Category Archives: Teaching Religion

Religion and the Curriculum


I have just discovered this article of mine was picked up by the Curriculum and Leadership Journal as a leader in 2005! Some of the details, therefore, maybe a little out of date, but the thrust of the article still stands.

Religion and the curriculum Curriculum & Leadership Journal, Volume 3, Issue 7, Front page, 24 March 2005

Ted Witham [Then] President, Australian Association for Religious Education Inc. (AARE)

In each of the States of Australia, the school curriculum rests on a list of eight learning areas. These lists are remarkably similar, with only a few phrases separating one from another. That they are so similar is no coincidence: they all derive from the list set forward in the mid-eighties as the basis of the hoped-for National Curriculum. They are similar, but there is no doubt that they are arbitrary. The number is arbitrary: why not five? Why not sixteen as proposed by the liberal theorist Philip Phenix in the sixties? Why not three? Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic? Why eight? Why these particular eight? There seems to be no common criterion for inclusion.

Take the case of English, for example. What is this learning area: literature or linguistics? English as a subject has been at different times everything from grammar to history, from textual studies to character education. (Reid 1996) No one doubts that English will remain in some form on the school curriculum. At the very least, business and universities stipulate that students coming to them are able to read and write well enough for commerce and to produce intelligible university essays. But English is hardly a coherent discipline. Students who have enjoyed English or English literature as a Year 12 subject will be unable to find English listed as a course offering at most universities. They will have to make do with Textual Studies or Communication.

Equally puzzling to some is the exclusion of Religion from this list. I am referring to the critical study of religion as a way of knowing the world, rather than the confessional religious education taught in all States (except South Australia) by visiting representatives of faith communities. It’s not difficult to justify religion’s inclusion in a rounded education, especially in a post 9/11 world in which it has become clearer how vital it is to understand the faith and motivations of people next door or around the globe.

To exclude the study of religion is in fact to censor a child’s education: how can they otherwise understand Australia’s Muslim neighbours in Indonesia, or come to grips with mediaeval theocracies in Europe from which modern democracies derive? What sense can they make of condemned bombers who are overjoyed because of their zeal for God?

Values

The study of religion is a powerful instrument for exploring one’s own developing values and beliefs. When taught well, religion places at the student’s disposal the amazing wisdom of Taoist sages, Zen Buddhists, Jewish ethicists, Christian and Muslim mystics, scholars and theologians of all faiths and none.

In addition, a pragmatic justification for including religion arises from the teaching of values. The curriculum of each State, in a variety of ways, mandates the inclusion of values in both the content of the classroom and the processes of school administration. Many educators, including Professor Brian Hill*, argue strongly that values make no sense to students without a critical exploration of their origins. Students may learn that the taboo against sex before marriage is a value held by their elders. But unless they see the original purpose of the taboo as promoting the positive benefits of marriage, the value is simply a nonsense, and unlikely to affect their choices and behaviour. The result is apparent.

In a more general way, the values promoted by state curriculum documents derive from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is dishonest not to hold up the Christian and Jewish contexts in which the values originated, so that students can evaluate them for themselves, and then make informed choices in their lives.

Religion’s place in the curriculum

You may concede that religion needs to be included in a full education, because of its pervasiveness in human society and its role in creating the values of a fair and open democratic society, and yet see no need to add a ninth learning area to the curriculum. Can’t all these things be covered in Society and the Environment? Those promoting a greater inclusion of religion in the school curriculum need to convince the community both that religion has a place in a public school curriculum, and also that it should be a separate learning area. (The argument has obviously been won in most faith-based schools.)

With the liberal theorists of the sixties, I would argue that religion is a distinct way of describing the world, a distinct field of knowledge. Its use of symbol and myth to give meaning to individuals’ and communities’ lives, and its use of ritual to help people interact with fundamental realities are unlike any other discipline. The coalition government’s policies are blurring the boundaries between public and private schools and thus between those who have and those who have not included religion as a learning area. Its search for national standards will create pressure to kick-start again the idea of a national curriculum as it makes little sense to require assessment national tests separate from the full educational cycle of outcomes, pedagogy and assessment. This blurring of school types and federal and state responsibilities provides a moment of opportunity to re-examine the completeness of the education we offer to Australia’s school students, and the place of religion studies in it.

* For example in papers presented in 2004 to the Conferences of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), and the Australian Curriculum Studies Association. 

References

Hill, Brian V. (1991), Values education in Australian schools, Hawthorn, Vic: ACER.

Hill, Brian, V. (2004), Exploring Religion in School: a national priority, Adelaide, SA: Open Book.

Nord, Warren and Haynes, Charles (1998), Taking religion seriously across the curriculum, Nashville: First Amendment Center.

Phenix, Philip H. (1964) Realms of Meaning, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Reid, Ian (1996), ‘Whatever Happened to English?’, Chapter 6 in Higher Education or Education for Hire? Language and Values in Australian Universities, Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press, pp 97–112.

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The Absolute Urgency of Religious Education


The [North American] Religious Education Association took for the theme of its 2013 Conference, “Coming Out Religiously”: Religion, the Public Sphere, and Religious Identity Formation. As a member, I received my invitation, but the cost of travel from Australia, both financial and physical, was too great. So I am grateful to read some of the papers from the Conference in the current issue of the Association’s journal.

There was evidently a rich exchange between Diane Moore and Charles Foster; Diane Moore from the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School is acutely conscious of the need for citizens to become religiously literate. She takes as an aspirational point the American Academy of Religion’s definition:

… a religiously literate person will possess 1) a basic understanding of the history, central texts (where applicable), beliefs,

Diane L Moore

practices and contemporary manifestations of several of the world’s religious traditions as they arose out of and continue to be shaped by particular social, historical and cultural contexts; and 2) the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place.

 

The more global citizens who can understand the cultural context of the world’s religions, she argues, the more violence – direct, structural and cultural – can be reduced.

  • Quoted in Diane L. Moore, ‘Overcoming Religious Illiteracy’, Religious Education, 109(4) July-September 2014, 380

Charles Foster was keen to add to Dr Moore’s analysis. Not only do we need to learn from religions, we also need to be changed by our encounter with the sacred. As participants in religious traditions, we can live at greater depth, and we can be informed by the wisdom of our own and others’ religious traditions.

 

The ability to identify and compare religious traditions in other words, is not the same thing as recognizing in depth – or being confronted by – the sacred dimension of the mystery embedded in their practices. …

 

Charles R Foster

Religious education in this instance emphasizes the learning integral “to becoming” practicing participants in a religion’s traditions. Others among us are engaged in what might be called a religious education to draw on the wisdom and practices of their own religious traditions to participate competently in the mutuality of dialogue and critique with those of another religious education tradition. Still others among us join Diane Moore in a religious education in the public square to cultivate in persons capacities for discerning and analysing the role and place of religion in society.

  • Charles R. Foster, ‘An Abbreviated Response to Diane Moore,’ Religious Education, 109(4) July- September 2014, 391 and 392.

Both Professor Foster and Dr Moore encourage me in my vocation as a religious educator. Just because I am technically retired does not give me a leave pass to stop teaching, or to cease writing. These issues are too important to leave alone.

Why bother with religion?


Talk for the Naturaliste U3A Annual General Meeting introducing my 2014 course on World Religions.

Ted Witham, October 25, 2013

September 11, 2001 was a day on which many people thought the world would be better off without religion. My wife Rae and I were going to St David’s Church in Applecross at that time, and the priest there, Kay Goldsworthy (who later became the first woman bishop in the Anglican Church in Australia) invited the whole Applecross community to a service of reflection on the Sunday afternoon following.

 

The church was packed. I had not seen so many people crammed into the pews for many years. It seems that we human beings on one hand want to get rid of religion, and on the other hand we can’t do without it.

 

We hear noisy atheists like Richard Dawkins claiming that it is child abuse to bring up children in a particular faith. We hear informed and respectful atheists like Phillip Adams on ABC radio making a more reasoned case against religion. But people still flock to hear the Dalai Lama. There are still more people in church on a Sunday morning in Australia than there are at all AFL games on a weekend – though I fear that may change soon.

 

I believe passionately that we need to understand religion if we are to understand what’s going in the world. I’m not sure whether we are in a good position in Australia to understand. While two-thirds of us ticked “Christian” as our religion in the last census, we would have to concede that for many of us that’s a heritage statement. We’re Christian in the same way that we are European. It doesn’t affect our daily lives very much anymore. We’re actually Australians. And as Australians, we’ve never been strong on religion. Many of our forebears came to Australia as convicts or free settlers, and not from the church-going classes. The attempts to force convicts in Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land to compulsory church parades probably made anti-church feelings worse.

 

At the absolute height of our church-going in the nineteen-fifties, maybe nearly 50% of Australians went to church every month. Now it’s down to between 6 and 10% depending on which survey you believe.

 

But to understand the US, we need to understand their enthusiasm for religion; how, for example, in a country that appears on the surface to be like ours, people murder doctors who perform abortions. We have strong contrary views about abortion, but not murderous ones. Those views can only be explained in terms of American Christianity.

 

Some Muslims say they want to establish a caliphate from Malaysia across the Philippines and Indonesia and the top of Australia. You’ve seen the scary maps. But do all one billion Muslims want this? Is this what the Qur’an teaches?

 

Up to one in six of the families in the Perth suburbs of Murdoch and Winthrop are of Chinese origin. Our second biggest trade partner – and growing – is China. Taoism teaches a certain way of bettering oneself, to become a noble, by being natural and harmonious, it’s called wu wei. It includes the “Three Jewels” of compassion, moderation and humility… and getting ahead by education. This strand of Chinese religion is very helpful in understanding how they think and relate to others.

 

The civil war in Syria and the ongoing conflict in Iraq is between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Australia has accepted 500 refugees from the Syrian conflict. We ought to know more about them than just the bare fact that they are Muslims.

 

There’s a propaganda war being fought between the hard-line Saudis who spend huge amounts of oil money to promote their Wahhabi view of Islam. They build mosques in India and pay Imams’ wages around the world. Al-Qaeda came out of Wahhabi Islam. On the other hand the government of Qatar funds the English-language news channel Al-Jazeera. Their aim is to challenge the spin of both Arab and Western governments as an expression of their faith.

 

Or propaganda closer to home is the Malaysian court last week upholding a government ban on non-Muslims using the word “Allah” for God. This ignores nearly 2,000 years of usage by Arab Christians, Jews and Hindus and probably 1600 years of usage by Indonesian and Malay Christians. “No,” the ruling Muslims proclaim, “the word belongs to us, and if you use it, you will serve a prison term.” Interesting times.

 

The course that I offer next year will run for just 1 hour a week for 12 weeks. This will be time only to scratch the surface, even if we restricted ourselves to the most populous religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and traditional Chinese religion. What I propose is to take one aspect, holiness, and discover with you what it means in eight or nine religious groups to experience holiness. We may find in the end that the idea of holiness turns out to be too Christian and western to do justice to some of the other religions, but it will give us place to stand and explore and not be overwhelmed, because otherwise there is so much to know.

 

Each week I will talk or show a video for 20 or 30 minutes and then allow you to discuss the ideas that have been raised. I will aim to be respectful but not uncritical of people’s beliefs, including my own. I am a convinced Christian, but this group is not an exercise to persuade you of any particular belief or idea – it’s an opportunity to help us be better informed and understand a little better complex and important happenings in our world.

 

Scripture and the teaching of religion in schools


In its poll in 2000, the Gallup organisation found that two-thirds of the Australian population approved of the regular teaching of religion in schools. For parents of children of school age, this approval rises to over 7 in 10.

For the last century and more, the main vehicle of teaching religion in Government schools has been teachers from faith communities regularly visiting schools for a half hour class, commonly called “Scripture”.

This provision of religion teaching was virtually universal in all States except South Australia until the end of World War 2. In the past fifty years, “Scripture” has been dealt two body blows: in the nineteen fifties, the source of volunteer teachers shrank quickly as many women entered the work force. By the mid seventies, the number of children receiving religious instruction in this way hit an all-time low. In Western Australia for example, a commission appointed by the State Government reported that only 14% of primary school aged children received ‘Scripture’ in 1975.

By the end of the eighties, the churches had re-grouped and numbers of ‘Scripture’ teachers and students started to rise again.

However, in the eighties, curriculum reforms began to change the way children are socialised in class: more group work, less formality, more individually-tailored lessons. The volunteer pool of Scripture teachers has been hard put to match their pedagogy to the changed face of the class room.

So “Scripture” is again in decline. There are a number of reasons for this, including standards of training Scripture teachers, and schools whose curriculum already feels too crowded.

Many schools have welcomed the work of ‘Scripture’ teachers as much for their pastoral care of students as for their impact on the curriculum. Scripture teachers function as a benign presence of the wider community in the school. Many are seen as surrogate grandparents for the children.

The community and its schools are beginning to take note of these two needs: Children need pastoral care beyond what teachers are able to offer; and children more than ever need an exposure to the world of religion.

In many respects the rise of chaplaincies in Government schools in the past two decades is a response to school children’s pastoral care needs. There are 500 or more State school chaplains around Australia and while the majority of them are in High Schools, the demand for chaplains in Primary Schools is outstripping the ability of agencies to provide them.

Schools are in the midst of considerable change. Government funding policies and the assumed requirements of parents are blurring the distinctions between public and private schools, that is, between Government and (in the main) faith-related schools. In many of these private schools, Religion is a Learning Area that sits alongside the 8 Learning Areas mandated by the new State Curriculum frameworks.

The world also is in the midst of change, much of which is generated by the zeal of faith-inspired terrorists, and a growth of new conservative politicians proudly wearing their religious faith as an appeal to voters.

This is an urgent time for the wise, critical teaching of religion. For a start, children need to know that not all Christians are right wing in politics. For their own spiritual benefit, students need access to the world’s spiritual heritage: Taoist and Christian wisdom, Muslim and Jewish ethics, Buddhist and Hindu mindfulness of the world, and the treasury of saints of all religions and none.

Students need to understand our Muslim neighbours in Indonesia, and how modern secular democracies grew out of medieval theocracies.

Now is the time for a greater inclusion of religion in the curriculum of all schools, both in the natural places for it in the Social Sciences and English, but more especially in its own Learning Area.

This cannot happen in Government schools without changes in curriculum policies. It is heartening that there are revisions of Years 11 and 12 syllabuses around Australia which will encourage students to study some aspects of religion as tertiary entrance subjects.

For this to be taught well, the skills and knowledge of teachers will need to be reinforced, and teacher-training institutions are preparing to respond to this new need.

We owe our students a new depth of professionalism in opening to them the exciting world of religion, its beliefs, rituals, sacred stories and its mysteries.

Broadcast on ABC Radio National’s Perspective, 30 March 2005

Learning about and from religions