Tag Archives: education

Education, education, education! What the kids who join IS need to know

First published on the Starts at 60 website.


Kids join Islamic State (ISIS) because they are hungry for a passion. In the grey world created for them by their adults, they want something exciting to believe in, some dramatic good they can achieve, something great they can create, a cause to give their whole life to. Of course they do. They are adolescents.

And they are also ignorant.

Teenagers these days know so many things, and they can Google what they don’t know, but we have failed them dismally in teaching them about religion and about the religions expressed in cultures around the world. For various reasons, we have been afraid to have any religion taught in schools, and yet this is the very learning area that would prevent the radicalisation of young people.

I mean, of course, religion taught well, and taught by competent teachers. This is so urgent as to be the fourth ‘R’ of the 21st Century: young people need to know about religion alongside reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

They need to know why billions have embraced religion and found that religion provides wisdom, comfort and direction for their lives. They need to know what motivated Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and what produced the luscious religious art of the Renaissance. In a word, they need to know something of the passion, commitment and engagement in life that religion brings to many people.

They also need to know why millions reject religion. Religion is not just passion. It’s not just a response of the heart. It requires thought and discernment as well. Agnostics have reasons for questioning, and atheists have reasons for believing that religions have got it wrong, and students need to grapple with those reasons and see if they too are convinced.

It’s our fault that our young people don’t know about religion, don’t know its complexities, don’t know how rule of law, democracy, and science all came about through the work of devout Jews, Christians and Muslims, and how the modern world could not have come into existence without religion.

They have not been introduced to the proposition that morality, morality like reverence for life, arises from the pages of the scriptures of the great religions.

It’s our fault as a community. Rectifying that error will not be easy. When he was Minister for Education forty years ago, Kim Beazley Senior proposed a National Curriculum with nine Learning Areas, one of which was Religion. He foresaw that Religion needs firstly to be taken seriously as a curriculum area.

Countries such as Denmark that seem to be doing better in embracing minorities, including Muslims, are currently strengthening their ‘identity-carrying subjects’ such as history and Christian studies. Australia will get a similar result through serious teaching about all religions.

Politicians, principals and academics should publicly champion the teaching of Religion Studies as a national priority.

The Year 11 and 12 courses that now exist like ‘Religion and Life’ in WA need boosting into greater visibility in order to create a bigger demand.

We need to identify competent teachers to mentor other teachers who, though highly trained in other areas, feel inadequate to teach religion. There are such master teachers, particularly in church schools and in professional associations like the Australian Association for Religious Education.

Universities should review teacher training programs to make sure that they prepare teachers thoroughly to teach Religion. Sadly, the Universities I know have dropped successful courses because administrators have been indifferent. That should change!

The aim should be to make the teaching and learning of Religion as engaging and fascinating as religion – and the debates about it – are.

Schools need to make sure that there is sensible space in the time-table for Religion. Students cannot take seriously a subject that is allowed only 45 minutes a week. Imagine if Science or Maths had only one period in a week! ISIS has had runaway success in meeting its educational aims. As a community we can do better than ISIS.

In other words, our community needs a plan to end the ignorance by creating and nurturing a new, a ninth, Learning Area. Every student who sees through the extremism of ISIS because she learns that Islam is something different altogether is a treasure saved for Australia.

Ted Witham is Immediate Past President of the Australian Association for Religious Education and a retired Religious Educator.


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.


Midwifing the Faith

First published on the Patheos website.

“Passing on the Faith” as a phrase evokes different images: for some passing the treasure of faith is like runners in a relay passing the baton to their successor; for others, it evokes a teacher standing before a group of learners and explaining Christian faith to them.
I started my working life as a school-teacher, and the image of a teacher and a class has been dominant for my ministry. I was never happier than in front of a class of a children, or teaching ministry students.
But all the teaching activity in the world doesn’t add up to “passing on the faith”. In the contemporary church teaching is not up to the exciting task of the church making our Lord known and loved by succeeding generations.
The National Church Life Survey of 27 denominations found in Australia in 2001 that average congregations had between 60 and 70 people , and in the US one-fifth of adults who attend worship services told the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that they attend a “small congregation with a membership of less than 100.”
This means that the vast majority of congregations are “small congregations”. Fewer members mean fewer resources for teaching. In Australia, more so than in the United States, “younger generations are missing” from attendance at these small churches.
The limitations of overall numbers and the absence of children indicate the stark reality that passing the faith by teaching is failing. And yet, God is not about to desert God’s church. The task of passing on the faith will continue. What this vital activity needs is a better image with the power to change the way congregations do things.
Internationally-respected scholar of social learning theory Etienne Wenger  originated the term ‘community of practice’. Wenger asserts that a community can be defined by the things that it does and by passing on its practice by a combination of talking about it and allowing new members of the community to gradually take up the practices under some form of mentorship.
Apprentice butchers learn their trade this way. They watch the journeymen butchers, get caught up in their talk about butchering, and, moving upward from passing the boss a knife to cutting up a carcass, they gradually gain in competence. In traditional villages midwives select young girls to succeed them. The girls run messages for the midwife, watch her bring the village babies in the world, hear them talk with other midwives about their tasks, and slowly begin to take on more complex tasks until they are ready to deliver babies themselves.
Communities of butchers and midwives have a shared way of doing their defining tasks, and they pass on their common practices by inviting new members to learn by doing and talking about what they are doing.
Christians accustomed to see faith primarily in terms of right belief may need to re-shape their theology of church. The church as a community of practice has a theological focus on vocation, that is, the call of Holy Spirit on our lives to love God and neighbor spotlighting what we do in the name of Christ. God calls us to pass on this active faith, so we talk about what we are called to do and invite new members – new adults or children of current members – to gradually take up small tasks of ministry.
Two things become vital:

° the quality of the congregation’s conversation, and

° the understanding that discipleship is expressed in service to the poor, in loving the unloved.

Congregational leaders invite people into formal and informal conversations about living the faith, from sermons to coffee hour. They are intentional in mentoring new members. They put into words their enthusiasm for the tasks of ministry and invite these ‘new Christians’ to undertake small acts of service, and gradually allow them to develop their own practice.
For example, the manager of the church’s charity shop or food ministry first invites a new member to undertake a few hours’ serving the needy, all the time talking about how it is an expression of faith. As the months pass, this new member may be called to give more time or shoulder more responsibility in the ministry. She will become an enmeshed part of the ‘community of practice’, and be filled with the desire to pass on the faith in the way she received it.
***   ***   ***
Ted Witham is a retired priest of the Anglican Church of Australia who has taught Religious Education to children and to adults preparing for ministry or teaching. He studied at Duke University in North Carolina under John H. Westerhoff III. He is Immediate Past President and a Life Member of the Australian Association for Religious Education, and a member of the North American Religious Education Association.

Important new book on faith education

Richard Robert Osmer and Friedrich Schweitzer, Religious Education between Modernization and Globalization: New Perspectives on the United States and Germany (Studies in Practical Theology), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. From $18.00 from online suppliers

SUMMARY –Reviews and reflections to follow…

This book is probably the most important book on faith education that I have read in two decades. I plan to firstly summarise it here, and in the coming weeks to write reviews for my colleagues in congregations and schools.

It explores the trends in Religious Education in the US and in Germany during the 20th Century and outlines some of the challenges Religious Education will face in the 21st Century. It defines Religious Education as broadly as possible. Religious Education includes the passing on of faith from one generation to the next, but is more than that. It includes congregational programs, but it is more than that. It takes place in schools, but its scope is wider than that. It is both intentional and a side-product of other faith activity. It is specifically Christian Education but is broader than that.

Importantly for the comparative descriptions in this book, Religious Education is at least both a congregational practice and a subject studied in State and church schools.

Richard Osmer is an educator who understands Religious Education in the round. Rather than pick up one strand of the Religious Education story, he elects to study the whole picture. This global approach is particularly useful when Christians are often either hammering away at congregational programs even though children have deserted many churches, or putting all their effort into school R.E. programs, even though students are turning off the subject.

I am impressed with Professor Osmer because he is brave enough to name dysfunctions in our approaches to faith education, and visionary enough to shed some light onto the path ahead.

Religious Education between Modernization and Globalization situates the practice and study of Religious Education both within the changing context of Practical Theology and wider philosophical trends. The study is particularly concerned with the effects modernisation had on Religious Education in the first half of the 20th Century and the move to globalisation in the second.

Modernisation is a process arising from the longer tradition of the enlightenment. It promotes independent thought and requires a greater dependence on empirical evidence. Its effect on education generally was to encourage teachers to foster more sceptical thinking; not to take things on trust and to question the word of authorities. Applied to Religious Education, modernisation invited Christians to move away from dependence on authority to more autonomous ways of thinking, which included the need to recognise the then new historical and critical approaches to scripture, and to find ways to enable Christians to think independently about their faith and the wider world.

Globalisation compresses the world into “a single place” (p. 61) and relativises different cultural patterns and beliefs. Globalisation inflates the importance of the economy at the expense of other exchanges. Globalisation goes alongside postmodernism, which denies the authority of a meta-narrative, a single comprehensive lens to consider the world and particular situations. For the postmodern thinker, there is no one answer to any problem or question. Postmodern people believe that in all cases, “it depends”.

Osmer and Schweitzer draw attention to the contradiction at the heart of postmodernism. It proclaims that every situation is contingent, that there is never one single approach – except insofar as that statement itself is an over-arching belief. In other words, postmodernism tries to believe that in every situation “it depends”, except in the belief that that relativism itself is always constant.

The authors divide the century into phases; in my opinion, not very clearly or convincingly. Effectively, the Second World War divides the century into two halves with very different outcomes for the US and for Germany.

Osmer and Schweitzer then summarise a key work of one Protestant Religious Educator in each country before and after the war. Friedrich Niebergall is described as a “liberal reformer” responding to modernity in Germany (p. 99 ff.) In the United States, George A. Coe also applied the insights of modernity to Religious Education. The effect of modernity on both writers was to turn the spotlight of modern thinking onto the Church itself, both to use the insights it brought to the practice of education and to provide a new framework for thinking about faith and religion.

The influential North American Religious Education Association was founded in the years after 1900 as a concerted response to modernity. It became identified with liberal thought around World War I and into the twenties. The fundamentalist movement, emphasising the evangelical fundamentals was in part a reaction to REA.

Religious Education, for example, picked up the insights which changed education from a teacher-centred activity to a child-centred activity. In Italy, and later Holland and India, Maria Montessori was one champion of child-centred education, both religious and general, and her influence could be placed alongside that of Coe and the liberal reformers in Germany.

In the US, this encouraged Religious Education to see itself more in terms of the way faith is appropriated, and in the post-war period, John H. Westerhoff III, the representative thinker summarised in the book, conceives of Religious Education primarily in the congregation. The audiences for Religious Education of self, family, schools and the wider community were pushed to the edge. In the US after World War II, Religious Education was pushed out of schools entirely.

Westerhoff’s reliance on his previous work in social anthropology emphasised the importance of formation, but for him, this was not at the expense of information and transformation. Incidentally, I studied with John Westerhoff from 1985-1987 and returned to Australia understanding that the task of Religious Education was strongly congregation-centred .

In Germany, by contrast, both the discovery of new ways of thinking about faith and the need after the War to educate a rising generation away from the destructive ideologies of the Nazis, the Religious Education effort was put mainly into schools. In Germany, Religious Education has been a compulsory subject in all State schools. Karl Ernst Nipkov and in particular his 1969 work Christliche Bildungstheorie und Schulpolitik trace these developments.

In the 20th Century, Osmer and Schweitzer argue, Religious Education became restricted to the contexts of congregation in the US and the State School in Germany. It also became restricted more and more to academic and professional specialists. The US witnessed the rise of a new professional in the congregation – the Director of Religious Education.

This book is a plea for to loosen these restrictions and to restore Religious Education both to ordinary people and to its other traditional audiences, in particular the family and the wider community.

Osmer reprises his earlier description from A Teachable Spirit (1990) of Religious Education as catechesis, exhortation and discernment. Families need to be more empowered to open to their children the world of faith, which is part of the work of catechesis. Particularly in the US where creationism is believed by a majority, stronger connections between catechesis and science should be forged. Individuals need the moral teaching of religious education in the process of identity formation, and exhortation is the pathway to healthy moral growth. Christians need to be able to “discern the signs of the times” and speak a constructive word from faith to the world.

The book critiques some of the strategies of the 20th Century. Small groups for example create intimacy with people like us, but offer few opportunities to explore the doctrines and creeds of people different from us (p. 246). Small groups do teach us to love one another, but not why we are Anglicans or Christians. Small groups also miss out on the missio Dei to “the wider human community” (p. 247).

The authors offer powerful arguments for the right of every child to receive Religious Education. “The right of children to a religious education rests upon their right to have some of their heartfelt inquiries about their world listened to with respect and responded to with care.” (p. 262) These questions include death and dying, self and identity, morality, religious pluralism and ideas of God. (pp. 262-265). The authors assert that only religion and its exploration can respond to these questions. (p. 266)

They suggest that all resources for Religious Education be written not only for academics but for ordinary Christians. Family ethics, ongoing religious and moral education in the home responding to teachable moments should be supported by good programs in the congregation.

The authors invite Religious Educators to expand their thinking beyond Christianity: for example, they believe the problems of globalisation can be explored in an interfaith context as Christians and Muslims together learn of the roles of the oikumene and the Umma. Discernment includes not only world events, but aesthetics. Christian engagement in the arts both as artists and critics is a contribution to society and is part of Christians’ educational activity.

This public education takes place not only in schools but through mass media and social media. My fellow-tertiary Paul Hawker, the current producer of the ABC TV program Compass is an important educator in the public sphere in Ausrtalia. Christians as individuals can learn to use social media (Facebook, Twitter and the media growing out from them) to bring that leaven of faith education to society.

Religious Education between Modernization and Globilization is a volume in a series of Studies in Practical Theology. It is both practical in providing ways of thinking and strategies for action in faith education, and theology in its analysis of the 20th Century church and the currents that shaped it.

The French Gambit

The French Gambit

Published  in dotdotdash 08 (December 2011)

I chose to learn French by myself growing up in the fifties in Tambellup. An unexpected gambit, even for me, I suspect, the fourth son of farmers. The family plan had been drilled into me. I was not to inherit part of the farm, but would complete High School and go to University, so that brothers one, two and three could have their share.

While I made a conscious choice to be bilingual, the wheat-belt community of Tambellup insisted on being monolingual, even in the face of the everyday evidence. After collecting me and my brothers, the school bus bumped a mile down the gravel road to collect the Nyungar kids from their humpies on our bottom paddock. When the school bus rolled into town an hour later it passed the twenty 10’ x 8’ duck tents of the town Reserve lined up in two rows with smoky fires between.

Tambellup’s strategy for maintaining monolingualism was simply to not talk about the Aboriginal presence. True, every fourth pupil at Tambellup School was Nyungar and my brothers and I could see the McEvoy’s camp from our farm house. They simply weren’t there and nor were the Nyungar words that seeped into our talk: wadulah, gilgie, boondie and bardie grub. I didn’t even know that the word gidgie for a forked fishing spear was a Nyungar word.

French was invisible.

It was as if English had a stubborn claim on the landscape, which could only be described in summer as a tawny wheat crop stretching to a far horizon shaped by Yates and rivergums, or in winter as Jack Frost making icicles and lace between the strands of the fences. I felt subversive the first time I identified un chien and saw les moutons in the paddocks and watched les nuages float across the sky. And to find the word for ‘paddock’ required a furtive chase.

I first discovered French between the pages of Arthur Mee’s Encyclopædia for Children: a lesson at the end of every chapter. I worked systematically through those lessons.

I knew I was a different child. I preferred reading to reaping, books to bailing the cow, so I kept my new interest secret from everyone, and ploughed ahead. My French pronunciation was exécrable but in every other respect, I put myself ahead of the competitive students I met when I was a boarder at the expensive College in Perth.

By Year 12, I learned how to finesse French Oral examinations. We prepared for these tests out of a book with the bracing title Vocabulaire, organised in headings. Under the heading ‘Le Parc’, we encountered le jardin, with les arbres growing in l’herbe. I prepared by glancing at these headings, but not wading through the lists. In the test room, l’examinateur asked me, ‘Que faites-vous dans le parc?’ I nonchalantly replied, ‘Oh, j’aime pas le parc.  Je préfère aller à la plage, où il y a du sable sur lequel on peut se coucher sous le soleil. Je nage dans la mer, et je regarde les jeunes filles. I could see l’examinateur lost for a comeback, and when I drew breath, he asked, ‘Qu’est-ce que vous mangez à la plage? Well, I didn’t consider the beach a good place for eating, so I took him to another place where the words were more familiar. ‘Je préfère manger à l’école. On nous sert de la viande, des pommes de terre et des petits pois. Qu’est-ce que vous aimez manger ?

L’examinateur should have taken me back to le parc to answer the question he actually put. He should have thrown me more complex questions to gauge my comprehension speed, he should have rebuked me for asking him questions, but instead he smiled broadly. ‘Vous parlez le français très bien, monsieur. Je vous donne une très bonne note. And a very good mark it was too: fifth in the state of Western Australia.  I slyly enjoyed my astute dishonesty.

From sleepy Perth I followed the French riots of 1968, half-adulating Daniel Cohn-Bendt as a hero. I enjoyed graffiti seen around Paris in May 1968: ‘Attention! De Gaulle nous double à gauche’;  Faites l’amour sans lâcher le fusil.’ Nowhere else in Perth could you, vicariously at least, enjoy a good revolution! A new thrilling wave of subversion rumbled through me.

But no native speaker of French would mistake me for one of them. My French teacher in Years 11 and 12, Giovanni Andreoni, was a flamboyant Italian, whose accent temporarily rubbed off on me. ‘Tu parles le français comme une vache espagnole,’ one interlocutor told me. I felt a little squashed being called a talking cow – even if with a Spanish accent.

Some years later, I spent a week in Germany speaking French to my wife’s German cousin. When we then travelled from Germany to Paris, our French hotelier assumed I was Austrian and not Australian.

I went back to study and learned Greek and Hebrew. Unlike the way living languages are taught, the Bible’s languages were taught in English medium. The cultures of the Old Testament and Palestine in Jesus’ time were explained in English. I could make bridges between English and the Hebrew and the Greek. Meaningful translations of alien concepts were attempted. I applied what I learned across the divide between my French and English worlds. I was beginning to find some integration in my life.

But I was still bothered that most of the people I loved could only relate to one of these worlds: my family, colleagues, and most of my friends had their feet and their hearts solidly in Anglo soil only. By contrast, the friends I had through French were much more able to relate to the whole of me.

At 29, I met Rae. We were at a youth group gathering. I was the curate of the parish, Rae one of the youth leaders. I was writing pastoral notes in French as a measure of confidentiality. Rae was looking over my shoulder, and asked, ‘Why are you writing in French?’

‘Well,’ I struggled for a reply. ‘It can be private to me.’

Rae grinned. ‘Not if I can read it.’

I learned quickly to love the version of English idioms Rae’s German mother had taught her. Noticing one of the teenagers devour a sausage in a bun Rae commented, ‘Look at him woofing it down!’  Instead of ‘excuse me’ she would say ‘Shoos me,’ and laugh off  her mother’s bilingual repertoire. ‘She’s dressed up to be nice,’ Rae sometimes observed, which apparently made more sense than the ‘nines’ of the usual English idiom. Her mother had grown up in the dark shadow of the Third Reich. Her father was English. Rae emigrated from England with a plum in her mouth when she was ten, so learned quickly to adopt the Australian accent she retains to this day. We fell in love and married.

A year later we travelled to France and Germany. We arrived at the old town of Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast in mid-winter. We walked hand in hand around the old sea walls enjoying the bracing winds. I bought a replica pirate’s pistol for Rae’s 14 year old brother.

She said, ‘Maybe you were a pirate in a past life.’

Pointing at the jetty, I replied, ‘I can’t really see you as a pirate’s môle, though.’ She smiled. We were conscious that we were exploring not only the outward landscape of Europe, but each other’s paysage de l’imagination.

These days I teach French at the Naturaliste University of the Third Age, and love long conversations with the French immigrants attracted to living ‘down  south’ among the vineyards and cheese-makers. At the Vasse market, my friend Jean-Yves tells me about his passion of pâtisserie, and how ‘c’est impossible d’obtenir ici la farine d’amande,’ – almond flour being the basis of many of his recipes. ‘Les fromages australiens,’ another stall-holder allows, ‘sont aussi délicieux que ceux de la France.’

I read Le Monde, in its version numérique, weekly. I can feel isolated. Sometimes people pay me two-edged compliments. A woman recently told me, ‘Tu parles comme un livre de grammaire. Most Australians don’t understand what it means to be bilingual; many of those who do don’t want to know.

But mostly, I am aware of landscapes. I peel back the world of English words and English habits of thinking and there’s a complete and new world, the same but not the same. I can look at the ‘sky,’ for example, and wonder about the sky’s colour, its shape, even its science, in English. The moment I label it ‘le ciel,’ I add to my experience of ‘ciel’s’ other meaning of ‘heaven.’  It subverts the whole world. It joins science and faith.

I see a paddock, and eventually discover that the nearest translation is ‘l’enclos’ which connotes a green space for small animals, not a wide open paddock painted gold with canola. Each enclos holds its whole European history in tension with the Australian reality.

Two wonderful children were born after our trip to Europe. When they were babies, I talked to them in French as much as possible. When they were ten and eight, we lived in Mauritius. Clancy Bissoondeeal was a member of Saint-Thomas church in Beau-Bassin where we worshiped for those weeks. Clancy offered to show us over the school where he worked. We were speaking in French, and I noticed that although the school was called Bon Accueil, Clancy’s title was Headmaster, not le Directeur. The library was labelled ‘Library’, not ‘Bibliothèque.’. ‘Pourquoi les titres anglais? I asked. Clancy told us, ‘Most Mauritians speak French at home, or maybe Hindi dialect. But school must be English medium. So we all speak two languages, three pour la plupart: French, English and Créole.’

Looking for further enlightenment, I went to the bishop’s house. The bishop’s wife told me, ‘We have French for relationships, we have English for business.’

Our kids are now in their late twenties. On a recent visit to Perth, we stayed with our daughter and son-in-law in their Huntingdale house. My wife and I sat in the lounge room, and over-heard our daughter in the nursery reading French words to our five month old grand-daughter. Her response? Une cascade pétillante of giggles.

Cognitions at St George’s College

On June 13, 2011, ABC TV broadcast a “Four Corners” report on the history of bastardry in the Australian Defence Forces, (http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2011/s3239681.htm) claiming there was a persistent culture of harassing and bullying junior recruits, which had not been eradicated despite many reports and reforms.

The report saddened me, but I was proud to recollect the achievements of “Withgart Blainsmith” at St George’s College (within The University of Western Australia) in the late sixties in reducing the violence and nastiness of College initiations.

In fact, by 1966, “Initiations” had been banned across the whole University campus, but when I arrived as a Freshman at St George’s that year, I discovered that they had simply switched the name, and we were to make ourselves available for a week of “Cognitions”.

These were really a series of humiliations: the first night quite subtle as Seniors and Gentlemen (3rd and 4th years) invaded freshmen’s rooms, made them stand on their desk and engaged them in banter designed to cut the freshers down to size.

The second night was the night of the Sophomores (2nd years). In large groups, they hunted from one freshman’s room to another, shining spotlights and hurling abusive remarks in their faces. Freshers were told to “make love to a pillow”, or “hold hands with your roommate, you poof”. While this yelling was going, other sophomores stripped the beds and festooned the sheets across the front of the main building.

Freshers whose responses were unsatisfactory could be stripped. On one or two occasions (not in my year), freshers were dropped naked from the Narrows Bridge 5 kms down river and told to make their own way home.

For some freshers, this invasion of their intimate lives and the threat of (or actual) violence were quite intolerable. The only support that appeared to be available was that of peers.

On the Friday night – Freshmen’s Task Night – Freshers performed for the whole College by singing or reciting. Again it was designed for the seniors to laugh at – and never with – the freshers. Some of these acts were crude and quite degrading.

I don’t know why Withgart Blainsmith (Robert Garton Smith, Tim Blain and myself) were so incensed with Cognitions. We had withstood the humiliations comparatively easily, perhaps because we understood their crude psychology of bonding through hardship.  But we were appalled at the distress inflicted on some of our fellow-freshers and resolved to use our creative skills to change things. Initially, I suspect, we wanted just to make Cognitions fun for freshers and not frightening, later, we were more intentional in reinventing the whole initial bonding activities.

Firstly, we asked the College Students’ Committee if we could write the skits for the 1967 Task Night.  We changed the words of popular songs to make gentle fun of the College hierarchy. The Warden has just undergone a hip replacement, so the Freshers serenaded him with “Hello, Joshua” to the tune of “Hello, Dolly”.

The seniors – some through gritted teeth admittedly – laughed, and laughed with the freshers.

Then in 1968 we demanded two nights of Cognitions Week to rehearse for Task Night. This had the side-effect of preventing roaming gangs of sophomores molesting freshers in their rooms: they were with Withgart Blainsmith polishing their performances.

That year, we re-spun Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Trial by Joshry” for Task Night. It was again a success, but required too much exposure for the freshers taking solo parts. They still risked being laughed at.

So in 1969, we wrote the first version of “Everyfreshman”, a morality to be played outdoors in the Quad. The character Everyfreshman had to meet Warden Hardwork, Matron Cleanliness and other partly disguised College notables (all played by freshers). St George himself appeared on Top Balcony and condemned Everyfreshman to be thrown into the pond – and he was duly ponded.

It was all good-humoured and gentle satire and the freshers had fun making it happen. There were some furious behind-the-scenes battles. St George appeared on the Top Balcony, then reserved to Seniors and Gentlemen. WG BS fought hard for the freshman playing St George to step foot on this hallowed platform. It helped that (now MLC) Philip Gardiner was Senior Student in that year, and he supported our request. For safety that first year, we made sure St George was costumed top to toe in a sheet, so was unrecognisable.

Withgart Blainsmith cannot claim that all the changes that happened in four years were due to them. “The times were a-changin’” with or without us. But I think WG BS recognised that initiation into a new community requires ritual, and includes some ritual hardship, but that the activities should be fun and respectful.

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