Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Education of believers

In NSW at the moment we are having a lovely stoush over the place of Religious Education in schools. To understand why, one has to understand history: legislation in 1880 guaranteed an hour a week of the school program would be made available for Special Religious Education (SRE), to be provided by religious providers from outside the school, and non-SRE children were not to be instructed from the School curriculum during that time (so as not to disadvantage SRE-children).

In recent days, a secular Ethics-based course has been developed, as an alternative to SRE, and is being trialled in a number of schools. The current debate centers a lot around: whether the Ethics course should properly ‘compete’ with SRE, how Ethics enrolments conflict with SRE enrolments, whether Ethics courses will ultimately lead to the exclusion of the SRE provision in schools, etc..

I think I understand and respect the genuine concern of many Christians that the introduction of the Ethics course, and its ambiguous ‘branding’ and method of introduction, represent a real threat to SRE in schools, and to opportunities for the Gospel. At the same time I think we may have just really lost our head on education as Christians.

Education, in an ancient context, was an immense privelege that belonged to the wealthy. It was also not a state or societal responsibility. Our individualism leads to a broader notion of ‘community’, and so universal education leads us to the state-backed and run education models of today. I want to suggest, that education as a more generic entity, belongs with much smaller communities, and even with parents and their families. SRE does represent a phenomenal opportunity, especially for reaching children of nominally christian households. But it’s not a right, except in a legal sense in NSW. We are not entitled to preach and religiously instruct other people’s children. And if the circumstances were reversed we would be justly agitating for the right to have our children not religiously instructed by other religious groups. Nor is education of the children of our own church communities someone else’s responsibility. Parents and churches should rightly look to themselves to educate their children, both in the faith, and in life and learning. This doesn’t mean home-schooling (though it might), but it does mean the ownership of responsibility for the issue.

I’m unconvinced Christians are waging this battle in the right way, contesting public space in a manner that respects the integrity of the church. Those are my thoughts, happy to hear some of yours.

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