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Thursday evening’s discussion at Stirling University ‘Education or Indoctrination:  The future role of religion in Scottish Schools,’ predictably fell, to these writers’ and minds, a little flat. But why?

Debates about RE in UK – and Scottish – schools are frequently characterised by ambivalence– in Scotland skirting around unacknowledged or unmentionable aspects of its social and economic history that come with sectarian and religious labels – and  sometimes what is reflected in them is further retrenchment rather than trenchant thinking. Arguably what emerged here were various familiar themes: the desire of hard-working committed RE teachers to encourage their students to engage with forms of wisdom (not limited to Christianity); the importance of developing  attitudes of respect and tolerance partly at least as a kind of defence against the dark arts of terrorism and fundamentalism; a lament for a lost form of theological and biblical literacy; the claim that  theological and biblical literacy enriches the appreciation of history and literature (a somewhat backhanded legitimation of RE as handmaiden to a range of more acceptable humanities?); a view that the only kind of knowledge relevant within Schools ought to be based on ‘secular’ reason and empirical science; and various attempts to define ‘religion’ as a concern with transcendence, as historical tradition as the commodification of  ‘otherness’.

In respect of this last point, the discussion was enlivened with an elegant critique of the ‘world religions’ paradigm that parcels up knowledge of ‘the other’ whilst schools continue to maintain a ‘hidden curriculum’ – actions and expectations developing a form of ‘our’ subjective, Christianised identity that acts ironically to reinforce a sense of the otherness of what we study ‘objectively’. Sarah Clark addressed the question of a possible future for the subject creatively and optimistically with suggestions for an interdisciplinarity that  would not be subordinated to the demands of a ‘policy assessment culture’ fostering rigid disciplinary boundaries. Based on her enthusiasm for the possibilities of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (2010) she began to flesh this out in terms of an idea that refreshingly, wasn’t constrained by current orderings or assumptions – proposing a more nomadic and less territorialised approach.   However, thinking on this creative level is hard to sustain and gave way for the most part to a more diffuse discussion, for example in terms of parental rights – clearly an important issue, but one with  polarising  effects that closed down rather than opened up possibilities for the exchange of ideas about the future.

What then, by way of post script to this event, do we have to contribute to this discussion?  We have previously identified the Official Account of Religious Studies  (OARS, see I’Anson & Jasper, 2006) in British Schools and Universities as one that is built on a late modernist ethos of rationality, objectivity and neutrality reflecting a substantive ontology and a rhetorics (within RE and society more broadly) characterised  by openness to multiculturalism as a social good. It seemed to us that this OARS was very much in evidence in yesterday’s discussion. (By ‘substantive ontology’ we mean the kind of normative, western and masculinist discourse which is still widely believed to be neutral whereas it is arguably a highly privileged construction.) Scholars like Smart and the organisation of RE teachers with which he was closely involved in the 1970s (the SHAP working party) took advantage of a move observable at that time, away from older confessional or narrowly moral certainties that had characterised ‘Religious Instruction’ or ‘Scripture’ before the 1980s. The approach (at secondary and higher levels) they developed was in tune with this rhetorics and substantive approach. Yet what was key here, was that this dominant approach – still detectable today – remained, at the same time as it appeared rhetorically open to difference/s, intellectually aligned within the quite rigid categorisations of what we’ve referred to here as substantive ontologies – for example in relation to the familiar western notion of ‘beliefs’.

In the academy, things have changed. There has been movement – mediated through a diffusion of broadly post structuralist approaches – towards the recognition of much more relational ontologies (Irigaray, 2004; Wildman, 2010) and this has shifted understanding from a basis in essentialised towards contextualised knowledge. Yet as a number of the speakers noted in the course of yesterday’s discussion, at the same time schools, universities and educational research more generally has  been required increasingly to conform to  structures whereby education is seen as a means to achieve measurable economic or socio-economic benefits with students and stakeholders configured as customers. At the same time there has also been a clear cooling of popular enthusiasm for differences/multiculturalism that could be associated with pressures from economic migration and the fear of international terrorism (after 9/11) in a time of austerity (after 2008). (A recent document produced in England even suggested that teachers should be wary of  students who betray too great an interest in issues of cultural difference (Coppock, 2014).) In the light of these changes, it was entirely appropriate to be having yesterday’s discussion and to be pointing to the need for new creative ideas for the future although it was clear that the framing of the event largely assumed all participants would be more or less aligned with a certain common vocabulary and disappointingly, made little allowance for the kinds of ‘interruptions’ from different perspectives that might have opened the discussion up.

The contradictions between these forces – substantive and relational ontologies – has clearly now led to a crisis of plausibility in relation to the language of RE – a fundamental failure on the part of policy makers particularly but perhaps also on the part of academics to think through the implications of the newer relational ontologies as they have revolutionised thinking about identity and difference/s in relation to lived experience as this exceeds the limited categories and essentialised knowledges produced by the substantive ontologies of the past. And this, arguably, is to some extent exemplified in  the evident disconnections between RE at primary and secondary level and many forms of theology and critical religion at higher education levels.

We do need some new thinking – perhaps an AAR (Alternative Account of Religion?) – that proposes more robustly educational rather than ideological or neoliberal justifications for maintaining space for Religion in the curriculum – perhaps as a space for critical  attentiveness to genuine and challenging difference/s and a response to ‘learnification’ (Biesta, 2008). In other words, we need to acknowledge the ways in which engaging with cultural differences will inevitably lead to, and call forth, changes to our characteristic ways of carrying on.  This will interrupt the prevailing discourse that assumes we can encounter knowledge in general and knowledge of religion in particular in purely ‘neutral’ terms.

As we envision it, we could perhaps say that the implication for yesterday evening’s discussants (and listeners), is the need for all of us to acknowledge the imbrication of religion, cultural difference/s and education and to recognise that at present the current framing at policy level remains in/different; difference/s is/are continually resolved/translated into familiar polarities that are fundamentally impoverishing.  We argue that we need then to engage urgently with the question of what is educationally desirable – to broaden the understanding of socialisation and genuinely to consider the implications for present day cultural horizons.

Alison Jasper & John I’Anson