Religious Education teachers should have ‘a tremendous sense of humour and a hide like a rhinoceros’, wrote Bernard R Youngman in 1953. The most successful author of RE textbooks in his day, Youngman was commenting on the qualities RE teachers needed to negotiate the lowly status of RE as a curriculum subject, and the contested nature of religion in post-war Britain.
As well as the virtues of having a thick skin (tolerance) and a sense of humour (joy), Youngman also identified several other character traits necessary for the task of teaching religion in the 1950s: patience, sincerity, purpose, curiosity and determination.
While many things have changed since then, we must be careful of our assumptions about RE in bygone eras. When you imagine the 1950s, you may think of an age when religious education was a respected and uncontested subject, taken very seriously by students, teachers, parents and school administrators. However, you would be quite wrong. While the style of RE has evolved over the last six decades, the precarious status of RE – the ‘Cinderella’ of the curriculum as it was later called in the 1960s – was contested and uncertain. Among the problems Youngman observed then are perhaps familiar now: lack of curriculum time devoted to RE, ineffective teaching methods, and the poor religious knowledge of students.
The British approach to RE has developed out of an ongoing compromise between religious, political and educational stakeholders. When universal education was first enacted in the 1870s, various denominational bodies clubbed together to provide public schooling on the understanding that RE would be non-sectarian. At subsequent milestones, such as the introduction of compulsory secondary education in 1944, and again in the landmark 1988 Education Act, RE had a compulsory mandate, but was conceived in such a way that it should engender consensus between vested religious interests (including after 1988, the main non-Christian religions represented in Britain).
One present corollary of this history has been the creation of a unique professional, the RE teacher, who religiously educates without confessing a particular creed. At one point in time, such as during the height of Youngman’s popularity, it was assumed that this enterprise was broadly Christian in character, but undenominationally so. However, since the 1970s, when the religious studies movement influenced RE, the subject has included the study of the world’s main religious traditions. The multi-faith curriculum was made statutory in 1988 and RE today is often promoted as a subject primarily concerned with promoting social cohesion and interreligious tolerance and understanding. It should be noted that parallel to local authority schools and academies, there have always been schools of a specific religious character – usually Church of England or Roman Catholic – that could, and do still, provide religious education of a confessional and denominational nature.
It is interesting to revisit Youngman’s assessment of the character of the religious educator and to consider what virtues may be essential to being a good RE teacher in our time and context. This is particularly pertinent given the importance of virtue to the world’s religious traditions. Indeed, many consider the virtues to be quasi-religious concepts. For example, in her book, The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong argues that the emergence of the ‘axial virtues’ of compassion, respect, empathy and love in the period between 800 and 300 BC were vital to the development of human civilisation. The axial sages – Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jeremiah and Lao Tzu – each emphasise the moral imperatives of self-reflection, responsibility and cooperation necessary for societal flourishing. In his famous wartime essay on education, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis observed similarities between the teachings of these religions. Rather than backing up his argument with Christian theology alone, Lewis draws on the world’s cultures to advocate a conception of education based on universal anthropological notions of the good, which he calls ‘the Tao’ – a term taken from ancient Chinese philosophy.
School life can seem far removed from the spiritual principles expounded by past prophets, however, and the task of the RE teacher can be complex, given the magnitude and diversity of religion, the ongoing vicissitudes of educational policy, and changing religious demographics. The late Professor Terence Copley noted that to negotiate religion in the contemporary classroom was a ‘tightrope walk’ for teachers, requiring a very finely tuned sensitivity to young people and to religion.
The character of the religious educator is an essential ingredient to good RE. However, there are thousands of religious educators working in Britain today, and it is likely not possible to reify these into one abstracted personification of requisite virtues. Research suggests there are various ways teachers negotiate their own identity as religious educators, just as there is a bewildering amount of theoretical literature as to what contemporary RE should be like. Thus, just as we may rightfully say there is no such thing as art, only artists (to paraphrase the great Art Historian, Ernst Gombrich); we should probably say there is no such thing as religious education, only religious educators. Of particular relevance to this enigmatic statement is the tricky and stubborn question as to what religious educators should do with their own religious commitments in the classroom.
Given the potential of RE as a vehicle for character education, and the importance of the role of the teacher to both RE and character education, there is fertile and unchartered ground for research and intervention. The Jubilee Centre is therefore beginning a new project concerning the lives of RE teachers. This is timely because RE has been excluded from the most significant educational policies of the new millennium. It is not mandatory in academies, nor is it included in the English Baccalaureate. Thus, the subject finds itself under review, including by a specially formed independent body, The Commission on Religious Education.
In order to inform ongoing debates, and to answer some more long-standing questions, the project will engage with RE teachers in order to examine the role of virtue in their professional practice, and the potential of RE for character education. While this will not include testing the thickness of RE teachers’ skin, or the extent of their sense of humour, it will explore the role of virtues in the teaching of religious education – providing new insights into the relationships between religion, education and character.
Please follow the developments of the project on the Jubilee Centre Website. If you are an RE teacher and wish to take part in the research, or you would otherwise like to contact the project researchers, please email Daniel Moulin-Stożek (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Jason Metcalfe (J.M.Metcalfe@Bham.ac.uk)
Dr Daniel Moulin-Stożek is a Research Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues