Religious Education: Wider Horizons

The daunting rapidity with which the global scene is changing is laying up for the future a range of problems that education in this country must eventually face. Financial stringency, falling school rolls and emphasis upon the core curriculum are fostering distinctly inward looking approaches to the curriculum. Sooner, or later however it will be necessary to take a long hard look at the contemporary world, to ensure that our educational provision is able to match the demands that the world is making. Conventional syllabuses and conceptual approaches, which have stood the test of time, will need adjustment even to keep pace with the rapidly changing results of modern scholarship. Teacher expertise and the development of adequate resource materials will be at a premium. For many of the more alert and outward looking schools this has already been recognised. The African and Asian Resources Centre at Newman College was established in 1979, to cater for these needs in the West Midlands by the provision of In-Service courses and the production of teaching materials by teachers themselves.

These general statements have a ring of the obvious about them and at first sight have little to do with either R.E. teaching, or more specifically with the particular approaches to R.E. teaching encouraged by Shap. The relevance comes from the subjective assertion that good R.E. teaching has in general undergone a more profound change in the last decade than any other subject and that the R.E. department with a critical openness to Christianity and teaching World Religions is well placed to stimulate curriculum change in other parts of the school.

There are easily identifiable aspects of the contemporary world consistently in the media, but usually underemphasised in the school curriculum. Particularly in those LEA’s which have new agreed syllabii, the fact of teaching World Religions enables the RE. department to focus upon these, the inevitable interaction between the major faiths and upon their cultural contexts in a shrinking world. A few examples will suffice both to support the argument and illustrate the potential points of contact in other school departments.

Africa, with importance both as the starting point for the African diaspora and for its current geographical significance, makes a good starting point. Omission or distortion of it in the curriculum are the salient characteristics of the majority of teaching about it. In History it is usually seen as an extension of the European experience. David Killingray has written, “What are students to make of a Continent that is touched upon in the first year (Ancient Egypt), briefly sighted in year two (Vasco de Gama rounds the Cape), robbed of its manpower in year three (the Slave Trade), and then marched over in years four and five”? The geographers tend on the other hand to treat Africa as a permanent problem with poor soils and ineffective agricultural techniques. Too many social studies schemes start from the survival of the Masai and the bushmen — equivalent to approaching European history from the perspective of the Scottish Crofter and the Laplander. In terms of World Religions, however, the Continent has seen a fascinating interaction between Islam, indigenous religious beliefs and both with Christianity. The role of separatist churches under Colonial rule and the church as a whole in South Africa are vitally important to understanding Christianity in Africa. In a different context the retention of African religious traditions in the Caribbean and in British West Indian revivalist churches has a clear domestic implication. There are many ideas here, but elaboration of the last theme may illustrate the point: a useful aspect of interaction between school departments under the stimulus of R.E. can be achieved by a coherent approach to the personal and economic links between West Africa, the Caribbean and this country. History, Georgraphy, English Literature, using writers such as Braithwaite, Mais, Selvon and Naipaul, and the interaction of beliefs is an obvious grouping of slavery, sugar, immigration and personal experience.

A similar case can be made out for India. Very few History syllabuses for instance will omit Clive and Warren Hastings and India in the 20th century. The historic relationships between the British East India Company and the Hindu and Sikh rulers in 18th century India, are good points of entry. While the Amritsar Massacre in 1920 is a focal issue for the subsequent development of Indian nationalism. There are very few Geography departments that do not deal at some stage with the sub-continent of India or South Asia particularly where development aid is concerned. Here again the R.E. department has an important role in redressing the image so frequently portrayed of the Third World as one large over- populated and incompetent mess. The positive contributions to religious thinking and human experience from parts of the world which are temporarily at a relatively low historical ebb is in need of repeated emphasis.

English departments have increasingly found literature from the Third World to be of value in raising issues relevant to contemporary young people. These novels and stories frequently have a closer link betwen ideas and values than their western counterparts; they are frequently highly critical of western materialistic values, for example Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Maphandaya, a beautiful and poignant story of an Indian family who find themselves in the path of commercial developers.

Any treatment of South Asia which omitted Islam would of course be incomplete, and this leads on to the enormous subject of Islam itself. The historic interaction between Islam and Christendom is one beset by polemic, distortion and stereotype and this is still reflected in the curriculum. The majority of children will leave school having been taught the names of very few Muslims, possibly only the Prophet Mohammad and Saladin. Since 1973 the fate of the western world has been determined largely by oil derived from Muslim countries. The Iranian Revolution meanwhile has transfigured the geopolitical framework of the whole Gulf area and it has been cogently argued by Malcolm Yapp at SOAS that the Russian intervention in Afghanistan was triggered primarily by anxiety over its rapidly expanding Muslim minority groups. 600 years ago Islam played an equally active role vis-a-vis Western Europe. The gold that fed the medieval Italian city states was derived from African kingdoms, frequently Islamic in nature. It was transported by camels across the Sahara by a trade that was organised and capitalised by North African Muslim merchants. It was the same with the Indian Ocean trading network, which linked China to the Levant. This too was lubricated by African gold, in this case from Zimbabwe, and it too was in the hands of Muslim merchants. The great entreports were the Muslim towns of Ormuz and Malacca at opposite ends of the Ocean. A Portuguese navigator wrote of Malacca in 1515, “No trading port as large as Malacca is known nor anywhere do they deal in such fine and highly priced merchandise. Goods from all over are found here; goods from all over the world are sold here. It is at the end of the monsoons, where you find what you want and sometimes more than you are looking for”. The Portuguese were catalysed into their navigational exploits by the Italian bankers monopoly of the gold and luxury goods traded from the Muslim world. Yet we find these factors are under-emphasised despite the presence of this topic on the majority of History syllabii. The preferred emphasis is upon discovery as a feature of European enterprise.

Islam cannot effectively be treated simply from the point of view of beliefs and practices and divorced from its historic growth. The interaction between Islam and the diverse cultures of the parts of the world where it has spread are crucial; social, economic and legal organisations are clearly interrelated in Islam in a way that they no longer are in Christendom. To treat this subject adequately the R.E. department really does need the sympathetic support of other departments. Here again it does not require restructuring of an overcrowded syllabus but rather a coherent reassessment of those areas already being taught, which deal with the interaction between Islam and the West. The Crusades, the Age of Discovery, the Indian Mutiny, the Partition of India, Oil, the Arab/Israeli conflict, already have their niches and supportive teaching resources. The R.E. department is the natural focus for an approach to Islam which helps children to see it not only as the major world faith that it is, but also as a social cement. This is particularly important at the present time, when media treatment identifies Islam with extremism, fanaticism and the American hostages.

Although enough has probably been said to indicate the innovative potential of the R.E. department, one final example does merit a mention. Japan and China are both areas of considerable contemporary importance, which are still neglected in many schools. Here again the study of World Religions can stimulate teaching on at least one aspect of these two related, yet historically distinct cultures. Neither of them can be understood without reference to their religious and social backgrounds. One is an example of signification of Marxist ideology, the other of rampant industrialisation.

This is only a superficial list of some aspects of the contemporary world. The understandable pleas of overcrowded curricula and scarce resources from most school departments do not, unfortunately, disperse either the pressures from the world outside, or the moral obligation upon educators to translate this into meaningful teaching for the children. R.E. teaching does appear to be the key with the greatest potential for opening windows and ensuring that schools remain alert to their broader educational obligations.


In 1989 the National Curriculum threatens to recreate the worst features of an Anglo-centric curriculum endorsed by a paraphernalia of testing. Parental choice, based upon test results, is designed to determine the amount of money received by a school. R.E. stands outside this testing structure and consequently carries an even heavier responsibility for educational values which emphasise understanding rather than tested content. The “secret garden of the curriculum” has at least two keys, one of which is knowledge, another is values; and R.E. must surely involve itself with that.

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