governments and societies around the world find their basis in religious beliefs and practices. To enter dialogue from a place of ignorance, or to champion change without respecting the traditions out of which such societies and cultures have emerged is to guarantee failure and risk escalating violence and conflict.

The notion of a secular state is not one where religion has no part, but a society in which no particular religion or belief - sacred or secular - is imposed upon its citizens by the government. The provision of religious education in schools - regardless of the faith taught - does not breach that notion. Well done, it can serve to strengthen its fabric. But we do need to acknowledge there are clear problems in the system which require further thought and response.

The zeal with which opponents of religious education in schools have pursued their case has a distinct flavour to it. In most cases its basic premise is self-defeating because it implies a claim to complete knowledge which is so despised in the religion they depict. An implicit claim to total knowledge which denies any truth in all religions is arrogant and unbecoming. (We would do well to remember - on both sides of this debate - that the push for a universal education has its grounds in religious movements which refused to let class and breeding be the determinant of opportunity.)

Would it not be better to explore how best to introduce such learning to students and establish the frameworks for best practice? We are all beneficiaries if we are able to respectfully dialogue about our differences from a position of understanding rather than of ignorance, or of bad experience.

Posted by gary at April 9, 2011 11:19 AM

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