In these days of renewed cultural and religious clashes, one would think that here in the UK a nation-wide, state-legislated cultural awareness program should be a strong mandate of the government. It could be regulated by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) and, for example, take the form of a school program that teaches tolerance and awareness of different cultures and beliefs.
Oh wait! There is such a program. It’s called RE (Religious Education) and the suggested state school curriculum teaches children about the diversity of belief worldwide, or at least the major religions of the world. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that the RE program is the only program in the state-standardized curriculum that is not regulated by Ofsted. Schools are allowed to set their own curriculum for RE without interference from the government. And that means that in the faith-based schools of the country (which make up >35% of the schools and are 90% publically funded) there is no control over what children learn about other cultures and beliefs. These school have been found to push their own beliefs in RE, often countering other teachings such as in science classes.
As examples, evidence has been presented that some muslim schools teach RE from texts written in Saudi Arabia, and I know from experience that majority of RE in Catholic schools is from a particular dogmatic Catholic program (The Way, the Truth, and the Life).
Even in non-religious schools, ‘religious groups and representatives enjoy priviledged input into what is taught in RE’ (National Secular Society: Religious Education). As an example, in the Church of England RE curriculum I’ve seen, there is a clear emphasis on viewing all major religions as similar, even to the extend of explaining the pantheism of Hinduism as a form of monotheism (it’s also interesting that there was no discussion of Islam in the syllabus I saw).
I can’t help but feel that a mandatory RE course is how the British government got through the conflict that still rages in some U.S. states. Namely, whether to teach creationism in science class (as an aside, to teach creationism as a competing scientific theory is ludicrous as it clearly is not. However, I think it would be valuable to teach it in science as an example of the pitfalls of pseudosciences — more on this in a future post).
It’s also interesting that the stated RE program, which explores different beliefs, has obviously failed to incorporate alternate belief structures like humanism/atheism. The idea that, not only do some people not believe in deities, but that most people only believe in one, out of the many deities, and the implications of this, is surely worthy of teaching if we wish our children to grow up with open, questioning minds (and we do, because any other type of mind will leave us far behind in the global race).
So it seems quite clear that the variety in the national RE curricula as they currently exists, is not only dogmatic indoctrination for the relgious organizations that are involved in their production and teaching, but they are highly divisive and ultimately harmful to society. In a time when we need greater tolerance and understanding, we are teaching our children to be close-minded and bigotted.
Countering these failings is a lot of work for a concerned parent, but it’s important.
Insight and longevity.