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Faith Schools Menace

Despite my best intentions to blog prolifically over the summer holidays, I found myself some what uninspired as I whiled away my 5 weeks off. However my eye was caught by More 4’s current Richard Dawkins series on reason.

There are two elements I would like to explore from this series so far, and the second will follow in another post shortly. The first of these two posts is a response to the first program in the series, entitled Faith Schools Menace. (or should that be Faith School’s Menace)

There were four key strands to the program. The first concerned the parental right of choice, the second concerns the damage that teaching children separately can cause. The third was about the value of developing a critical mind in children, which, Dawkins argues, is stifled by religion and finally the quality of science education and it’s profile in school life.

The issue of religion is desperately emotive  and stirs people deeply. Religion, as Dawkins argues in numerous books, not least The God Delusion, enjoys a status in society that makes it difficult to challenge for fear of ‘offending’ someone. In spite of what any one, of any faith or culture happens to believe it is undeniably a powerful phenomena in society which shapes and forms domestic and foreign policy of the world’s most powerful countries. It is a billion dollar industry, it is media savvy it is high profile and it has an agenda. It is therefore something that children must be educated about for better or worse depending on your particular standpoint.

Religion seems to be an issue that polarises people  more quickly and more permanently than any other I have come across. Even politics enjoys more compromise than religion. We do after all have a Conservative and Liberal Democrat  coalition government, where even the names of the parties seem fundamentally incompatible, yet a way forward has been found. 

Where does this leave the teacher? How can we educate our children on an issue that is so divisive. If we teach faith, give it a profile and encourage spiritual development, we immediately alienate our children from another part of society and if we don’t then the reverse is immediately true. To the bewildered (and in my experience terrified and intimidated) teacher there seems to be no answer.

I am determined that there must be a third way. A way that does not wimp out with relativist nonsense that tries to say that something that is true for me might not be true for you. Truth must be truth otherwise it would be possible to construct our own reality which it simply is not. Let’s not fool our children that it is not least because I do not want my pupils jumping out of windows claiming, ‘gravity is not true for me Sir’. 

Let us revisit what the teacher’s job is. An essay in itself no doubt but in its most simple terms our job is to lead and facilitate learning. To inspire and enable pupils to interact with the world around them, grow their talents. To become problem solvers and have an entrepreneurial spirit. To develop a lifelong commitment, passion and ability to continue learning. Imparting knowledge has been left on the scrap heap of Victorian education. Rather than telling children that Christians believe that you should forgive those who sin against you, our role is to provoke them with an idea. Should little Jonny from our story forgive little Jimmy? Why or why not? What are the consequences, what do you think? What do other people think?Their learning journey will, with suitable guidance and structure, lead them to discover what Christians would say or what Hindus would say about this. It will open up more questions and further learning. If I tell my class that Jesus died to save them from their sins, the matter is dead and finished. There is almost no further avenue of exploration and we have failed in our mission to nurture curious minds and lifelong learners.

There are an infinite number of themes which could be examined in this way and will ultimately produce children who are well rounded, well considered, informed young adults. However it is no magic bullet. It will not pacify those who passionately believe that children should experience spiritual growth at school. There is certainly a case for it. France’s aggressively secular policies have arguably created tremendous social divisions. However I would like to again refer back to the role of the teacher and in particular our responsibility to lead and facilitate learning as distinct from imparting knowledge. The Catholic Church for example outlines one of the roles and responsibilities of the parish priest as catechizing the congregation. Catechizing is defined in several dictionaries as instruction. The Islamic Imam for example is expected to be a scholarly expert of the Quoran who imparts this to the faithful. The role of the religious leader, as valuable as it may be, is fundamentally at odds with the role of the 21st century teacher. One can not fulfill both roles simultaneously. Are we to become religious leaders? Certainly not but here in lies an opportunity to call upon the community around us. Religious leaders should take responsibility to lead on spiritual development. They have the skills, knowledge and professionalism to fulfill this role, not the classroom teacher whose purpose is very different.

I will not be drawn on my opinions of faith schools because it is irrelevant. For the time being at least they are here to stay and making the best of it is the best we as teachers can do. Dawkins argues passionately that educating faiths separately
is tantamount to the evolution of a new and fundamentally  incompatible species. Whether you agree or not, this type of education, which places the emphasis on the children’s own critical analysis and not on the desire of the adults around them to foster faith will go someway to developing positive relationships with those that are different to them and may act as an insurance for their future. Would you honestly, deny them this?

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