Thursday, May 30, 2013

Re-writing Religion: Spain's education act

In my second year at grammar school, my class was set an R.E. homework assignment to write a nativity play. My best friend Derek and myself were both heavily influenced at that time by the "I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again" radio show. Under the influence of Cleese, Garden, Oddie and Brooke-Taylor, we thought it would be highly amusing were we to write our plays in the style of ISIRTA. How wrong we were. The R.E. teacher, a Miss Phillipson, was scandalised. My effort was slightly less offensive than Derek's and so I was given the opportunity to re-write it "properly" and received a grudging six out of ten for the revised play. Derek was less fortunate. He had to re-do his in the knowledge that he was going to get nul points come what may.

When it came to choosing our O Level subjects later that school year, it was little surprise that R.E. didn't loom large among our priorities. Indeed, I don't recall it having loomed large among anyone's priorities. Like Latin, it was a subject which, as soon as the opportunity arose to shape one's own personal curriculum, was dropped with the full force and weight of several copies of the Authorised Version being hurled from the top of the science block onto the school playground.

Which, with the value of hindsight normally denied to thirteen-year-olds, was probably a mistake. Latin, one came to appreciate, would have been of value. R.E. would have been, too, in that religious studies in their broadest sense are of value in appreciating fundamentals of cultures and societies (and one uses "fundamental" advisedly in the context of religions).

The greatest mistake lay in believing that one had to be a believer in order to study religion. Not so. Indeed, it might be argued that it is preferable if one isn't a believer. Through not adhering to any particular religious dogma, there may be a chance of increased objectivity prevailing. But what thirteen-year-old is going to now buy into such an explanation or would have bought into such an explanation a few decades ago?

The trouble is that, regardless of whatever broader historical, sociological and cultural aspects are contained in a religious studies curriculum (assuming there are any), as a subject it is perceived as representative of one thing and one thing alone - the established church. For schoolchildren, the church simply isn't cool or relevant. It is something to be rejected.

The Spanish have been losing their religion dramatically over the past 20 years or so, and Spanish youth have been losing it more dramatically than any other age group. This is natural enough, given youthful rebellion, but the taking of religious studies by high-school pupils has slumped to such a level that only roughly a quarter now opt for it.

Faced with this declining interest, the Spanish Government's education reform is to give greater emphasis to religious studies. It will, under the system that the revised education bill sets out, count to the same extent that maths or a language course will. Wert's Law, named after the education minister José Ignacio Wert, will give as much worth and as much weight to religion as it does to English. And there are an awful lot of people who aren't happy that it will. A poll has found that even a majority of practising Catholics disagree with this emphasis on religious studies. The widely held view is that it is a measure designed to serve one purpose - a politico-religious one in cementing the alliance between the Church and the Partido Popular and in advancing the cause of societal conservatism.

However much some would argue, and I would count myself among them, that religious studies, so long as they are broad-based, are of educative value, to place religious instruction on a par with languages, maths, science and technology is an utter nonsense. By doing so, the impression is given of subject choice being somehow bought. And for a country that badly needs to sharpen up its educational act, so to speak, and to encourage innovation, development and entrepreneurship, such an emphasis on religion appears almost perverse. It is a subject worthy of study but it ain't going to improve the country's economic performance.

It is even more perverse that the Partido Popular, perceived as the party that is the friend of business and industry, should seek to establish such an educational measure. It can only be explained, therefore, on the grounds of dogma - the religious dogma of Catholic conservatism, one that many had thought had been consigned to history.

Any comments to please.

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