Photo by Gideon Mendel

The elephant in the classroom

Imagining itself to be impartial, the “neutral” RE curriculum imposes its own claim

Artillery Row

If you did RE at school, you might have come across John Hick’s elephant. Speaking about how different religions all grapple towards the truth, he imagines a series of blind men each coming across an elephant and wondering what it is. Even though none of the men is able to see the whole elephant, each man is able to grasp a part of it a tusk, a leg perhaps, or a tail.

However much we try, neutrality is impossible

The image is intended to convey Hick’s own pluralist perspective and his belief that the world’s religions are like the blind men. Unable to see the whole Reality by themselves, each religion does its best to grasp what it can. Rather than any one religion having any clearer insight than the other, each religion has grasped an equal portion of the whole. It’s an appealing image that fits comfortably with our perception of a neutral public space.

The problem is that, however much we might try, neutrality is impossible. In Hick’s image, the story is told by someone who isn’t blind. With his superior faculties he can look down on the blind men stumbling to work out what the elephant really is. He, alone, can see the whole truth, whereas the blind men can only grasp bits of it.

Recognising this helps us to understand why Giles Fraser said last week that RE classes in schools can be “existentially anaemic encounters”. It’s not because contemporary RE curricula aren’t making truth claims. By trying not to privilege any one religion, the “neutral” curriculum designer stands above the fray, saying: “these religions are all really the same: they all have sacred books, go on pilgrimages, have festivals and all of them believe you should treat each other nicely”.

The driving force of many schools’ RE curricula is to achieve social harmony and not necessarily to convey what its community thinks is true. It’s an objective for which I have a lot of sympathy, not least because we do need to find a way to live alongside each other even when our most fundamental beliefs may conflict with one another. But we also need to recognise the challenges.

Pupils from a faith tradition can scarcely recognise it

The first is that this approach privileges breadth over depth, so pupils rarely develop a sophisticated knowledge of any one religious tradition in particular. The theological content is spread so thinly that pupils from within a faith tradition can scarcely recognise it as their own. Hindu pupils hear their faith described as “polytheistic” while Christians are told that God has three “forms”. Pupils of no faith adopt the assumptions of Hick’s onlooker. As they gaze down at unit after unit of vast oversimplification, to them it all looks the same. They equate “religion” with being nice to one another and caring for the environment. Who needs to be religious to do that?

Looking at religious belief and practice from the outside can also distort the material in the most unnatural of ways, forcing GCSE examiners to ask questions that no one in the tradition ever has. “The Shahadah is the most important of the Five Pillars.” Discuss. “Christmas is more important than Easter.” Discuss. Is this the best we can do to challenge 16-year-olds in modern Britain? Asking them a question that no academic, nor anyone inside the tradition, has ever asked, and requiring them to write a thoughtful answer in 15 minutes?

This is at the heart of why RE has a rigour problem: the “neutral” curriculum designer doesn’t really consider whether any of this stuff is true. When you don’t think the object of knowledge is true, you’re rarely interested in conveying it with any vigour. Just think about what you commit to memory. How many Sikhs value the Shema so much that they would teach it to their children? And how many Catholics do you know who want to memorise the Quran? The songs and stories that we learn by heart are exactly that the truths that we treasure and hold most dear.

In all of this, we should remember the iron law of curriculum design: time spent on one topic is time not spent on another. When someone says they want to put something on the curriculum, always ask them what else they would take off. The “neutral” RE curriculum has only a finite number of lessons to attempt to cover the entire world’s religious and philosophical thought. This can’t possibly provide solutions only trade-offs.

Time spent studying one religion will not be spent on another

What should schools do? Non-faith schools should have the confidence to aim for depth over breadth, prioritising the knowledge and understanding that will help pupils to flourish in Britain. Whether or not you want it to remain so, our culture remains steeped in the assumptions and the vocabulary of the Judeo-Christian tradition. That doesn’t mean removing the world’s religions from school curricula, but it probably means a curriculum with greater emphasis on the stories and the vocabulary that will help pupils to make sense of the country they live in. Some will no doubt disagree with these priorities, but they must recognise that time spent studying one religion will be time not spent on another.

Faith schools should feel free to see their purpose differently: they should teach what they think is true. Jewish schools should teach the Torah, Islamic schools should teach the Quran and Christian schools should teach the Gospel. If we find that uncomfortable, we should ask whether we believe in a multi-cultural society at all. What does it mean to live in a many-cultured-society if we cannot find a way to live happily alongside each other with both common and different objects of love? 

The “neutral” RE curriculum falls into the same trap as Hick’s elephant: imagining itself to be impartial, it imposes its own claim. This is fine as long as we’re alert to the challenges that come with that the danger of breadth over depth, the ever-present trade-offs and the strain of valuing something that, in your heart of hearts, you don’t really think is true.

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