Too much religion in Religious Education says Commission Report

At the end of Cinderella, her sisters attempt to fit their feet into their stepsister’s shoe – in order to pass as her and marry the Prince. Obviously, not being as beautiful as Cinderella, their feet, as per the beauty standards of the time, were larger. So, one cut of her toe and the other sliced a part of her heel off. Each one fits and fools the Prince for a moment before the blood gives their game away. Much the same way, the Commission on Religious Education has fit RE into the shoe of contemporary British society. Some are happy that the shoe fits, while others can see signs of bleeding.

A two-year investigation into the state of Religious Education (RE) in British schools  has finally concluded its findings and, not surprisingly, it is recommending a reduced amount of Religion in order for the subject to fit into a world rich with “belief diversity”. Religious studies must become Religion and Worldviews, hereby equating all institutional worldviews such as atheism and humanism; the study of religion must change as the world changes.

The study seems to claim that the point of RE is to prepare students to tackle with controversial issues that are so prominent around them, to equip them to navigate those. To help students understand the role of religion in human lives. The Commission’s report is also for the most part focused on conflict, controversy and politics. There seems to be no real difference between the new Religion and Worldviews and that of say Sociology.

Nevertheless, this is all great and could be worthwhile within a larger subject of Religious Education where children are taught to understand the potential role of Religion in their own daily lives, and the role it plays in others’ lives. But as a central part of the reasoning behind the study of RE it seems misleading.

The primary aim of religion is to link human lives to the Eternal, to Being itself, to the sphere beyond the worldly. This is why understanding ‘religion’ as something that fits fully within the German word “weltanschauung” as the report claims, is to cut it off from its most fundamental aspect: revelation.

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth spoke about the relationship between Christianity and a world view directly, warning of a specific link between a particular Weltanschauung and Christian faith. In his Dogmatics in Outline, he writes,

“It is not the business of Holy Scripture or of Christian faith…to represent a definite world-picture. The Christian faith is bound neither to an old nor to a modern world-picture […] The Church must beware of establishing itself on the basis of any sort of Weltanschauung.”

The issue goes beyond simple semantics. A relationship with the divine as a direction of life is fundamentally a spiritual one, non-worldly, extra-human – as we strive towards that which is eternal. Worldviews change, as Barth learned in Germany in the 1930s, and religion must be above all of it. It must do so by definition, to remain a bridge to the divine, but also because he saw the dangers of a religion attempting to conform to societal trends in Germany at the time.

The revelatory aspect of religion, its fundamental role as a bridge between the worldly and the divine, is therefore only understood as a detail of some worldviews. In this way, within the Islamic or Jewish worldview, the laws of our lives on earth are set by divine revelation. As it all takes place within the Weltanschauung concept, any revelatory law is a limitation. The humanist lives in an open worldview, roaming freely as she decides on where to go and what to do, only limited by societal norms. The religious person is on the contrary never free, as their worldview is limited within the scope of their chosen religious “worldview”.

It isn’t, as it should be, taught that the humanist worldview is one where the central issue is the bridge between the human and the world, namely desire. Desire and want is how we link to the world around us. The religious view is here a liberated one, at least if we conceptualise it as I have here, where we hold on to the Rope of God, Love, Being itself, while we navigate through the world of desire towards a higher goal. We work on ourselves to become free from desire, not centre our lives around it.

The Commission’s recommendations are therefore false, essentially bound in the idea that religion is in its essence a way to understand our lives on earth – and therefore it must include all major ways to understand our lives on earth. From the outset, the understanding of religion limits it to fit into the mould of Humanism/Atheism. This is why the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BDBJ) stated that the report was “fundamentally flawed’. It isn’t because the recommendations are not going far enough, or that there are better ways to move RE forwards to make it more meaningful – but that the very essence of the report, the way it characterises religion is false. “Faith Literacy” as BDBJ calls it, is indeed seriously deficient in our society today, and any serious faith based organisation must make a similar statement against it.

It isn’t just that this is yet another opportunity lost, an opportunity to provide direction for children, to allow them to ask difficult questions about the meaning of life, the relationship between all things, the source if existence itself. The biggest danger here is that Religion and Worldviews consolidates a view of religion already prevalent in the media and society at large – that all things are equal, there is no absolute Truth, there is only diversity – everything is God to someone. La illaha illallah, the first proclamation by a Muslim, means that there is no God but God, that there is no real being but Being itself: there is no diversity, only Unity. All major religions share in this view – and the report’s recommendations reverse that statement. Religion and Worldviews might therefore seem as a move towards a more pluralistic understanding of RE, but is instead one which cuts off vital organs to fit in with contemporary trends: and those who see the bleeding must say so.

The Direction

One morning, a few weeks ago, I found the students sitting quietly, some of them face down on their desks. “Good morning!” I shouted in an exaggeratedly jubilant tone. They smiled but I could tell they were all tired, even more so than they usually were.

That morning, we were told to speak to the students about homework and organisation anyway, so I thought I’d find out what they had done the day before, between going home and coming back to school that morning. What had happened, or what had not happened, for them to come to school with seemingly no energy or enthusiasm to speak of?

I should say that school starts at 7am here, and many of the students go to bed around 11pm, if not later, so a level of tiredness is expected – but they were usually keen to tell me how tired they were, and liked to brag about how late they went to bed. This particular morning, they were just quiet.

We went through five of the students’ days on the board, wrote it up in a table.

“I got home at two-thirty and sat on the sofa for about an hour.”

“What did you do for a whole hour?”

“Nothing, just on my phone.”

They all had similar stories to tell. They went home and had a brief period of getting themselves settled. Most then had a nap, followed by food. Then it was homework, seasoned with chatting to friends on the phone and social media-ing. This particular evening they had all had a few more pieces of homework than they usually did, and an assessment to prepare for.

Then one of them said something that stuck with me for a few days now.

“It’s boring because it never ends until we are done with school forever. There’s no time to actually think about anything. Like, what’s the point of everything?

It looks more dramatic seeing it written down, and but the part in italics once again reminded me of what mainstream schooling does to children. It educates them primarily in the art of doing what you’re told, in dealing with awkward and unwanted social situations, and teaches them to snitch on their friends to get closer to those who are powerful.

What the student in question declared, was more than just what she saw as a lack of meaning, it was a general lack of direction. And why should she have a sense of direction, when none of the adults around her seem to? At least that’s what it looks like, because no one is talking about it. What’s the point of it all?

Searching for research on ‘lack of direction’ among teenagers and its effects on their mental and emotional state, I found that the concept as a whole is defined almost entirely in professional terms. Direction, is seen as career – knowing what you want to be when you grow up is seen as having direction in your life.

The issue with that is of course, that what you do for a living, or what your passion is in life in terms of hobbies, is only acceptable as a direction until you reach it – then what? Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, passions which are worldly are never really fulfilled, they morph and twist into new ones, always left wanting, and inevitably haunted by the dark cloud of impermanence of life. Everyone knows this, it’s not a hidden wisdom, but most choose to ignore it, because “what else am I supposed to do?”

In a religious life, direction is fundamental and central. Before all else, our belief puts us on a path. In Islam, the path is referred to in the five daily prayers and in the opening verses of the Quran; ‘the straight path’. Each one of these prayers is directed to Mecca, regardless of where you are in the world. Direction is set in physical practice, because direction is set for you in spirit. In the Bible there are several references to God’s path, laid out for us to walk through; ‘You make known to me the path of life’ – and our job is to walk it.

If we could remind children of their direction, the true direction of their lives – the one they are on regardless of grades and homework, regardless of how they are judged by institutions and adults who are themselves lost – I could perhaps have had a more meaningful conversation then, in that classroom.

“You know, it’s normal to be lost, not knowing why we do what we do? For you it must seem like most of your day is already decided by us, we tell you what to do, and none of it is really that meaningful. But to me, I get my sense of direction from somewhere else.”

“What do you mean?”

“There is two parts to all of us, this is what I believe anyway. One part is the bodily part, and that part studies, works, practices, learns to do things better, but that part is always confused, like you are now. It asks ‘whats the point?’. And it’s a good question. We study and learn, but soon our minds grow weak anyway, we start forgetting. We train and practice how to do certain things, but soon our muscles can’t handle the tasks we spent so long perfecting. What’s the point?

But then there is another part, the part that is focused on a higher purpose, one that is directed towards a higher goal…”

In a secular environment, a conversation like the one above seems overly emotional. “That escalated fast…” someone might comment. That’s how far we are currently from a world where the divine is present in our public life, to bring it in seems absurd. I didn’t actually say the above, what I said was something more suitable for a teacher.

“…There’s no time to actually think about anything. Like, what’s the point of everything?

“The point is for you to learn to organise yourselves. I bet you had these homework tasks for a while now, and you left most of them until the last minute. Am I right?”

Of course I was right, but that’s yet another opportunity lost. And off they went to their Geography class for their assessment on renewable resources.

Spirituality and Education – the spiritual classroom (Part 3)

What would a spiritual classroom look like? The first and most obvious difference between a truly spiritual classroom and the secular one is the role of the teacher, at least in theory.

The spiritual classroom follows one of the central tenets of traditional knowledge: the notion that a true teacher is a reminder or a guide. For Christians, humans are created in God’s image and are endowed with the gift of freedom, and the power to know God and to love Him, in Islam the message of Prophet Mohammad, the Quran, was a reminder of what we already knew but had forgotten. Kierkegaard writes on this when he describes Socratic theory of learning. Here Kierkegaard, like the Islamic notion of Truth as a reminder, assumes that the student already knows the truth and is reminded of it or pushed towards locating it. Here we are finally fulfilling the dreams of those who advocate a child-centered approach to teaching, where the teacher is the facilitator.

In fact, in the spiritual classroom the teacher isn’t much of a teacher at all but another student, or in Kierkegaard’s metaphor a midwife “who helps the student give birth for (and to) herself”. This notion of midwife does not underestimate the knowledge or wisdom of the teacher, on the contrary, when the teacher is a student of knowledge rather than a giver of truth, learning is bound to be more dynamic.

It is however a way to reinforce, just as it was to Socrates, that a midwife is the highest form of relationship a human being can have with another – a concept which in the spiritual paradigm is not difficult to grasp. Interestingly, when the Truth is admitted as extra-personal, as it is in a spiritual classroom, true reflection can take place and truth becomes something that transforms rather than something that confirms.

The teacher as a reminder fundamentally changes the relationship between student and the classroom. Usually, it is the student who is the variable in the equation; it is they who have to change to try and fit into the rigid school system, not the other way around. In a spiritual classroom, the student is central, the purpose, and the goal of everything. As a teacher, I myself have found myself complaining about students being ‘off task’, some even inform parents of this characteristic in their child.

However, we could also ask: what is the task that we are expecting children to do? Is it really a task worth staying on? Could it be that the task is not worthwhile?  Or is that precisely it: Are we demanding that the child learns to do things they do not want to do and things they know will not be useful? The spiritual classroom will break out of the paradox of an educational system that is fundamentally relativist and secular, but which, ironically, demands that students see classrooms as places of worship, and to see us, the teachers, as prophets.

Many teachers expect that students sit and listen, and that the only valuable education is one which maintains the teacher’s authority. Others criticize this teaching method, and advocate an interactive approach. Nevertheless, the teacher, whether called a facilitator or not, is in practice still a teacher, and once the carefully planned interactive lesson is over the students must listen for bells, follow time-tables they had no role in deciding, forced to be segregated according to age-groups and ask before they may use the toilet – all of which returns to the relationship between teacher and pupil that we set out to counteract.

Contemporary mainstream schooling is not primarily designed for children. The school day is prolonged to aid working parents, the very organisation of it reflects the factory model. In the words of John Taylor Gatto,

“school has done a pretty good job of turning our children into addicts, but a spectacular job of turning our children into children.”

It is as the latter proclaims rightfully, the great tragedy of modern education that school isn’t for or about children, but built around the interest of others. Jackson’s notion of the hidden curriculum revealed the same. Schools primarily were aimed at teaching children to cope with delays, deny their desires, deal with social distraction, develop contradictory allegiances between teacher and peers and come to terms with unequal power relations.

In the end, the relationship between teacher and student is a microcosm of what relationships we imagine between people in the public sphere – and that is fundamentally based on what role we imagine for ourselves on this planet.


Spirituality and Education – education as a gateway to God (Part 2)

Is there a place for God in the English National Curriculum? Could that be the answer to the incoherence and search for direction that is occupying those in charge of designing our education system?

There is barely any time to prepare our students for their exams, let alone think about the spiritual and moral side-issues that OFSTED has claimed we should also be teaching. No doubt, something more internally focused would be welcome. Rates of depression have increased by 70% among teenagers in the last 25 years, and 90% of teachers who responded to a Parent Zone survey described a worsening situation for teenagers with mental health issues in their classrooms. The child protection group NSPCC reported a 200% increase in young people seeking help and counselling over exam related stress.  Despite this, when the PISA rankings were published and the UK was predictably low in the league table, commentators looked upon the British education system, modelling the behaviour of a bad parent by shaking their head at the country like a parent disappointed with their child and saying, ‘why can’t you be more like Singapore?’.

There is a general incoherence to the education system, each subject teacher in secondary school is fighting to get through their curriculum, alongside all the other expectations placed on teachers and students. There is no real emphasis or focus on what kind of student we are trying to produce through all of this mess.

It wasn’t always like this. Jack Priestly describes the clarity of the ‘renaissance man’ and the education system that was required to produce him, or the ‘Christian gentleman’ of the 19th Century, as examples of ideals that existed against which the curriculum could be judged. He asks: Was there ever such an image discussed at the heart of the contemporary National Curriculum?

The very first normative statement in Department for Education’s framework for the National Curriculum in England is,

“Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum [which] promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society”

The irony of a secular education system, using at its primary foundational concept a fundamentally religious one is not lost on everyone.  Stephen Bigger comments on the contradiction among OFSTED inspectors who lack clear definition of spirituality while maintaining its centrality to their inspections – and predictably rarely finding it. Yet, in our quest to clarify the spiritual aims of British education, OFSTED’s definitions are not without value. According to the 1994 OFSTED comments, spiritual development is,

“Experiencing feelings of transcendence – feelings which may give rise to belief in the existence of a divine being or the belief that one’s inner resources provide the ability to rise above everyday experiences;

Search for meaning and purpose – asking ‘why me?’ at times of hardship and suffering; reflecting on the origins and purpose of life”

In a report by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), spirituality is defined as: “a response to God, the ‘other’ or the ‘ultimate’” and “an inclination to believe in ideals and possibilities that transcend our experiences of the world”. Here spirituality is defined in its rightful context: in relation to the transcendent, to God.

How God could play a bigger role in our curriculum?

Pope John Paul II, outlining an ideal pedagogical approach, emphasizes the importance of being “deeply concerned with truth”. In our current world of deconstructing and cynicism that statement is a controversial one. “Whose truth?” some may ask, “everyone has their own truth”. At the most fundamental level, the notion that each person has their own truth is part of the problem and close to the root of the whole issue of a hollow education system. Children want to learn things that are “out there” in the words of Fox Mulder, not reflect on their own feelings and opinions.

In traditional scholarship there is actually a consensus on this issue, that there are some human activities that are lower than others. In relation to knowledge, study that quenches the spiritual thirst is higher than that which satisfies the ego. A purposeful school would naturally promote the study of the higher spheres, not maintain the reflective self-analysis which can if misdirected, work towards a stronger ego.

To learn is to grow, to move beyond your ‘self’ at any given time. The Muslim scholar Imam Abdullah ibn Alawi Al-Haddad (d. 1720), describes this as being “when a man rises above the dense veils of ego and body of effort and self-discipline, he knows more and more”. In Catholicism too, the spirit, that which God has in-spired by breathing in his Holy Spirit, cannot be known apart from through faith, “it escapes our experience”. In Buddhism our essence is that which escapes us as we attach ourselves to the worldly, and a search for that essence is only possible through detachment, not further questioning of the worldly.

Although, speaking the language of religious tradition is jarring in the modern context, spirituality, which as a concept contains the divine and sacred, should be considered a right. A school which is serious about its purpose must work towards the spiritual development of the student. In the words of Ibn Sina, or Avicenna,

“Education […] should be undertaken for the spiritual development of man, and with the aim of deepening his understanding of the world around him…and to use this understanding as a gateway to spiritual love and apprehension of God”

God is the unity of the world, that which binds everything to everything. Traditional knowledge linked everything to faith, love and/or God. In contemporary society that unity is broken up into a “world of compartmentalization”  and of fragments. Everyone has their own path. Education must be an antidote to all the divisive and broken bits and pieces that make up the life of a child, the mission of the school should be a holistic one, to promote wholeness and holiness, in an era of fragmentation.

Spirituality and Education – the incoherence of RE and the incoherence of education (part 1)

Before I became a school teacher, I used to flick through the Education pages of newspapers and read teachers’ complaints and criticisms of the changes to the curriculum or lack of direction in education. As a university student, I was often on marches against cuts in education – it seemed like a no-brainer – where I met teachers, often very angry ones.

Now, after three or four years of teaching, I am also frustrated. For me it isn’t so much the cuts or the overpaid academy bosses but the lack of direction and aim. What is the purpose of education in the first place? What kind of student are we trying to create? You know, the questions that make teacher’s eyes roll because it reminds them of their naive undergraduate days, before they started work in our league-tabled-led, broke and aimless schools (obviously with little miracles here and there otherwise we wouldn’t do it).

A recent study on the relevance and future of Religious Education was done by the University of Exeter, with an interesting albeit unsurprising finding: “the content of the RE curriculum generally lacks coherence and continuity”.

The finding is unsurprising. How can we expect a National Curriculum which does not know its own purpose, to be able to teach philosophies which deal exclusively in purpose? It is however an interesting point because I think it gets to the core of the issue with our education.

I made a similar observation with my own students, and discussed with them my own findings: their education at school does not really have any real purpose. By that, I explained, I meant in terms of answering questions which are relevant to our lives, learning content which enlighten. Of course, there are a lot of lessons learned, about being on time, sitting still, obedience, patience and so on and so forth. After some discussion, I gave each student a piece of paper and asked them to write one question they would like an answer to, on any topic. The majority of students asked questions, which according to OFSTED (The Office for Standards of Education) class as ‘spiritual’: “Why do humans exist?”, “Why is life unfair?”, “Is there a God?”, “Why do people believe different things?”

I think these are all linked; the lack of coherence in our RE curriculum, the decline of our education system, the high numbers of teachers leaving the profession– in our daily job teachers know what they are doing, but as a whole we have no idea. In short, there is a lack of purpose and a lack of understanding of what purpose really means. OFSTED wants schools to promote spiritual development, but do not know what that means.