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RE – What’s the point of teaching it?

Religious Education can prepare students for life in modern Britain, but that shouldn’t be our main reason for teaching it, says Andy Lewis...

  • RE – What’s the point of teaching it?

The Eastern Daily Press recently ran an article headlined ‘I think RE should be scrapped from high school’, in which the author, Charlotte Smith-Jarvis, stated the following: “Society is growing ever secular. The ‘religions’ of our young people today are much more abstract. They worship at the altar of gaming, YouTube, streamed TV, veganism.”

‘Why am I doing this?’ is a question RE teachers frequently ask themselves. The internal reply will often be ‘I don’t want to be a priest/nun.’

I’ve come up a wide variety of answers myself over the years, but the one I’m tempted to stick with in future is one suggested my good friend Phillip Robinson, who in a recent lecture at London’s University of Notre Dame Global Gateway, remarked “There is no point – but that is the point. The glorious pointlessness of education is what makes school so important.”

The moment we start seeing our time in school as simply a means to an end, we entertain a scenario whereby we’re just training up workers for industry. I, for one, feel deeply uncomfortable with that.

I find it interesting that the latest Ofsted reports touching on RE comment that the subject helps prepare students for life in modern Britain. I don’t disagree with that claim, but I’m not convinced it should be our main aim.

The search for ‘relevance’ and ‘engagement’ within RE is misguided, just as it is with many other subjects, because learning has an intrinsic value.

RE doesn’t become ‘relevant’ due to a sudden terrorist attack, or more ‘engaging’ after you’ve find a clip of the Westboro Baptist Church. Learning needs to be clear, purposeful and structured, with clear links to prior knowledge and other subjects.

A set of rough maps

The question of what students need isn’t new. To survive as a species we actually need very little, yet human society came to create museums, art galleries and libraries.

What RE does is open doors to a hugely rich cultural heritage.

Don’t students deserve the opportunity to have their minds opened to the richness of our collective history, philosophies, theologies and ethics?

Those students may not be religious themselves, but it doesn’t matter.

Do we in the UK avoid the study of active volcanoes just because there are none that directly affect us? Do we ignore the Victorians because there aren’t any left alive?

If indeed we are becoming more non-religious as a society, surely that makes the need for good RE even greater than before?

Of course, we need to prepare our students for an uncertain future, but we can’t simply adopt a utility model and nothing else.

I feel privileged to have received the knowledge given to me by my own education. Some of it helps with my job, while other parts are useful for entertaining my sons, taking part in a pub quiz and engaging in small talk.

I’ve been able to learn that many things we value greatly as a society are irrelevant and practically useless.

The fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the dance of a Whirling Dervish, the practice of mindfulness – can any of those help you secure a job in 10 years’ time? Who knows. It’s not an important consideration.

In a 1990 paper for the European Journal of Education, Mary Midgley described students who were “Being supplied with a set of rough maps – physical, emotional and intellectual – of central ranges of human experience; maps which they will later extend, refine and fill for themselves.”

As Philip went on to remind me in his lecture, “The good, the beautiful and the true are our objects of teaching and require no other justification.”

I believe RE positions itself front and centre on that front. To scrap it, as Smith-Jarvis suggests, would deprive students of a fundamental dimension and perspective of what it means to be human.

Thanks to Philip Robinson (@CESadviser), Carl Hendrick (@C_Hendrick) and Sputnik Steve (@sputniksteve for their assistance with this article)


Andy Lewis is director of RE at St Bonaventure’s, East London, and author of Outstanding RE Lessons, published by Bloomsbury. Follow him on Twitter at @andylewis_re.

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