Let Our Children Pray

by Margaret Coffey

Margaret Coffey

This is an edited text from ABC Radio National's Encounter program on a conference on ethics and spirituality in the school curriculum, in Canberra last April, sponsored by the Dialogue Australasia Network. The program was broadcast on April 28, produced and presented by Margaret Coffey.

A new approach to religious and values education is growing in Australian schools - both independent and government. This ethics-focussed movement is based on a 'fivestrand' approach to education developed by philosopher Peter Vardy in Britain. In Australia they call it RAVE - religion and values education.
Last April, 250 teachers from around Australia gathered in Canberra to report on their experiences and to hear news of the first university-based post graduate course to offer training in RAVE approaches to primary and secondary education. They also heard Peter Vardy explain why ethics could not be taught without religion alongside.
Philosopher, Felicity McCutcheon is Head of Religion and Philosophy at Canberra Girls Grammar School, which hosted the conference for the Dialogue Australasia Network - a network of teachers and school principals interested in fostering an innovative approach to religious and values education. Dr McCutcheon described two models of contemporary school-aged girl. When she introduced Sal there was a stir of recognition.
"The first one - I called her Petronilla - has a father who is concerned for her well-being because he is worried about what the world will do to her. So she is slumbering away in a deep peaceful sleep, rather like Sleeping Beauty, actually waiting to be woken up in an ideal world."
"The more common child of today I call Sally. Sally has been exposed to the world from her earliest days. She is barely allowed to sleep at all. "As a tiny child she has been led to worry about any, and every social issue - from abortion to nuclear war. She has been cajoled into believing that she has done something on an issue once she has expressed her opinion on it. Her geography books require her to speculate as to what she would do to put an end to poverty in South America. Her civics books often call her to imagine a solution to a problem, of something like toxic waste, which required nothing more than the miraculous appearance of some currently unknown technology. Her science book describes a world almost completely foreign to her - she doesn't get outside very often. And in history she is often asked to imagine what to do if she were a king or a prime minister of a particular country facing a particular problem.
"Now, that sort of education has led Sal and many like her, I believe, to think that anyone at all, whatever the depth of their ignorance, can easily solve complex and deep problems. Along with the almost unbearable weight of such problems, Sal is encouraged to believe that the purpose of life is to live out her dreams, reach her potential, and, wherever possible, to make a difference."
"But no one actually ever stops to ask Sal whether all dreams are worth pursuing. Nor what her potential really is. Nor what it might actually mean to make a difference. "The young people of today carry the rhetoric in their heads. It is pretty much an empty mantra, as far as I can tell. So while Sal bears the impossible burdens of having too much information and too little understanding, Petronilla continues her deep and peaceful sleep.
"Now despite all her cheerful and breezy rhetoric about pursuing her dreams and making a difference, Sal secretly longs for sleep. She wants rest and she wants peace. She wants time to think. She wants not merely to "have fun" but to know joy. And she desperately wants someone to teach her how to tidy up and take possession of the contents of her mind."
"Imagine you are Sal. What would you want (or need) your school to provide in order for you to take possession of your mind and to be in a position, not just to have fun (which is a sort of catch cry at schools), but to experience joy?" "If you actually realise the amount of information children receive in visual images, through their ears, through sending messages - they often have three conversations running at once. There is just this constant noise. In our classes we tend to call it monkey minds - thoughts that jump from tree to tree.
"As I was thinking about how we could help the Sals of today, it did occur to me that there are two levels on which they need help. One is being helped to see what is in their minds, and how they can actually start to get some order, or structure. That of course is a cognitive skill. So we need to turn to those who can train us in cognitive thinking and good reasoning. But that is not enough. A tidy mind does not necessarily mean that Sal is not still feeling despair, and burdened.
So the second aspect of helping Sal is developing wisdom. More than just thinking - it is actually gaining deeper understanding of the way things are, and then being able to orientate oneself in some sort of relationship to that. That is a deep sort of knowing or knowledge - it is not traditionally considered to be part of a school curriculum. But the world being the way it is, if we are not helping our children gain some sort of orientation to the amount of information, and the sheer number and depth of issues that they will face, then they are just not going to be able to cope.
Many young people today are choosing the option of not coping, and that is, I believe, partly why we have such shocking suicide rates. So here are the two questions: What is it to actually think well? What kind of life is actually worth living?
Do we in our schools seriously attempt to ask and answer these questions? Do we promote and encourage an environment where humanity can flourish? I suggest that we do not.
Dr Peter Vardy, a University of London-based philosopher has been the driving force behind the five-strand approach to religious and values education, and its adoption by an increasing number of independent schools in Australia. The five strands refer to the series of themes forming the curriculum base in any school that takes up this vision. They include a study of the Bible and the Christian tradition; ethics and values education; philosophy of religion; a study of world religions; and an affective strand that teaches stillness and silence (meditation is not the word used). A lot of these topics can be integrated into SOSE, into Health, into English, into mathematics. These are not just religious views, they are decision-making life issues. The idea is that neither ideas nor beliefs be imposed on children, but that they be led to think well and, in Peter Vardy's words, become more fully human. Just two of these themes were the focus of the Canberra Conference, the first major conference to be held in Australia by this burgeoning movement.
Those themes were ethics and spirituality. Dr Vardy spoke to Margaret Coffey:
"I think the theme of the conference has been about becoming fully human. Now there are various words, and vocabulary is slippery. Words like spirituality don't have any clear meaning. But I think part of becoming a fully human being, in the mainstream traditions of the major religions, is a broader dimension than day-to-day activity. Spirituality is not just a matter of private piety; it is a matter of action. Religion is not just a matter of personal opinion and worship on Sundays or Saturdays or Fridays, it is a matter of action. So I think religion and ethics are closely related.
Ethics is related to how we live. How do we deal with issues like genetics, just war, abortion, euthanasia, business ethics, all the other complexities of our day-to-day life? That is informed by our belief systems, whether those are atheist, Marxist, Christian, Muslim or Jewish. We come from different cultural backgrounds. Go back to the 1872 Victorian Education Act - the other states followed from that. Education in Australia was going to be secular, compulsory and free. I can well understand suspicion in state schools, of religious education. A lot of people in Australia see the word 'religion' and associate it with indoctrination, and I think that suspicion is totally understandable. Britain has a different culture. Religious education has been a compulsory part of our state sector right the way through, and it still is. But it is not about indoctrination, it is about helping young people to think very deeply about ultimate questions. Questions of ethics as well as religious questions.
Because it is mandatory in every single school in Britain, we have trained teachers, we have people who take this area very seriously. We have people qualified at Masters level teaching in secondary schools, and that is a major difference in culture. I think my main worry in Australia is particularly the state schools where this whole dimension, which is such an important part of education in Britain, is not taken seriously at all, because religious education is not something we do. I think the model of religious education in Britain is a much broader one. It is academic, it is helping young people to think for themselves, and helping them address fundamental and important questions about what they believe and how they will live. That is an open-minded search for truth and meaning, which can be undertaken just as much in the state school as in the confessional school.
In Britain we have three A level subjects (in religious education) and we are having scientists doing three straight science subjects and then RE. We have people going on to do medicine, wanting to do religious education as part of their studies for being a doctor. Because in Britain you cannot qualify as a barrister, as a lawyer, as a chartered accountant, as a banker, as a nurse, as a doctor, without considering questions of ethics. Suddenly we are finding people wanting to specialise because the questions are of interest to them. The same applies to young people in Australia. Now the simple answer would be (and many people have said this ever since I have been coming to Australia) look, drop the word religion and make it philosophy and ethics and then there would be no problem. That is absolutely true, there would be no problem. But you would have torn the heart out of the central area, which is so important to young people - the search about ultimate questions. Is there any meaning, or meaning we just construct?
"What is it to actually think well? What kind of life is actually worth living?" Is there a God? Is there any purpose to life?"
Those are religious questions; they are not simply ethical questions. If you take the word 'religion' out you deprive us of the ability to address those questions. These questions matter to young people, to old people, to all of us. The challenge we've got in Australia is to recover vocabulary. To recover the use of the word 'religion', and to get people to see it is not about indoctrination, it is about helping people to think for themselves deeply and seriously, and that's a challenge. I do think we have to tackle the issue of relativism, of subjectivity, of all the modern 'isms', including postmodernism. But the way to do that is not to stand up and say it is wrong, which personally I passionately believe (I'm a realist about truth), but to try to get young people to see the weaknesses of those positions, as well as the strengths - because post-modernism has huge strengths - for themselves, and to make their own decisions. I think the way we tackle this is to enable children to see beyond the superficial. Not to let them get away with saying "well your truth is your truth and my truth is my truth". Not to let them get away with the glib answers. I think that enables them to see through the shallowness, in some ways, of some of these positions."

Dr McCutcheon placed the discussion in an historical context during her address to the conference.
"I think it is good to go back to the Greeks. Basically they saw the person as consisting of three parts (the head, the heart and the belly). You can probably work out for yourselves that the head did the thinking things. The chest was the development of virtue - something that the Greeks were very keen on. The belly was the home of the appetites and passion, feelings, desires. According to the Greeks human flourishing required that each of these three parts of the human person were in balance with one another. This in turn required not only the proper development of each of the parts, but an understanding of what it would actually mean to have them in balance.
That fourth thing - not only the proper balance of the three parts, but the understanding that went with it - is not merely the ability to think well because that is the domain of the head, but it is what the Greeks called wisdom. Philosophy is of course nothing but the search for, or the love of, wisdom. Wisdom is not simply about thinking better, but becoming better. Those who talk in terms of wisdom (and I refer here not just to philosophers but also to those from great religious traditions), tend to think of wisdom as an examination of self. So it has got something to do with self-understanding. That understanding of the self has got something to do with seeing how you are in the world, where you block learning, and where you impose yourself. It's about relationship rather than reason - that is the best way to put it. It is about seeing how you form connections with others and with yourself too - all the different ways in which you understand yourself and offer yourself up to others."
Dr McCutcheon said that society has emerged from an age of the head. "I think it is pretty obvious that the modern age is the age of the belly. We live and we think with our bellies. My students tend to use "I think" and "I feel" interchangeably. They have little or no understanding of the difference between them. I would like to suggest that this is not at all surprising. Our young people are surrounded by adults who think and speak with their bellies. Think of their environment - talk back radio, current affairs programs, indeed most news reports if we are honest about them tend in one way or another to seek emotional, or belly, gratification. The way an election campaign is run - which should be a context for serious debate - is just really a way of making bellies happy. Most entertainment programmes on television are what I call belly fests. You can think of the current ones - Survivor, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Big Brother, they are designed to stir up the belly. It is not just a problem for the young. They are surrounded by grown-ups who model this behaviour. It is a cultural affair, and it is deep-seated, and it is getting worse, not better.

Felicity McCutcheon's ease with philosophy as a means of interrogating belief and disbelief and unbelief comes from her own experience as a philosophy student at King's College London, as she explained to Margaret Coffey.
"Some people see philosophy as sort of antithetical to religion. My own experience is that they work really well together. Before I did my degree in philosophy I was working for the Scripture Union in Zimbabwe as a writer of bible study notes. Now you couldn't go from one more extreme religious spiritual atmosphere or environment to another - Kings College is like an atheistic wasteland by comparison. But somehow the two experiences forged in me a deep understanding of the way in which a human being is made up of head and heart. I know that is sort of a cliché, but once you live in that space between the two, and you get them balanced, then I do think you have deeper experiences as a human being. Obviously the institutions of religion suffer from the problems of most institutions, but at the core of a religion is a deep truth about the way things are - the nature of reality, the nature of humanity. I think if we can start to unpack some of those truths, and bring those truths alive to our students, then we are doing something to salvage what is deep and true in religion.

The second of the five strands approach to religious and values education under discussion at the Canberra conference was the affective strand - the one that deals with spirituality. They call it "stillness and silence" - the word meditation is not used - and the idea is that the school timetable should allow for regular experiences of stillness and silence.
Dr McCutcheon would like to see this concept developed more. "It is the strand that I have never been as comfortable with, and it has taken me some time to work out why. Because on paper it looks like a very good idea to have students learning techniques of stillness and silence, and developing peace in the business of a day, and so on. So in that regard I have got nothing against it. My problem is that it is called the 'spirituality' part of things. Now, for me, spirituality cannot be separated from everything else. Everything has to do with spirituality. So sort of cornering it off for a ten minute burst every day - there's something wrong with that idea. The idea that spirituality has got something to do with just being peaceful and calm - I think there is an essential error there as well. If you think about the image of a fire that burns, spirituality has got something to do with the fire that burns within us. The idea of a classroom of kids all sitting very still and silent, and being at peace, and imagining that they are just walking in a desert or in a cool pond - which are the classic techniques of the affective strand - there is something really wrong about that. They are not kids who are living a life on fire with love. So spirituality as it is put forward in the affective strand, I think, is a too narrow understanding of what it actually means. I would be very keen for people to see it has got greater possibilities. We are not tapping into the essence of our students if we are just encouraging them to take ten minutes out to be peaceful and rest. I won't call it the development of spirituality, because I think spirituality has to do with challenge. What Levinas calls the rupture of self, which is the discovery that there is much more than you, and that 'more' demands things of you. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings is a good example. As a ring-bearer he has to do extraordinary things - things he would not normally choose to do. Things he does not feel he has the courage to do. But it is in the doing of those things, because he has heard his call and is responding to it, that he, becomes fully alive. That is a very good example of what true spirituality is."

Margaret Coffey is a graduate of the University of Melbourne (BA) and Monash University (MA) and has a background in historical research and journalism. She has special interests in philosophical theology, ethics and inter-religious themes.
She has written the entry on Broadcast Journalism for the Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics, edited by Ruth Chadwick and published by Academic Press in 1998, and is a member of an acute care hospital's human research ethics committee.
Her Encounter programs have won finalist awards in the New York Festivals, as well as the New York Prize for best feature, and both the radio prize and the cross-media prize in the Austcare Media Awards.

Further information:
Dialogue Australasia - the five strand approach to religious and value education http://www. dialogueaustralasia.org/
Academic Adviser, St Mark's Theological Centre, Barton, ACT 2600.
Email dpalmer@csu.edu.au for information about the Graduate Certificate in Religion and Philosophy Teaching proposed for the 2003 academic year in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University

 

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