Wednesday 28 September 2016

Religion in community national schools is a model to follow

In my opinion by Kevin Williams

Published 08/06/2016 | 02:30

Dr Kevin Williams
Dr Kevin Williams

Religion enjoys a unique profile in community national schools, which operate in under the patronage of Education and Training Boards (ETBs). Its profile in these schools is perfectly defensible on educational grounds and strikes the correct balance between openness to faith and freedom to reject it. It provides for classes in religion of a general nature designed for all pupils and formative lessons in particular faiths for children whose parents want it.

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Yet, some extreme secularists would advocate the complete exclusion of religion from schools. One of the reasons is the suspicion of proselytising intent on the part of teachers. Clearly, there exists a danger of teachers attempting to exercise undue influence on impressionable young minds. But fear of indoctrination can be exaggerated. Where there exists a suspicion of attempts to exercise coercive religious influence, it is the role of the inspectorate to protect young people from attempts to subject them to such influence. Indoctrinatory designs are not only morally and educationally reprehensible, but their manipulative intent is unlikely to meet with success.

The dominant Catholic school system has obviously failed to create a nation of biddable citizens. The result of the Marriage Equality Referendum shows that voters are not compliant Catholics assiduously obeying what the Church teaches.

Still, the exclusion of education in faith from schools is misguided for three principal reasons.

The first has been troubling the French in the early years of this century where the exclusion of religion from schools is a long-standing and respected part of the country's educational tradition.

But this exclusion has led to ignorance regarding religion and its cultural expression on the part of French young people and, indeed, of their teachers.

To address this condition of religious illiteracy, a law was passed in 2005 that made mandatory the provision of information about religion as it arises in other subjects. Yet teachers remain uncomfortable when any topic on religion comes up and because they envisage such teaching as a covert way of bringing faith into the school.

Secondly, it is not difficult to expel religion from the worlds of young people and consequently the only exposure that some young people will get to faith as an integral feature of human life is in school.

Understanding the meaning of religion requires a particular exercise of the imagination that does not sit easily in contemporary culture. Participation in religious ceremonies further demands a discipline of quiet reflectiveness and the practice of this discipline may not always come readily to young people.

If a liberal education is to be genuinely comprehensive, it must be open to the possibility of there being a religious dimension to human experience. Rather than the merely teaching about religious beliefs and values, this requires that faith be presented as a living option accepted as true by many.

Thirdly, the exclusion of religious education from schools does not mean that civic values are not promoted, but the potential contribution of religion to life does not secure the focused attention that it requires.

This means that future citizens may not get an opportunity to acquire the tools necessary to understand religious phenomena in their theological, moral, or political forms. Thus, they may become more vulnerable to the attractions of cults or more susceptible to being radicalised by fundamentalists.

By offering formative education in religion within timetabled hours for those parents who seek it, community national schools thus offer a compromise between the approach in the dominant confessional schools and that in Educate Together schools.

Dr Kevin Williams is Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection, School of Education, Dublin City University

Irish Independent

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