Wisdom from the Independent

Writing in the British newspaper The Independent, Michael Reiss and John White have an interesting suggestion about the school curriculum in England:

It is a laudable aim of the current National Curriculum that pupils “know about big ideas and events that shape the world”. But one of the biggest of these is too infrequently studied in schools. We are thinking of the growing loss of faith, over the past two centuries, in a religious picture of the world. David Hume’s 18th-century onslaught on arguments for the existence of God was an early catalyst, Darwin’s 19th-century attack on what today is known as creationism a later and more devastating one. Nowadays, according to an ICM poll in 2006, the majority of adults in Britain describe themselves as non-religious.

Those who determine the curricula that are taught in state schools insist on knowledge of all sorts of particular facts and approaches to understanding in different subjects. But they do not require any awareness of this revolution in belief, arguably the most dramatic since the origin of Islam. True, the non-statutory RE curriculum now allows for teaching about humanism, but – unlike Christianity and other major world faiths – leaves it optional, and on a par with Zoroastrianism.

Where else might you expect to find an informed and systematic introduction to and examination of atheism and agnosticism? In the science curriculum? In history? English? Citizenship? Your search will be fruitless. There is no curriculum pigeonhole for an idea as big as this one.

Interesting suggestion, and one that sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Of course, in most parts of the US nothing like that would fly. Atheism sells itself, and if it is discussed as a legitimate option in a comparative religion class a lot of students are going to find it very appealing. Christians of a more conservative bent are very big on protecting their children from ideas that challenge their faith.

Reiss and White close with:

Our argument is part of a broader one about schooling. The school curriculum is not only to do with the workings of volcanoes, the use of the future tense in French, calculations about triangles and the causes of the First World War. Educators and curriculum planners should look up from such comparative minutiae, important as these are in the right place. They should raise their eyes if not to heaven, at least to a more global picture of what education should be about. An understanding of non-religion, like an understanding of religion, is a vital part of this.

Sadly, one of the reasons education tends to gravitate toward bland recitations of facts is that the sort of curriculum Reiss and White are discussing would be too controversial (at least in the US). The very idea of discussing religion with academic detachment is already an affront to many people.