Oslo, 2-5 September 2004 - The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief
Synthesis of discussions in the group sessions at the Council of Europe’s conference on “The religious dimension of intercultural education”, Oslo, Norway, 6 – 8 June 2004.
This report to a very great extent rests upon the excellent work made by the rapporteurs in groups A, B, and C – Ingvild Plesner, Lat Blaylock and Peter Schreiner.
It is of course impossible – and not even desirable – to try to mirror in its full extent the discussions that were going on in the three groups. What I aim at, however, is to reflect some of the main points that were made related to the five issues that the groups were asked to address. But you know how group discussions are: we all tend to talk about what is nearest to our hearts, we bring our answers – often forgetting what the question was. I will try to be as fair and many-sided as I can, but even a general rapporteur has his cultural glasses, his values, his language – and may be you find a religious dimension even in this report.
There are two pronouns that I ask my students to be aware of when I teach religion, they are some and others. “Some Christians think, while others … some Muslims say, other Muslims … Be careful with the use of the pronoun all, I say to them. I ask you to bear this in mind during my presentation as well. Even though the members of the groups agreed on most items, I think it is fair to say that on many important questions we also heard different views. But diversity is not dangerous, it is productive. It is one of the things that unite Europe. Like biological diversity in nature is the strength of nature, diversity in culture and religion make the strength of our civilisation. A final solution of cultural problems tend to be the final solution – “die Endlösung”.
1. Integrating the religious dimension in the intercultural education – what aims and what dialogue should be set in motion?
Two of the groups discussed what was to be understood by the concept “religious dimension” in this context. Several approaches were presented by the participants, relating it to different aspects of school education. Especially the relation between the religious dimension and the moral/philosophical dimension was underlined. Some participants focused on the need for holding these two dimensions separated (especially France), while others underlined the interaction between these dimensions.
The experience from Quebec is that the term “religious dimension” can be understood as excluding experiences of those who hold moral and philosophical convictions that are not based on religious belief. Hence, the more inclusive term “dimension convictionelle” (“dimension of conviction”) has been preferred. It refers to education about values rooted in different traditions, religious as well as secular, and draws experiences from social life as well.
The NGO representative emphasized that educating about the religious dimension does not only mean to give theoretical knowledge, but to give the pupils input that help them in their own search for meaning. He further underlined the important distinction between education aiming to include all pupils in schools and education that is directed only at members of specific faith denominations. The way in which these two kinds of education is addressed varies to a large extent with the various relationships between state and religion in European countries.
Further, it was argued that distinctions should be made between the religious dimension of inter-cultural education, on the one hand, and the inter-cultural dimension of religious education on the other. In both contexts, the respect for the universal human rights provides a core value basis. Human rights are closely linked with the respect for the dignity of every individual, and with the acceptance and respect for diversity of convictions, cultures and religions.
While recognizing the values of true religious convictions , some of the participants also underlines the need to take into consideration the dangers related to manipulation of religion – leading to abuses and conflicts.
Knowledge was referred to by very many of the participants. One should have knowledge of the other – her history, her language, her culture, her religion. Religion was by many in the groups looked upon to form deep structures in our minds and cultures, and is therefore crucial for our understanding both of men and of cultures. And the religious dimension is not just found in history and religious education, but in most other subjects that are being taught in school. And besides that: religion can never be confined to a private sphere, it has always a community dimension.
Why is knowledge so important? Of two obvious reasons, it was said: We have to know the other in order to fully understand and respect the other. (And I think that the concept of respect was the one that was repeated most frequently in the groups when the aims of intercultural education was discussed. The respect for the dignity of every individual, the respect for the diversity of convictions, cultures and religions.) By knowing the other, we more easily respect the other, making him a real human being like myself within our common sphere of morality. The second reason is that we can only know ourselves by knowing the other, and we can only know the other by knowing ourselves. It was stated by many that without knowing anything about religions, it would be extremely difficult (to put it the least) to understand and enjoy most of the art that has been made – and is made today. There are so many references, direct and indirect, to the holy scriptures and religious traditions that not knowing these would be a kind of cultural illiteracy.
But knowledge is not neutral, objective and valuefree. And here comes the question of representation. Self-presentation is important. Only a Christian knows what it means to be a Christian, only a Muslim knows what it means to be a Muslim. But who speaks for the Christians? Who speaks for the Muslims, and the Jews, and the Hindus and the Buddhists? And who are the voices left out? The low and weak voices. We know that feminists and young people’s voices are often excluded by religious insiders. Again – there are some, and there are others. And the non-belivers should not be left out.
As important as representation, it was said, is interpretation. The children should be trained to develop interpretive skills and also the skills to critique of how the knowledge is presented. Religions are often used for a critique of injustice and poverty in society. The other side of it is the critique of religions, which is both legitimate and necessary.
Knowledge is not enough. As professor Jackson put it: There are many well informed racists in the world. We therefore have to foster attitudes and develop skills in our schools.
Many seemed to agree upon that the curriculum of the intercultural education must be a negotiated curriculum. That is to say that a wide range of voices have to be consulted: parents, teachers, teachers trainers, representatives from the religious communities and other parts of civil society. And dialogue should be the tool in this work.
In two of the groups the relationship between the rights of the parents, the rights of the child and the rights of the school was touched upon. The school is an institution for helping the parents, but at the same time it is an institution of its own with its specific obligations and ethos. And the child has rights too – as a child, according to the United Nations Convention of the child (1989) –the right to information, to express itself and to be heard. How should the parents be involved in the teaching, especially in controversial issues like religion? Are there limits to the teacher’s professionality related to the rights of the parents? Some in the groups said that sometimes it may be a moral as well as a legal obligation of the school to act against the parents - in solidarity with the child. None of the groups went deeper into this very difficult question, and everybody seemed to agree that the teachers as a general rule should work in such a way that bring the parents on their side. Compromise and flexibility is needed.
2. What strategies to develop and for what context?
I think we all got a very clear impression during the group sessions of how very different the situation in the countries of The Council of Europe is. In some countries (especially the former communist countries) religion in education in general is more or less absent from the public schools, while in other countries RE is a subject of its own. That means that the different states also have different needs - according to what historical experiences they have. The view was expressed that The Council of Europe should take account of that in its further work with these questions, may be also by choosing different strategies for different groups of countries. They seemed to agree, however, that the term “the religious dimension in intercultural education” is broad enough to make sense in very different contexts, mediated according to needs.
Many of the participants stated that for some countries human rights education should be the value platform from which the intercultural education could be developed. Others pointed to the need for inter-disciplinary approaches and for developing curricula that can be adjusted at the local level. In short, like in many of our political and social affairs: flexibility and compromise is needed. A negotiated compromise.
There was also a lot of discussion about textbooks and teachers. Textbooks in many countries seem to be outdated and lack the intercultural dimension. Many textbooks, especially those in native languages, it was said – seem to foster nationalism instead of tolerance and intercultural understanding. There should be worked out criteria for how good textbooks should be, and some of the things that were mentioned was gender equality, anti-racism and cultural diversity. Textbooks should give room for different voices, different perspectives and thereby train the students to critical reading and personal evaluation.
All research show that the most important difference between good and bad schools is the headmaster/headmistress and the teachers. Strong leadership is necessary, it was said - in order to encourage the development of the school’s ethos. If the headmaster is not sensitive and open for discussion and changes, it is very difficult to create an atmosphere for intercultural understanding in the school community. The headmasters are role-models for their teachers and as such crucial for the changes that are to come about. The leadership style is reflected in all aspects of everyday life and work in the school – not least in the pupils’ participation in the teaching and learning processes. How is it possible to teach democratic attitudes and skills in an authoritarian and undermocratic school?
Everyone agreed upon – of course – that the teacher should be well educated with basic knowledge. That is a condition for the teacher’s professional confidence. But knowledge within a subject is not enough. The teacher should also have skills and attitudes – a knowledge going beyond knowledge. Skills in how to teach, how to deal with difficult situations in the classroom, how to work with the parents in an atmosphere of openness and tolerance. Attitudes in relation to diversity and intercultural education. It was said in one group that the teachers should be so openminded, confident and courageous that they raise questions in the classroom of which they didn’t have the answer, of which there may be were no clear answers. But in order to cope with this, the teachers clearly need training.
The importance of teachers’ training was underlined, as many teachers do not have the competence to implement curricula focusing on the religious dimension of inter-cultural education.
The need for more self-government in schools – and for an evaluation programme was also mentioned. But evaluation is not a valuefree tool either. It is a powerful instrument in the hands of the educational authorities, and it was said that very little focus have been in most countries on evaluating the religious dimension in intercultural education.
3. What are the barriers, the challenges and the opportunities?
The barriers mentioned in the groups are many: financial and human resources, lack of time and priority (intercultural education is looked upon as something light and vague, something extra) – more so probably in secondary school than in primary school.
There are linguistic barriers: it was mentioned as a positive sign by the representative from Italy that many young Italians have started to learn the Arabic language to overcome the language barrier.
There is a lack of school autonomy and motivation among the teachers. Some teachers say that we don’t need intercultural education, because our community is so homogenious – overlooking of course the fact that the students are living in a pluralistic and globalized world. Overlooking also that they live in a community with local cultural differences, may be even local cultural conflicts that are hidden.
One group discussed the particular challenges related to the private sector of education, and the country examples demonstrated that there is a great variety as to whether or not the states have a say on the content of the curriculum in private schools.
The challenges and opportunities are many. Some mentioned that thanks to Internet we have access to the whole world. Some mentioned the Eurobase as a good example of information about schools,teaching material and teaching strategies.
There were many recommendations from the groups, let me here just mention a few, concerning the compendium of good practices which the Council of Europe intends to develop:
§ Governments need to support with policies and resources the seeking of examples for the compendium of good practice.
§ Those who compile the compendium should seek examples from as many nations as possible.
§ The compendium should include examples of how schools have worked through conflicts arising from religious diversity, with an emphasis on such ideas as ‘emotional literacy’
§ The compendium should include models of change for government ministries and government processes, illustrating how dialogue, inclusive consultation and ‘moving towards agreements’ can build partnership for the religious dimension of intercultural education.
§ In presenting the examples, there should be attention given to their multi-applicability in many different curriculum contexts and national systems. An example of ‘RE’ in one country may still be useful in ‘Citizenship ‘ or ‘History’ in another country.
5. Final remarks
Some of the representatives from the ministries of education expressed that they had been encouraged by this conference to put more emphasis on including and strengthening the religious dimension of inter-cultural education in both curricula, text books and teachers training. Concrete examples of this was given from Moldova, Romania and Luxembourg. One participant (Luxembourg) said that “After this conference I will never more speak of inter-cultural education without mentioning the religious dimension!”
It should be remembered that the religious dimension of intercultural education isn’t just about Europe. It is about making a global community – and it therefore should include the Euro-Arab dialogue.
Finally: Let us remind ourselves of the focus: For whom are we doing this work? We are doing it for the child. And the child today is the adult of tomorrow – the politician of tomorrow, the church leader of tomorrow. We have to give the child a hope – the hope of a brighter future. The logo of this hotel – Soria Moria – is the child that is looking into the future, seeing the fairy-tale castle. This child is quite sure that he one day will reach the bright castle. Our greatest sin as teachers, parents and grandparents would be to destroy that hope, by telling the child that our experience tells us that there is no castle there. There is a castle there – and it always will be, although it will look a little different when you arrive than from distance.
The child who has been to a school with intercultural education, will look into the eyes of the teacher and quote George Bernard Shaw: “You see the world as it is and ask why? I see the world as it should be and ask – why not?”