The Forgotten Dimensions of Religious Education

Religion and Education. The Forgotten Dimensions of Religious Education?” Edited by Gert Biesta and Patricia Hannam, 156p, Leiden/Boston 2021.

“As diversity increases across the world, there is renewed interest in the place of religion in the public sphere. Is religion a private matter or of concern to everyone – even if they are not religious? What should religious education look like in the public sphere? Is religious education something for everyone, in all schools? What is educational about religious education? What is the justification for religious education? How do we make sense of religion itself, bearing in mind the wide variety of views and traditions?” …  “… the authors delve into … fundamental questions and concerns. Through this they provide a range of different responses to the question of whether religion and education may have become the ‘forgotten dimensions’ of contemporary religious education. …this book seeks to make a contribution to the ongoing conversation about the importance of religious education for all.” (from the cover of this book).

In the book we find nine contributions of about nine authors. They were originally presented at the seminar at the London Brunel University in October 2017, which was organized by the Culham St Gabriel’s Trust.
The tenth article ‘Reflections’ and the ‘Afterword’, were written in 2019 and 2020.

In chapter 1  “Gert Biesta suggests that education always needs to orient itself to three ‘domains of purpose’, to which he refers as qualification, socialization and subjectification.” “Qualification has to do with the presentation and acquisition of knowledge and skills.” With socialization in a ‘strong’ sense, it is the ambition that children and young people ‘sign up’ to particular cultures, traditions, practices or religions. That’s the confessional approach: religious socialization. Biesta finds this problematic, because it treats students as objects to be recruited. The more meaningful ‘modality’ is that of a ‘weak’ form of socialization: providing orientation into existing religious cultures, social life and philosophy. Subjectification is not about the educational production of the subject, but is about bringing the subject-ness of young people ‘into play’. The question what I will do with my identity and with all the knowledge and skills I have acquired. What will I do with my life? It is how we try personally to exist in and with the world.

In the second chapter, both Ruth Heilbronn and Dewey suggest “that individuals are embedded in the social and that the social is made of, by and with them.” Schools have an important role to play in imparting values. To listen to others, requires a relational capacity to be open to others. A capacity for ethical deliberation is therefore important and can be fostered through dialogical pedagogy. At its best RE is a subject which creates a space for the development and maintenance of critical faculties and sympathetic imagination. Students become open to the possibility of different ways of conceiving the world and life. When they talk and discuss ethical issues, students also gain an understanding of their complexity with respect of competing views. “Education means the enterprise of supplying the conditions, which insure growth, or adequacy of life.” (Dewey 1916). “For Dewey the child acquires a moral sense through learning in all subjects, in which she is experimenting or actively engaged with ideas.”  Schools have a vital role to play in developing the capacity for moral seriousness and democratic citizenship.” The Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) of England and Wales made a national plan for RE in 2018: “Religions and Worldviews: The Way Forward. Final report.” ‘Worldviews education’ might be a suitable change of name for a subject studied at school.

In the third chapter, David Aldridge goes philosophically a lot further. In education there is a threefold hermeneutical ‘belonging’, of the one who understands, their teacher and their shared interest. “Essential to the dialogic nature of understanding is that it happens in an ‘in-between’ that relates interpreter and what is understood. (Gadamer 2004)” The route to understanding is through the question, and that understanding has a ‘logic of question and answer.’ Authentic dialogue requires that a participant is open to transformation, by what is to be understood. What is gained in understanding (….) is not a matter of knowledge, so much as an ongoing disclosure and orientation  to the world. Teachers have resources of human expertise that are better captured in the idea of pedagogical tact, than of scientific method. Thereby teachers must also become learners. The questionability of RE and the pedagogy of belonging are challenges.

Perhaps, next time more about this interesting book.
Hugo Durinck, May 2021

The Forgotten Dimensions of Religious Education