Teaching children about world religions and ethics could help counter Islamophobia
The proposal for an Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics curriculum in primary schools has met with considerable resistance in some quarters. But could it help create a space for difficult conversations, including conversations about the causes of political violence, terrorism, conflict, war and alienation?
The proposal, from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), is an exciting initiative in Irish education, even though there are concerns that it is not viable in an already full primary school curriculum.
Some think that it will undermine the religious ethos of schools and others feel that all talk of religion should be kept out of schools.
Yet, positions at the extreme ends of the spectrum have tended to caricature the debates surrounding the teaching of ERB and Ethics in such a way that they refuse to face the richness and complexity of the history of humankind and of our contemporary world.
Often we don't think deeply about how we have come to hold the values that we hold.
In my ethics lectures with my students, I do not ask them to change their beliefs and values, but rather to explore them.
I ask them to consider how far their claim that 'everyone is entitled to their own opinion' might stretch in the face of racism or oppression, if they have responsibilities to others, whether there are limits to freedom of expression, or if there are principles that we might share in common as human beings.
I invite them to see that human beings have been struggling with the questions of how to live a good life and how we can live with others over millennia, and that there are better and worse answers.
Although it is important to understand that the debates about the patronage of schools and the introduction of this new subject area are separate issues, it is also important to acknowledge that Ireland is in the minority in the international arena, given the overwhelming percentage of primary schools under a religious ethos here.
Given the status quo (more than nine out of 10 primary schools are Catholic maintained), this draws into sharp relief our special obligation to provide an education that includes all our children and cultivates mutual understanding of their different traditions, stories, beliefs, perspectives and values.
A good education involves encountering the other, engaging in dialogue, learning about our histories, thinking more deeply about our values and beliefs, and being able to navigate the complexity of leading an ethical life, enabling us to live as fellow citizens in a pluralistic society, all of which will be features of a new curriculum in ERB and Ethics.
The Irish curriculum is one that is committed to the holistic development of the child.
And if it is to be an ethical curriculum, it means that all our children ought to have an understanding of the beliefs and values of others that extends beyond caricature and ill-informed ideas.
Entering into a dialogue with ideas and perspectives outside one's own tradition is part of becoming an educated human being in its deepest sense.
If we cannot bear this encounter with the views of others or if we see such encounters as threats, then what does it say of our relationship with our own traditions?
The introduction of this new curriculum is complex for other reasons.
The initial rationale, from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in its Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools, lay in a desire to promote tolerance, social cohesion and peaceful co-existence. However, given the broader context of new counter-terrorist legislation, such as PREVENT in the UK which has made it a statutory duty for a range of professionals - from crèche workers to healthcare workers and university lecturers - to prevent terrorism and to look for "indicators" of those at "risk of radicalisation", it has become more urgent to ensure that students and professionals do not resort to prejudicial judgments about others from fear or ignorance.
This discourse about radicalisation persists.
This is despite the fact that there is scant empirical evidence that ideology or even extremist ideas cause violence. Counter-radicalisation strategies like PREVENT risk making Muslims what Paddy Hillyard once called a "suspect community".
Yet, one ought to be educated about different beliefs, values and religions, not for reasons of security or as part of a counter-terrorist strategy, but because it is simply part of a good education and part of understanding the human story.
The extension of the ethical imagination is what seems so vital at a time of selective mourning and monolithic conceptions of Islam. The tragedy of the massacres in Paris is undergone daily by many others, including tens of thousands of Muslims, from Beirut to Baghdad, who mourn and grieve their dead just as those in Paris do.
If our schools can do anything, perhaps with the help of this new ERB and Ethics curriculum, it will be to educate our students and help them to understand the diversity, complexity and richness of humanity's religions, values, and beliefs, the dissent and disagreement within traditions and philosophical worldviews, and the ways in which grief, pain, loss and love touch all of us.
This might counter the risk of Islamophobia in Europe and the increased potential for discrimination that we are witnessing.
It might allow for real dialogue.
It might help people make the critical distinction between understanding and exoneration or justification.
And this should be done as part of good and well-rounded education that refuses stereotypes and challenges discrimination.
It may even extend beyond this and create a space in schools and beyond for those difficult conversations that parents and teachers are no doubt having with children in the present climate.
Dr Aislinn O'Donnell is a lecturer in Philosophy of Education at Mary Immaculate College (University of Limerick). She teaches the ethics strand of the first year course on Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics