What would Obama say as Americans vote today? Watch this! You may find yourself, like me, playing it over and over. The words and their sorrow may be imaginary but they point us towards real hope. More than a captivating and inspiring song, this lamentation challenges our soul as a nation. When the election is over, may we all rise higher.
But how did we sink so low?
To answer that question, let me share a few notes from attending the REA Conference in Pittsburgh where I met Religion Educators from around the world including Belgium, Germany, Austria, England, Spain, Turkey, Nigeria, Canada, Israel, Australia, and the United States.
Unlike in the United States, Religion is a required class in Europe’s high schools.
In England, all students are required to study RE (Religion Education) until the age of 18. They learn religion in multi-faith classrooms. But RE teachers are not as prepared as they need to be. The religious landscape has changed and the curriculum has not kept up. “We think non-believers and those with informal beliefs need to be treated more seriously as a growing part of the picture.” According to one teacher I met, this is true across Europe. RE is out of date and teachers need better training.
RE in Europe’s Catholic schools are also affected by the changing religious landscape.
In Belgium, Muslim immigrants choose to send their children to Catholic schools instead of public schools. (Both are financed by the State. The former are organized by an organizing board and created by a religious order.) Religion is taught in Catholic schools with more respect. In other schools, “…[the RE] requirement is ignored, or watered down.” Better to learn another’s religion in an environment that respects it than to learn your own in one that does not. Diane Du Val d’Eprémesnil, Faculty of Theology, Université catholique de Louvain, told me that 80% of students in a Catholic school in Brussels are Muslim.
Two countries take a different approach to RE from the rest of Europe.
In Germany and Austria, students learn religion with “same-faith” peers. Bernhard Gruemme, Faculty of Catholic Theology at Ruhr Universitat Bochum, explained to me that students do not learn religion in a multi-faith setting. Instead, they learn one religion from teachers trained to teach it to students affiliated with it. This assumes of course there are religion teachers for each religion in each school.
What if there is no teacher for one’s religion? What if students do not affiliate with any religion? In these cases says Bernhard, a student MUST take Philosophy. I found myself excited that Philosophy is offered and disappointed that one must choose. For me, these two subjects go together.
Combining philosophy and religion was a highlight of my pedagogy as an independent after-school religion teacher to a unique, but growing population — children of interfaith, religiously unaffiliated, and globally identifying families. Indeed, these are three rising trends (PEW 2015, PRRI 2016, and BBC 2016 respectively).
Could it be that the segregation of these two disciplines — Philosophy and Religion — has contributed to the increased political polarization we see today? One that produces a “rogue ripple”? Could the integration of philosophy and religion give young people the skills to think critically and to form thoughtful, meaningful, personal identities? Separating reason and faith sinks our ability to truly understand different worldviews and to express beliefs not as facts but as ways of seeing and of making meaning. If we can do that, surely we can come together for our common, higher good.
With this in mind, imagine my surprise and delight when I saw a poster at the conference devoted to teaching Philosophy in the Religion school classroom using the SAME materials that inspired me. Zoom on the photo below and you’ll see the name Matthew Lipman, founder of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, with whom I studied FORTY YEARS AGO.
If Europe can borrow from us a program on philosophy for children and incorporate it into religion classes, then we can borrow Europe’s idea to teach about religious worldviews in our schools. People like me struggled to teach philosophy in US public schools — no one knew where to put it! I could only introduce philosophy to kids by teaching religion which I could only do in a private school. What if all schools required a Religion class (that taught all religions, including secular) WITH Philosophy as an integral subject? Religion can benefit from philosophy and philosophy from religion. We need both in a pluralist society. Faith without reason and reason without faith each lead to their own pathologies.
To transform Obama’s imagined lamentation into real exultation requires, in my opinion, a common education for young people that includes the best of philosophy and religion. And then… then we can transcend to higher ground — to a place (I imagine) that our outgoing president had the audacity to hope for. Seriously.