Thursday 20 September 2007

Religion and education: Part 2

And another thing...

This doesn't link to anything in the news, but reading these articles and finally getting round to reading Dawkins' book, has reminded me of something else I've been wanting to say about religion and education.

As a parent, and an erstwhile school governor, it's irked me the way that multi-cultural education often gets translated, especially in primary schools, into multi-faith education. Learning about 'other cultures' is reduced to finding out about the religious beliefs and customs of different groups. Non-white, non-indigenous groups are characterised as unchanging, homogenous cultures defined mainly by faith. Schools think if they've 'done' Diwali, Ramadan and Passsover, then they've fulfilled their multicultural obligations. In my experience, there's very little sense (at least at the primary level) of migrant communities as diverse, living entities, shaped by historical events, and very little sense of the secular and political forces at work within communities.

Defining non-white children primarily in terms of a nominal faith privileges that aspect of their identity above others, including loyalties based on nation, locality or cultural tastes. It also makes it more difficult for children to put any distance between themselves and their faith-of-origin, or to experience school as a neutral, secular space in which they might explore alternatives to the beliefs they were brought up in. And it has a spin-off for 'indigenous' children: they get categorised, by default, as 'Christian'. This subtle re-introduction of sectarian identities is ludicrous, in a nation where a majority are not active believers in any religion.

To quote Dawkins:

Just as feminists wince when they hear 'he' rather than 'he or she', or 'man' rather than 'human', I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear a phrase such as 'Catholic child' or 'Muslim child'...That is not a Muslim child, but a child of Muslim parents. That child is too young to know whether it is a Muslim or not. There is no such thing as a Muslim child. There is no such thing as a Christian child.

In place of multi-faith education, let's argue for a genuinely multicultural education that is secular, pluralist and internationalist, that views people as historical actors rather than members of unchanging 'cultures', and allows children to explore alternatives to the faith of their parents.

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