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Ethics classes won’t stop the extremists

By Cathy Byrne - posted Friday, 24 September 2010


Through education, societies can either clone themselves or build society anew. As Australia has become more multicultural, more engaged with a globalized world, our education system has shown great capacity for renewal. The old model of segregation (of race, class, gender, ability/disability) has evolved into a more inclusive approach, where students from all groups learn together.

Teachers are trained in a variety of strategies to handle classes of boys and girls, both gifted and disadvantaged, from mixed abilities, classes and ethnicities. Now, segregation is considered an archaic educational model - except for religion. In Special Religious Education (SRE), scripture providers fear the possibility of children learning outside of their particular tradition.

Fear is a poor basis for determining educational content and pedagogy. Religious segregation harbours ignorance and intolerance. It enables extremism and can lead to prejudice. Australian students" cultural and religious literacy lags behind comparable plural democracies. Our religious prejudice (particularly against Muslims) has increased.

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A recent study of the attitudes and values of school students (Jennifer Buckingham"s The Rise in Religious Schools) revealed that public school graduates are less socially liberal and more intolerant and fearful of immigrants than their religious school peers. No surprises there – they have little opportunity to explore religious ideas outside of segregated scripture classes delivered by untrained volunteers. Our secular education institutions appear at best, ambiguous towards and at worst, schizophrenically fearful of religion.

One scan through the NSW SRE Implementation policy" reveals how accountability for SRE is kept to a minimum. There is no content oversight nor requirement for professional teaching standards.

Inclusion is another problem. During my own recent research into public primary school SRE (scripture), one principal commented that some children are segregated even within scripture classes. "The Buddhist teacher didn"t want non-Buddhist students because they couldn"t meditate. The Jewish teachers didn"t want non-Jews". One parent claimed that: "Even non-scripture children are segregated into those with some spirituality and those with no defined affiliation, it"s preposterous". Indeed.

Meanwhile, the standard for religion education (RE) in the UK, Europe, Canada, parts of Asia and Africa is a multi-tradition approach, where mixed classes learn together about many religious and non-religious traditions. Children are taught how to respect and engage with differences and how to critique and consolidate their own standpoints, religious or otherwise. Conflicting truth claims are contemplated and debated. Children learn to role play other viewpoints to improve their analytical and communication skills.

Research into this comparative RE model shows positive effects on a child"s capacity for both religious tolerance and critical thinking. The research highlights the effective contribution to social cohesion that comparative religion classes can have – even among children as young as five.

Most Australian states do have a comparative "General Religion Education" (GRE) curriculum but these are buried inside social science syllabuses that struggle for face-time. A NSWDET presentation on the syllabus area shows that professional teachers are confused as to the requirement to teach GRE at all in the junior years, and that the culture/religion stream is under-utilized and poorly supported. GRE receives only one-sixth of the class time given to the more indoctrinatory SRE - which is allocated an hour each week. Religious lobbies are happy with the status quo. Most parents are not.

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The multi-tradition RE model (learning about many religions as opposed to learning into a particular one) now has the support of parents and professional educators in Australia. Finally, after many letters to principals and premiers, by disheartened parents and P&C groups, after struggles and rejections over decades, the opportunity to change the inadequate RE policy is here. It even looks like becoming an election issue. The NSW Education Minister shows some pluck, taking on the theologically fervent.

It is a pity though that the discussion is so limited. The polemical question: "Do you support the SRE ethics alternative, yes/no?" is hardly the vision splendid. Her department is eminently capable of a more emancipatory shift from oldy-worldy ways. But perhaps there is a measure of fear here also, of being accused of "social re-engineering". Best not frighten those horses. After all, this small step can be talked up as a major victory.

Last week, Archbishop Jensen (ABC"s Stateline, 17 Sept) rightly pointed out that an "ethics alternative" to scripture is not just an "inner Sydney issue". However, he mistakenly limited the implications to NSW. All Australian states have similar issues in how they handle religion education policy and practice. Most exclude non-religious belief systems and manage the opt-out process by limiting choice in a discriminatory way. This is an issue for the entire nation. It should be part of the Australian Curriculum Review agenda, but is not.

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About the Author

Cathy Byrne is a Ph.D. scholar at Macquarie University’s Centre for Research on Social Inclusion. She is interested in the policy and practice of religion education as a strategy for managing religious diversity.

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