How does decolonisation within schools’ impact on the teaching of RE?

Simon Cardy with Sian Brockway and Almaz Messenger

Decolonisation, we felt, offers multiple contexts and a variety of perspectives that not only provide a mandate for further inclusion of alternative narratives but also legitimise one’s own experience as a contribution to learning within RE. For us, decolonisation is the process of identifying colonial influences that have become accepted orthodoxy. We don’t aim here to articulate detailed concepts or suggest definitive ways forward. Rather, we aim to suggest possible ways for further dialogue and research into decolonisation within both wider school contexts and more the more explicit context of RE.

As a group we are presenting deliberately from three, well established emphases used within RE teaching; hermeneutics, sense of self/identity and visual arts and representation.  Collectively, we work within numerous contexts including primary and secondary sectors, inner city, suburban, and different areas of England. It is hoped that this offers a nuanced range of reflections, based on a variety of epistemic sources that will enable further exploration by the reader.

Hermeneutic Reflection

Colonialism impacted the way Christianity developed throughout history globally. Given the restrictions of this paper, we have restricted consideration to a few scholarly perspectives.  Christian missionaries would travel across the world, converting communities to Christianity. At times, indigenous traditions were assimilated, and generalisations are difficult; yet a Western, androcentric understanding still prevails, even where it is not fit for purpose. For example, the image of God as a powerful male is un-relatable for Latin American poor (see Gerbara, 1999; Guadiola-Saenz, 2002).

Lim (2017) argues that colonialism meant that a male, westernised interpretation of scripture became widely regarded as objective. He refers to this as ‘reading from nowhere’, as though these biblical interpreters have no bias, no viewpoint from which they write. This is a sign of their own privileged position. Lim recognises that for different Christians, the margins appear in different places, rooted in their own culture and experiences which he refers to as ‘reading from here’. In order to have a better understanding of scripture, Lim argues we should ‘read from elsewhere’; in dialogue with others, listening to voices which have gone unheard for centuries.

Susan Docherty writes that recent developments in biblical studies have not yet filtered into RE, in particular the wider input from voices from the margins and global perspectives including the voices of women, people of colour, LGBTQ and those from the non-western world. Colonialism in the RE curriculum has only allowed the male, white, western interpretation be heard. Perhaps it is time to compare feminist or queer interpretations of texts with traditional views; rather than the standard Roman Catholic and Church of England comparisons which have become typical. Doherty writes “By drawing in voices which have been unheard in the past… current biblical scholarship can thus aid teachers in leading students to a better understanding of what the bible is, and of how it actually functions within believing communities today.” (Doherty, 2018, p306)

An Identity Orientated Reflection

‘Education… should be the passing on of knowledge and of knowing how to be.’ (Ramadan, 2004: 127 emphasis added).  This, we propose, is a fundamental part of both the aims and praxis of education. The DfE statutory aims for education lead with a need to address spiritual wellbeing (DfE: 2014: 2). The government acknowledged in 2010 that children experience ‘globalisation and an increasingly interdependent world. Religion and belief for many people forms a crucial part of their culture and identity’ (DCSF, 2010: 3).  As such, the role of personhood and an awareness of place within the world (both presently and historically) are critical elements that need to be embedded in pedagogical response to decolonisation within RE and beyond. A narrative that allows for exploration of identity is key, I argue, for the positioning of one’s identity. This position though is not static. Hall argues that we need to reflect upon the routes as well as roots (Hall & Schwarz 2017, Hall 2019) that form identity – especially as we aim to reframe RE.

Diversity, difference and the dialogue we ought to facilitate within RE through decolonisation can draw much from the philosophical approaches of those such as Barnes (2012, 2015).  The work of Barnes places the pupil in a position of observation of, engagement with, and moral reflection upon identity. Our identity is rooted partly in the experience of others (Barnes, 2015: 19, Malik, 2019: 6, Hall & Schwarz, 2017: 63 & Eco, 1986: 133). Pupils will need a structured environment through which to navigate and respond to their various experiences within an RE curriculum. Pearce advocates that the primary function of Religious Education as one that prepares pupils for spirituality is particularly apt here. Pearce proposes that RE is ‘education about spirituality and preparation for spirituality’ (Pearce, 2010: 1). This knowing is contextualised with the need for pupils to be ‘furnished with an awareness of the socio-cultural reality that shapes their lives (or the capacity to transform it)’ (Thanissaro, 2012: 196). That is why a decolonisation process routed and rooted in the experience of the learner is essential for meaningful and productive praxis.

A Reflection through Art and Images

As well as focusing on what students hear from us as teachers, we might also consider what they see and how this can either reinforce colonial influences in religion or dismantle them. Christianity (as an example, but not alone) has been used to manipulate and control by Western colonisers worldwide not only through writing (the Slave Bible in pre-civil war USA, for example) but through its images. Jesus, a Middle Eastern Jew, is often depicted as a Northern European white man. His mother, Mary, is also depicted in the same way. Of course, there are images of Jesus from every ethnic background often used by those of that background – but these are not the dominant images used even in minority communities here in the UK. What students see has a direct impact on them and tacitly reinforces themes of white supremacy and dominance. In a secondary setting, many of the students in Year 10 were shocked to find Jesus was not a Northern European ‘white’ man when shown a historian’s projection of what it is thought Jesus would have looked like. A student’s response was ‘he looks like a criminal!’ A KS3 student, when asked why the ‘angels were white’ in an image by another student replied ‘because the artist wants to show them as pure and holy’. Interestingly, all these students were from non-white backgrounds. It is clear, if only from this, that representation in the RE classroom really matters, in what students are shown as well as what they are told. By being exposed to and creating images of Jesus and other holy figures such as his mother and Mary Magdalene which subvert the dominant narrative, we contribute to deconstructing and challenging the colonial influences Christianity has suffered. By critically analysing the images we show students and/or changing the images we use whilst teaching and we can introduce and explore alternative theologies and show students an alternative to Western hegemony. An artist who does subvert the dominant Western depiction of biblical figures is Harmonia Rosales. An example of her work, ‘The Birth of Jesus’ (Click for image link), Mary and Jesus being depicted of Sub-Saharan African descent. She says ‘Since global history was documented, religion and power go hand in hand. Sometimes that power can be abused for greed, such as how American colonist used the religion of Christianity to manipulate and control. By creating positive works of art using black women, the complete opposite from which we were used to seeing, we can begin to deconstruct our power structure.’ What students see in the classroom matters.

Conclusion

There is a plethora of issues and a myriad of responses requiring introspection and articulation when engaged with the process of decolonisation of education and its impact on the teaching of RE. Should this process be managed by a select group speaking on behalf of others’ experience?  Rather, one way forward is through a community of practitioners engaged in dialogic learning that speaks into and shapes the practice of each teacher. When identity is resisted, we need to create ‘inclusive, messy and magnificent community’ (France Williams, 2020: 14). Ours is the privilege and responsibility to be agents for change.

Bibliography

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Downloaded on 27th April 2021

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Harmonia Rosales, (2018). Interviewed by Lexi Manatakis for Dazed, 5th Sept 2018. Available at: https://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/41202/1/harmonia-rosales-repaints-classic-artworks-god-is-a-black-woman-rjd-gallery (Accessed: 25 May 2021).

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Thanissaro, P.N., “Measuring attitude towards R.E.: factoring in pupils experience and home faith background into assessment”, British Journal of Religious Education, 34:2, (2012), pp 192-212.

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