Oslo, 2-5 September 2004 - The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief
Oslo University College, Faculty of Education.
Presented at IARTEM Conference, Tartu, September 20-23 2001. Published in Mikk J., Meisalo V., Kukemelk H. & Horsley M. (Eds): Learning and Educational Media. The Third IARTEM Volume. (University of Tartu), 139-147
In 1997 the new Curriculum for Primary and Lower Secondary School introduced a new religious subject with emphasis not only on Christianity, but also on all the other main religions as well as philosophy and secular world views. This subject is compulsory for all children, whether they are Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Hindu, Muslim or Atheist. Cultural understanding, dialogue and identity building are in focus, and a narrative approach is seen as a unique way of constructing such an identity. However, there are quite a few challenges connected with a narrative approach in a multi-faith Religious Education. This is a fact both as far as the identity building project is concerned as well as the values introduced through these narratives. On the assumption that the basic cultural and religious stories promote identity and cultural understanding, it is appropriate to ask the following questions: Which ideals are conveyed through the religious stories? How do the stories talk about human beings, gender and ethnicity? Are the stories promoting human dignity? From a critical point of view we will now look into these aspects of the religious stories as they are presented in the Norwegian RE textbooks. The focuses will be on
1) Stories related to women – whether they represent traditional role models or they represent pro-active and independent women. The example here will be the presentation of Sita from the Hindu tradition.
2) How the textbooks present stories dealing with “self and Others”, in relation to ethnicity. The example here will be the presentation of the Exodus story from the Bible.
Both girls and boys need to meet story characters with whom to identify. These characters therefore should be as complete and complex as possible. It is a fact, however, that the religious stories represent a challenge for modern women - and men - when it comes to gender issues. These stories were created in patriarchal societies, and therefore they often, explicitly or implicitly, advocate a view on gender that does not correspond with the values school-teachers are obliged to promote. Still, there are different ways of dealing with these stories. They can be read, interpreted, presented and commented on from different perspectives.
In our analysis we have looked into how textbooks and teacher's handbooks deal with Biblical characters like Ruth, Martha, Mary and other female disciples of Jesus - and women from the Islamic tradition.
Our example today is Sita, the heroine of the great Indian epic Ramayana. We shall look into examples from textbooks and teacher's handbooks published by three Norwegian publishing companies. We find different ways of dealing with Ramayana in these books.
Ramayana is the story about prince Rama and his wife Sita. Rama is an avatar or incarnation of the great God Vishnu, sent to earth to fight the demon king Ravana of Lanka. As Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu, Sita is an incarnation of Lakshmi, Vishnus wife, and a representation of the great Goddess.
The plot goes like this: Rama is exiled to the woods for fourteen years due to intrigues at court about the succession to the throne. As a devoted wife should do, Sita follows her husband into exile. In the woods they face problems of different kinds. At last Ravana abducts Sita and takes her to Lanka. With the help of a monkey army, lead by Hanuman, Rama finds Sita and fights Ravana in a big battle. Sita is set free, but Rama will not take her back as his wife because she has lived in the house of another man - even though she repeatedly assures that she has resisted Ravana and been a faithful wife. But she is no longer considered pure, as she has to be as the wife of a king. Voluntarily she goes through an ordeal by fire to prove her cleanness. Rama and Sita return to their kingdom and Rama takes over the throne, which rightfully is his.
In Hinduism Sita is traditionally seen as the perfect woman and ideal wife, Rama as the perfect man and ideal husband, and together they are the ideal couple.
Ramayana is a long story with various episodes and themes. It is therefore quite possible to present Sita in different ways. A challenging and difficult part of the story is Sita’s ordeal by fire. All the textbooks omit this part of the story. Neither is it mentioned in the teacher's handbooks. It is a central episode of the story, provocative to many Hindus as well as to Western readers, and in some way it should have been dealt with.
Based on the analysis of the books we find that there are at least three possible ways of dealing with the character of Sita. With some reservations we have placed the books into three corresponding categories.
1) The subordinate, faithful Sita
Here we find Sita as a subordinate, faithful wife in the framework of a traditional pattern of sex roles. This corresponds with the traditional Hindu view of Sita as the ideal wife.
One of the textbooks, called “Passing the Mountain” (grade 4), presents a very short version of the story (15 lines), including the remark that Rama’s faithful wife Sita made a speech in which she insisted on accompanying her husband into exile. The story is followed by a comment on Sita’s position as a model for brides, quoting from her speech:
In a woman’s life wagon, horse and gilded castles are nothing.
For the beloved and loving wife the shadow of her husband is more precious.
The teacher's handbook discusses Rama’s position in the Hindu tradition and points to the ideal marriage of Rama and Sita. Sita’s position as a goddess is not mentioned. In addition the book suggests the following themes for discussions in class: What can the story of Rama, Sita and Hanuman teach human beings? What did Rama, Sita and Hanuman do that could be ideals for human beings today?
From one point of view one could say that the version of Ramayana found in this book is close to the common interpretation in the Hindu tradition, but we miss critical questions to this view on women, questions that could initiate an ethical discussion in class.
2) The invisible Sita
By exclusively emphasising her husband Rama’s part in the story, Sita can be made invisible both in her role as an important agent in the epic and in her role as a goddess.
The example here is another book, “Bridges”. In grade 1 the pupils meet Ramayana on a wall chart, picturing Rama and Sita on the throne in the city of Ayodhya. The teacher’s handbook gives a short version of the story. The textbook for grade 3 reminds the pupils that the story of Ramayana happened long before our time. It emphasises Rama’s divine origin, his miraculous birth and his slaying of demons. Sita is not mentioned at all. In fact her origin is also divine and her birth from a furrow in the fields is also miraculous.
The teacher’s handbook says that the purpose is to be familiar with the story about Rama and his position in Hinduism. The book discusses the concept of god in Hinduism without mentioning the Goddess. It points to Rama and Sita as the ideal couple. “Bridges” makes both Sita and the concept of goddess totally invisible.
3) The independent, acting Sita
Here we find Sita as an independent, acting person in her own right, making both good and bad decisions - as humans do. Her acts drive the story forward.
The textbook “Tell me more” (grade 4) comes closest to a presentation of Sita as an independent character in her own right. The book’s version of Ramayana presents the most important elements of the story and a couple of times it points to Sita as an important agent in the story, for instance Sita’s part in the drama in the woods and her courageous resistance against Ravana. And – as a matter of fact - in the original version of the epic the character of Sita is exactly this independent and powerful female agent.
We gave this example of Sita to show some of the dilemmas we face when using the religious stories in school.
Conclusion: In the case of Sita we give better marks to one book than to the others. When we analyse another gender-related theme, the result is different. It is no pattern here. The important thing is that stories can be presented in countless ways. Authors of textbooks should give serious consideration to the way they present female characters in stories.
“Self and Others” - Ethnicity in Religious Stories
A main purpose of the Norwegian RE subject is to promote tolerance, dialogue and peaceful coexistence between groups of people. The question is: Are the religious stories suitable for this purpose? We have studied different stories as they are presented in textbooks, and have decided to choose as an example a story from the Bible. One of the possibilities could have been to look into the textbooks’ presentation of the Jews in the New Testament. That is because the New Testament stories reflect the tense relation existing between the Christian authors and Judaism in the time of the New Testament and therefore often describe the Jews by negative terms.
Instead we have decided to look into the well-known Exodus story, one of the great and fundamental stories in the Bible. The story tells about how God saved the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, after a long period of difficult and aimless consultations with a stubborn pharaoh. As a consequence God sent ten plagues over the Egyptians – the last plague the worst: all firstborn died, both animals and human beings. The traditional Christian interpretation of this story is to read it as a story about liberation from suppression and about God saving his people. At the same time this story reveals an attitude towards other people which for modern man is hard to accept, namely that God, because of pharaoh, had to punish the whole Egyptian people; men, women and children in such a cruel way. When the children’s movie “The Prince of Egypt” was shown at cinemas in Norway, the very same question came up among the children: What about the innocent Egyptians? Why did God have to punish them? Weren’t they as valuable as the Jews – or the Israelites?
Our question is:
How do the textbooks deal with such a negative attitude towards other people as seen in the Exodus story? In what way do the textbooks retell the Biblical story? Do they omit the difficult parts, do they reduce them, or do they render them with all the cruel details? And how do the teacher’s handbooks recommend the teachers to deal with the stories?
We have looked into textbooks and teacher’s handbooks from the same three publishers as mentioned above.
1. Lower level
If we look at the presentation of the Exodus story for the lower level (grade 1-4), there is a tendency to play down – or ignore the problematical aspects. About the ten plagues one of the textbooks says: “The Lord sent terrible disasters over Egypt. Then pharaoh regretted and sent his soldiers after them. But the Lord saved the Israelites by a miracle.
Another textbook for the same level is though more direct and specific when it says: “God sent one plague after another over the Egyptians. But pharaoh didn’t give up. Then God sent the Death Angel through Egypt. The eldest son in each family died.” Even if the teacher’s handbook recommends playing down the plagues and focusing on God saving his people, it nevertheless suggests as a good idea that the children can draw the plagues, cut them out and fix them on a cartoon with the heading: “Let my people go!” Both this handbook and the handbook related to the first textbook underline that focus should be on God who is saving his people and making them free, as well as demonstrating that the god of Israel is more powerful than the Egyptian gods. Good enough – but there is no reference to the challenging aspects connected with the suffering of innocent Egyptian children and the Egyptian people as a whole. On the contrary, one of the handbooks says that the stories about Moses are “colourful and exciting”.
2. Upper level
For upper level (grade 5-7) the Exodus story is presented in grade 6, partly under the heading of Judaism. The approach to the story is not radically different, but the plagues or disasters are told more explicit and detailed. As one of the textbooks puts it: “Moses went to pharaoh and asked him to let the people go. But pharaoh wouldn’t. Then pharaoh and Egypt were hit by several plagues. The same night an angel went through Egypt and killed a lot of people. Then the people (Israelites) were rescued.” There is no reflection in the teacher’s handbook on the fate of “the Other” in the story.
One of the other textbooks suggests that the students can work together in teams concentrating on the plagues. And what kind of work? The suggestion is that after having read the story about the disasters, the teams shall choose one of the plagues, produce a text and make a drawing with nice colours – and then possibly hang it on the wall in a big decorative collage.
Even if these plagues by the Biblical authors were seen as divine miracles given for salvation of the Israelites, certainly the experience was very different for the Egyptian people. Although the teacher’s handbook offers solid and useful Biblical knowledge to the teachers, there is no dealing with this ethical dilemma in the story.
However, the teacher’s handbook related to the third textbook for this level is an exception. It stresses that in the Jewish tradition the fate of the innocent Egyptians has been a matter of concern – emphasising that God was sad because he had to cause this harm to the Egyptians. However, this has obviously no implication for the presentation in the textbook.
The conclusion from the evaluation seems to be like this: with one exception - either the textbooks and handbooks are playing down the drama or they are telling the cruel details, they lack empathy with the Egyptians, suffering under a heartless pharaoh and at the same time punished by God.
It is worth noticing that even if most of the authors of the textbooks and the teacher’s handbooks seem to be comfortable with the plot and the solution – namely God saving his people from the repressing Egyptians – the children in the cinema have discovered another aspect: the innocent Egyptians! Why is it so? Maybe the explanation is that the story is so seductive that we only see the Israelites as victims? Or maybe we read the story through strong Biblical glasses? If we only focus on the faces of the Israelites, then we are unable to see the faces of the Egyptians. But the children saw these faces too! Why? It could be as simple as this: at least many of the children – when coming to the cinema - met the story for the first time – as an open story – without knowing the Christian or Jewish – or Islamic – interpretation of the story. And they felt a spontaneous empathy with both victims!
From the teacher’s point of view it is important to reflect upon this: some of the stories from various religions reveal negative and prejudicial attitudes towards other people and towards non-believers (as for example seen in some of the Islamic stories as well as in the Biblical stories). It is obvious that the teacher in a multi-faith class – as well as in a more “homogeneous” class - will have to be careful when he/she presents stories like these. Attitudes towards other people are created – not exclusively, of course – but partly - by listening to stories. Teaching religions and ethics has as an important aim – on the basis of knowledge and understanding – to stimulate attitudes like respect and tolerance towards other people – even if they think and act different from oneself. The idea of human dignity: that all human beings are of equal value and have the same human rights, is a fundamental and absolute idea, extremely important in a modern multicultural society and in a world consisting of people with different religions and cultures.
Therefore - as part of this: When problematic stories as the Exodus story is presented, it is necessary that the teacher makes clear the storyteller’s point of view and for what reason the story was told in the first place. This is of course not only due to the Biblical stories, but to the Islamic stories as well - and others. The Exodus story is problematic both for ethical reasons and concerning the role of God. The impression coming from the story that God supports some people - as people - and doesn’t care about others – needs an explanation. This is an extremely important issue, which has to be dealt with also in other contexts in Religious Education – especially in connection with the three religions and the different people in the Middle East. To sort out different perspectives is an important task for those writing textbooks and teacher’s handbooks. At least for the lower levels the textbook is perhaps not the place to give this explanation, but that’s why the publishers need to make sure that the teacher’s handbooks reflect on these matters. In these handbooks such pedagogical and scientific information and discussions are as important for the lower levels as for the upper.
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A modern short version: Prime: Ramayana. A journey. Collins & Brown, London 1997
 Exodus 7-12
 In the Quran we find an Islamic version of the same story