Religion and the curriculum
In each of the States of Australia, the school curriculum rests on a list of eight learning areas. These lists are remarkably similar, with only a few phrases separating one from another. That they are so similar is no coincidence: they all derive from the list set forward in the mid-eighties as the basis of the hoped-for National Curriculum.
They are similar, but there is no doubt that they are arbitrary. The number is arbitrary: why not five? Why not sixteen as proposed by the liberal theorist Philip Phenix in the sixties? Why not three? Reading, writing and 'rithmetic? Why eight?
Why these particular eight? There seems to be no common criterion for inclusion. Take the case of English, for example. What is this learning area: literature or linguistics? English as a subject has been at different times everything from grammar to history, from textual studies to character education. (Reid 1996)
No one doubts that English will remain in some form on the school curriculum. At the very least, business and universities stipulate that students coming to them are able to read and write well enough for commerce and to produce intelligible university essays. But English is hardly a coherent discipline. Students who have enjoyed English or English literature as a Year 12 subject will be unable to find English listed as a course offering at most universities. They will have to make do with Textual Studies or Communication.
Equally puzzling to some is the exclusion of Religion from this list. I am referring to the critical study of religion as a way of knowing the world, rather than the confessional religious education taught in all States (except South Australia) by visiting representatives of faith communities.
It's not difficult to justify religions inclusion in a rounded education, especially in a post 9/11 world in which it has become clearer how vital it is to understand the faith and motivations of people next door or around the globe. To exclude the study of religion is in fact to censor a child's education: how can they otherwise understand Australia's Muslim neighbours in Indonesia, or come to grips with mediaeval theocracies in Europe from which modern democracies derive? What sense can they make of condemned bombers who are overjoyed because of their zeal for God?
The study of religion is a powerful instrument for exploring one's own developing values and beliefs. When taught well, religion places at the student's disposal the amazing wisdom of Taoist sages, Zen Buddhists, Jewish ethicists, Christian and Muslim mystics, scholars and theologians of all faiths and none.
In addition, a pragmatic justification for including religion arises from the teaching of values. The curriculum of each State, in a variety of ways, mandates the inclusion of values in both the content of the classroom and the processes of school administration. Many educators, including Professor Brian Hill*, argue strongly that values make no sense to students without a critical exploration of their origins. Students may learn that the taboo against sex before marriage is a value held by their elders. But unless they see the original purpose of the taboo as promoting the positive benefits of marriage, the value is simply a nonsense, and unlikely to affect their choices and behaviour. The result is apparent.
In a more general way, the values promoted by state curriculum documents derive from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is dishonest not to hold up the Christian and Jewish contexts in which the values originated, so that students can evaluate them for themselves, and then make informed choices in their lives.
Religion's place in the curriculum
You may concede that religion needs to be included in a full education, because of its pervasiveness in human society and its role in creating the values of a fair and open democratic society, and yet see no need to add a ninth learning area to the curriculum. Can't all these things be covered in SOSE?
Those promoting a greater inclusion of religion in the school curriculum need to convince the community both that religion has a place in a public school curriculum, and also that it should be a separate learning area. (The argument has obviously been won in most faith-based schools.)
With the liberal theorists of the sixties, I would argue that religion is a distinct way of describing the world, a distinct field of knowledge. Its use of symbol and myth to give meaning to individuals and communities lives, and its use of ritual to help people interact with fundamental realities are unlike any other discipline.
The coalition government's policies are blurring the boundaries between public and private schools and thus between those who have and those who have not included religion as a learning area. Its search for national standards will create pressure to kick-start again the idea of a national curriculum as it makes little sense to require assessment national tests separate from the full educational cycle of outcomes, pedagogy and assessment.
This blurring of school types and federal and state responsibilities provides a moment of opportunity to re-examine the completeness of the education we offer to Australia's school students, and the place of religion studies in it.
* For example in papers presented in 2004 to the Conferences of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), and the Australian Curriculum Studies Association.
Hill, Brian V. (1991), Values education in Australian schools, Hawthorn, Vic: ACER.
Hill, Brian, V. (2004), Exploring Religion in School: a national priority, Adelaide, SA: Open Book.
Nord, Warren and Haynes, Charles (1998), Taking religion seriously across the curriculum, Nashville: First Amendment Center.
Phenix, Philip H. (1964) Realms of Meaning, New York: McGraw-Hill.
Reid, Ian (1996), 'Whatever Happened to English?', Chapter 6 in Higher Education or Education for Hire? Language and Values in Australian Universities, Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press, pp 97–112.
Subject HeadingsSocial life and customs