Friday, 10 July 2015

Interfaith Education in the US and the UK - Seán Rose

Credit: Seán Rose

I grew up and lived most of my life in London, UK, until relocating to California, on the west coast of the US, a year ago. When I tell people that I work in interfaith and intercultural education, they are often quick to ask me how this work translates between the quite different contexts of the United States and the United Kingdom (either that, or they simply look puzzled: “interwhat?). So as I try to remember which way to look when I cross the road, and swap ‘brilliant, mate!’ for ‘awesome, dude!’, I hope I can offer some reflections on what we might learn from the British context of interfaith education.

Like many, I became interested in interfaith work quite by accident. Having studied geography and international development at university, I was always passionate about community, equity, and justice, and had been involved in many intrafaith social justice and dialogue projects. After graduating, I worked on an interfaith social action fellowship, and have spent the last six years working primarily on education and training programs for a range of organisations. To me, working across and within different faiths, beliefs, cultures, identities, and traditions is an essential part of any movement for social justice.

The question of how we educate young people, their parents, their teachers, and their communities to more confidently and effectively navigate our increasingly complex and connected world has, of course, no simple answer. I hope that sharing some reflections grounded in my experience of various approaches, programs, and organisations might be a small contribution towards this ongoing dialogue.

My American friends are always baffled – and often heartened – to learn that an element of religious education or religious studies is a compulsory part of the weekly curriculum in publicly-funded schools in the UK. The idea of state-sanctioned religion in the classroom poses many questions for my American counterparts.

My experience of religious education in my local Catholic secondary school was always incredibly positive, and I look back with gratitude on visits to the local Sikh Gurdwara and assignments about understanding different branches of Islam. In the UK, religious education is typically characterised by two interrelated strands of learning about, and learning from, religion. The intention is both to introduce students to the fundamental tenets and practices of world religions, and to stimulate reflection on their own beliefs, whether religious or not.

More broadly than teaching specifically about religions and religious practice, one area in which schools are assessed during government inspection is how well they promote spiritual, moral, social, and cultural education, or SMSC. For many of us in the interfaith movement, ‘spiritual education’ may suggest indoctrination, proselytising, or the learning of dogma. In fact, the government defines it broadly – and quite beautifully – in terms of using imagination and creativity, discovering oneself and the surrounding world, respecting diverse values, and reflecting on experiences.

Skills of inquiry, curiosity, and understanding lay a firm and strong foundation for interfaith encounter. Since 2011 I have worked for 3FF (formerly Three Faiths Forum), building the skills, confidence, and religious literacy of educators, and managing an interfaith speakers’ bureau serving schools and community groups in and around London. For some students, a 50-minute interfaith panel dialogue is the first time they have ever intentionally interacted with someone from a Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, or Secular Humanist perspective.

Speakers – trained volunteers, typically young professionals and rarely faith ‘leaders’ in a conventional sense – prepare short narrative presentations about their faith and identity, and invite students to reflect and ask questions. Time and again when I invited students to join the dialogue with their questions, someone would raise their hand and begin ‘I’ve always wanted to ask someone this question...’ They would often comment that meeting “real, ordinary people” brought their textbook learning to life, humanising religions and traditions in a way that only a direct encounter really can. It reminded me that religious literacy – whilst essential – can only bring us so far: knowing that a Muslim is required to pray at certain times of day is very different from hearing Suhail speak honestly about his struggles to balance his work and prayer schedule. I believe that the best holistic education gives young people the knowledge, the skills, and the opportunities to engage positively and confidently with the people and world around them.

After one lively workshop in a boys’ school in inner-London, a few students came up to the front to speak with Hannah, the session’s Jewish speaker. “It was great to meet you, and thanks for what you shared; I’d never realized before that Jews and Muslims are allowed to be friends,” one student remarked. I was puzzled. We hadn’t heard any questions about the Middle East or relations between different religions and beliefs more broadly. I realised that the way Hannah and Suhail had, completely naturally and organically, demonstrated their genuine kindness, compassion, and empathy towards each other had taught the students more about empathy, respect, and understanding than any speech we could have shared.

Some schools go further in their efforts to build faith literacy and understanding in to their ethos. In 2013, I worked at the Niskham High School, a new secondary school in Birmingham, one of the UK’s first minority-majority cities, meaning that the ethnic minority (non-white) population is more than half the total population. It is a fascinating and wonderful city, with a dynamic religious history and a complex religious population, where questions around difference, diversity, and cohesion are thus all the more urgent.

The school opened three years ago with a vision of being an interfaith school within a Sikh ethos. Whilst many state (publicly-funded) schools in the UK are multi-faith simply by virtue of there being some diversity in the population in their catchment area, this is one of the first intentionally interfaith high schools, where the religious and cultural identity of every student is celebrated and nurtured across and throughout the curriculum.

At the centre of the school building is a shared spiritual space, where students – and staff – of all backgrounds sit together on the same level, and observe or participate in prayer and reflection from different traditions.

Part of my role was to think through how this ethos is lived out in the daily reality of the school, from the prosaic (where should we position the power sockets in the spiritual space?) to the philosophical (should non-Sikh students be permitted, invited, or encouraged to cover their head during Sikh prayers like their Sikh peers?), and everything in between. It is hoped that many of the tools, ideas, and experiences which develop out of this school will be valuable to other schools and communities that strive to engage more deeply and authentically in the complex and diverse reality of their student populations.

Some say that religious education and the place of religion in education in the UK lie at a crossroads. In recent years, the non-statutory Religious Education Council has proposed radical changes to the content and nature of the religious education curriculum; teaching associations report that many teachers feel ill-equipped to tackle the thorny issues which their students raise in the RE classroom; and non-religious voices argue that the continued presence of religion in schools is increasingly anachronistic in the twenty-first century.

To me, what remains clear is that acknowledging, understanding, and empathising with the identity, beliefs, and practices of those around us is vital, and our education systems – in the United Kingdom and the United States – have much to learn from each other.

Seán Rose (@SeanVRose) is an experienced and award-winning interfaith educator, facilitator, and trainer. He has developed a number of cross-cultural and interfaith programs in Europe and North America, in roles including Schools Officer for 3FF (Three Faiths Forum), Director of Training and Outreach for Project Interfaith, and Faiths Act Fellow for Interfaith Youth Core. He currently runs education programming for a museum in California, USA, and facilitates international high school interfaith dialogue through the Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s online Face to Faith program. He is passionate about education, building religious and cultural literacy, indigenous rights, environmentalism, and social justice.

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