Even pupils whose scarves don't match can be close knit

23rd December 2011 at 00:00
We can combat sectarianism with open, intelligent dialogue between young people

I have a dream . I have a dream that little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of the scarves around their necks, but by the content of their characters.

So might First Minister Alex Salmond have dreamt this month, when the Scottish Government presented to Holyrood its plans to tackle sectarianism: "Scotland's Shame". But, for those of us in the classroom, what can we dream?

Well, for RE teachers a steer was provided earlier this year by the learning directorate of the Scottish Government with its proclamation that: "Scottish Ministers believe that RME in non-denominational schools and RCRE in Roman Catholic schools make an important contribution to. counteracting prejudice and intolerance as children and young people consider issues such as sectarianism and discrimination."

How might teachers of RME and RCRE cross the divide to counteract prejudice and intolerance? One approach is to adopt a critical pedagogy whereby pupils come together for intelligent conversations in which they analyse evidences and arguments regarding ultimate truth claims.

Pope Benedict XVI recently urged teachers of religion "to enlarge the area of our rationality, to reopen it to the larger questions of the truth and the good, to link theology, philosophy and science". I had the good fortune, a few months ago, to undertake a small-scale research study in which Catholic pupils and others from different faith backgrounds engaged in intelligent conversations. Drawing upon philosophy, science and theology, they debated topics such as creation and evolution. The results were encouraging, and a larger-scale study is in the offing.

The pupils were afforded an opportunity to engage with inter-faith dialogue, which is not normally presented to them. Such dialogue, though, must be tackled as a long-term innovation - we must think in terms of years. A sustained programme whereby teachers of RCRE and RME and their pupils regularly come together for inter-faith dialogue has hope of success.

A renowned psychologist of religion, Heinz Streib, is developing a religious schema scale, whereby pupils' religious development can be tracked through religious exclusivism, then religious pluralism, and finally inter-religious dialogue. With the latter, they have adopted "a religious style in which openness for fairness and tolerance stands in the foreground".

Should the Scottish Government not consider investing in a programme of inter-faith dialogue through collaboration between teachers of RME and RCRE? If it does, then by using Streib's religious schema scale, it can demonstrate that Scottish pupils are becoming more tolerant.

Then, perhaps, the colour of a scarf will no longer matter. Only then will all of those dreams for a sectarian-free Scotland start to become real.

Antony Luby is a chartered teacher of RC religious education with Aberdeen Council.

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