So, the latest way in which schools have failed children has been revealed today, clear as it now is that standards of teaching in Religious Education, and the teaching of Christianity in particular, are well below any minimum expected standard.
As one might expect, the more excitable tribalists have jumped immediately on their mounts and declared TOTAL WAR on Michael Gove, uniquely responsible as he is for the falling standards that have been identified at various points over the last few decades or so. Whilst it cannot really be denied that his reforms have had the kind of impact on RE that just about everybody said they would, nonetheless Gove is more harbinger than the Doom itself. He may well have made it easier for schools to drop RE – but that schools should wish to do so is nothing for which Michael Gove can be held culpable.
No, the reason RE is expendable is because RE has made itself expendable, being racked with an existential uncertainty regarding the value and indeed justification of its very soul. RE is too often the Woody Allen of the school curriculum, the gallic shrug of the school timetable: like apologising when someone else bumps into us, it is that part of schooling which we do without quite knowing why, before apologising again for the uncertainty. In short, RE has become a subject of which the majority are fundamentally unsure – of what it is and what we are trying to achieve in delivering it.
To formulate some kind of response, or rather tentative explanation, a degree of commonality with non-RE comrades must be acknowledged – just like many other subjects, RE is racked with indecision on whether our goal is to teach students how to know, or what to know. What forms the fault lines between ‘progressives’ and ‘traditionalists’ throughout the curriculum plays out acutely in the RE classroom – though of course with extra hand wringing. Obviously. And you can bet those hands and that wringing will be Fair Trade. Probably.
Which brings us to popular conceptions of what RE actually is. For some, especially prevalent amongst those who don’t teach it, RE is just citizenship with some colourful festivals thrown in. It is there for us to study all about these religious types of whom we have heard tell, with success defined by how well such teachings helps create that kind of textbook civic society to be found primarily in the wet dreams of PPEers. This approach is already institutionally detached from, and condescending toward, those who hold religious belief, treating their subjects as curious artefacts in much the same manner that colonial navigators viewed their fur-clad, machete-wielding charges before writing home to their countrymen about how we must seek to protect and understand these primitive cultures.
Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the ATL (and supporter of the Accord Coalition/Secular Society Lite), summed up this this citizenship-lite approach in saying that RE is ‘vital for our young people so that they understand the role of religion and belief in society.’
Yet, in fairness to Bousted, she is only reaffirming the standard presumptions of many in the political and educational echelons. Which illustrates the irony: whereas OFSTED now pose as the warrior guardians of rigour in RE, it was they who helped set it on its current course by placing such emphasis on 90s buzzwords like ‘diversity’, ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘community cohesion’. And what OFSTED wanted OFSTED got –a touch of humility might just be in order before the Finger of Shame gets pointed at teachers suddenly finding themselves on the wrong end of an unexpected step-change.
However, the identity crisis goes further than just this. If the influence of the political classes turned RE into the propaganda arm of the Ministry for A Lovely Civic Society, so the academy must shoulder its own portion of blame. Indeed it is the academy, more than any government, which has given RE an identity crisis the likes of which would leave the average postmodernist looking overly dogmatic.
For too long, RE teaching has been beset by pedagogical presumptions that strike at the very heart what RE ought to be about. Just as JFK reassured a prejudiced public that he had the schizophrenic capacity to indelibly separate faith and the political, so teachers arriving on their training courses have been for too long bombarded into believing that RE can only be delivered through a pedagogical version of the same. To do otherwise is ethically dubious, or intellectually dubious, or probably both, and whilst we’re at it you’re probably not safe to be left with kids anyway, a kind of teaching Pied Piper of Waco just waiting to indoctrinate children and lead them away from the safety of secular presumption.
And this secular presumption is the largely unchallenged King of the academy. It sees itself as the guardian of neutrality and disinterested pursuit of knowledge. For those who ascribe to it, this approach opens up the airwaves to the crowing chorus of religious diversity, allowing us to dispassionately pluck the juiciest fruits of each. That such an approach might not be neutral, nor indeed disinterested, is rarely countenanced: that it might severely limit understanding considered a heresy. No, the terms of debate are clear – you either accept scholarly secularity or you are dogmatic/fundamentalist/bigoted (delete as appropriate).
Which is a touch inconvenient for those of us who insist such a paradigm is reductive and distorts true understanding and, indeed, authentic exploration of religion and the metaphysical. After all, how can one really inhabit the sacral heart of religious belief if one has, from the outset, detached oneself from the validity of its truth claims? In RE it has become normal to reject the heart of the religious instinct precisely in the name of better grasping it. It is the equivalent of teaching students about football by giving them the rules of rugby.
The outcome is that RE either becomes the loose conglomeration of trite clichés that fail to connect with students on anything like a personal or experiential level, or else turns into a self-consciously (though false) philosophical approach which fetishizes the act of thinking whilst being negligent in the duty to develop thought. Which is why RE has the tendency to oscillate between feel-good touchy-feely slogans or beard-stroking sessions designed to inflate the ego more than the intellect.
Some RE teachers genuinely think that in pursuing this approach, within these secular paradigms, they are opening minds, precisely by encouraging their charges to abandon (or sideline) any relational or intellectual context within which they may embed understand of the complex themes that decent RE teaching must necessarily tackle head on. Where this occurs, we hear the buzzwords of intellectual superiority that has followed the secularist approach round ever since those with many letters after their name decided to teach those without many letters after their name that this was what all clever people thought.
We hear words like ‘critical’, and ‘analysis’, and ‘evaluation’, but the very foundation upon which such activities can take place is a mere chimera, asking as it does that the student to affirm a prior rejection of what it is that that which they study demand they take existential account of. We ask students to adopt a mindset that every single one of the religions that they study would reject at the most fundamental level. If that sounds bonkers, it is because it is.
As such, this is not the development of thought but the teaching of a sterilised skill, which in the end becomes more like a game of blind man’s buff – asking an eleven year old to walk into a classroom and choose their favourite metaphysical vantage point, on the basis of they-know-not-what-and-grasp-not-yet criteria. We might as well offer a monolingual child a selection of twelve texts written in different languages, before asking them to choose their favourite translation. Can it be any wonder that for so many children RE seems detached from real life, even though it is in RE that one ostensibly encounters those things that will shape many a life and love over the course of a lifetime.
For this reason, some argue that confessional RE still has a role to play, not to create devout soldiers of God but to facilitate precisely this critical mindset – it gives a skeletal framework upon which to grow understanding, to pin criticism, to explore complexities and develop critique, precisely by hanging on and against viewpoints already interiorised. To do so is the difference between throwing a punch at fresh air and aiming one at a particular target. Or to put it glibly, for demonstration, the RE teacher who seeks to explain Sukkot by comparison with Harvest better be sure students grasp the depths of Harvest – and if the very language and grammar of thankfulness and fasting is alien to a student’s understanding of life, then we need to acknowledge that RE has failed to do its job, and stop asking students to answer vanity questions about which festival they prefer and why.
In short, asking that an RE teacher can teach from the inside rather than the outside, indeed that RE is initially taught from the inside rather than the outside, can have its benefits – not only does it guarantee that the teacher is a genuine specialist, but it is also a more productive and rigorous framework for critical thought than the false presumptions that currently beset RE pedagogical orthodoxy.