For decades, a few subjects have struggled to maintain their place in the curriculum of schools and colleges in Jamaica.
Following statements by former Education Minister Ronald Thwaites in 2013-14 that the government was unable to employ graduates that year, specific subjects which had an oversupply of teachers were named, including Religious Education (RE), Social Studies, History and Geography. Consequently, students in teachers’ colleges were encouraged to pursue other disciplines, such as social work.
This unfortunate advice had implications on two levels. It has plunged the workforce into normal schools, and it has cast a shadow over the subjects mentioned as unattractive and unviable.
I am one of those concerned teachers because I am a qualified RE specialist; however, I no longer teach the subject due to the declining number of college applicants. Therefore, I was redeployed to serve in other areas. The change of teaching RE has been very heartbreaking for me as it is a subject I am passionate about. Additionally, I see the need for its inclusion in the curriculum to teach healthy values and attitudes and to help students become aware of existing religions and their impact on our culture and ways of life.
Dr Garth Anderson said “religious education is dead” when he addressed teacher educators at their annual professional development seminar in August 2022. How did we get here? What are we doing to fix this problem?
There was an oversupply of RE teachers before 2013, in that we had student teachers leaving university and for over five years were unable to find employment. There was a graduate who was employed in August 2022 in an RE position for the first time, although he graduated in 2017. However, we now have a radical reversal of the tables, whereby we now have positions RE which are not provided in many schools. I received a call no later than October 18 from a teacher who quit and was looking for a replacement in ER. Obviously, these teachers are now scarce and there is an urgent need to meet this demand.
Although there has been a massive decline among applicants for History, Social Sciences, and Geography, unlike RE, there has been no discontinuation of these programs. I therefore call on the MOEY, JBTE and TCJ to critically examine this issue, as it is of great concern. We need to start training RE teachers again. We may need to offer the subject as a minor at teachers college level to fill the gap that currently exists and is likely to worsen even in the short term. If we don’t act now, the subject is likely to disappear from the high schools that currently offer it.
The days when RE was just Bible knowledge. For decades the subject has struggled to maintain its place on the curriculum as it has an unfortunate history of seeking indoctrination, especially during the era of slavery when religious knowledge was introduced to maintain slaves on line.
The days following the abolition of slavery saw the subject essentially turned towards Bible knowledge and inculcate Christian values. Many felt that there needed to be a more inclusive approach to teaching the subject, given that we aim to develop the ideal Caribbean person, and that there are other religious groups that Caribbean students will meet and interact with. . This led to the inclusion of the four major religions and some indigenous religions at the level of the Caribbean Certificate of Secondary Education (CSEC). In view of this, RE has gone beyond teaching only Bible knowledge to adopt a more phenomenological, more inclusive and objective approach. Nevertheless, some people still believe that RE is simply a Christian education.
While RE seeks to foster an understanding and develop an appreciation for various religious beliefs, it also helps cultivate positive morals and values in students. One of the main challenges we face in our Jamaican schools today is violence. I want to propose that the teaching of RE in our schools helps combat this challenge as it seeks to help students clarify their own belief systems, manage problems and resolve conflicts. The content helps students tackle real issues, such as crime and violence, poverty, abortion, and highlights how religious groups deal with these issues, which students can apply to their life. The content taught in RE will help build strong moral codes and engender positive values in students.
Additionally, RE will help children become less selfish and more altruistic, develop a moral code that will guide them to conduct themselves principled and to stand up for what is right, noble and just. It helps develop positive skills in students, such as problem solving, critical thinking, tolerance and empathy. In Hinduism, for example, the principle of non-violence laid down by the Indian spiritual and political leader Mahatma Gandhi is taught. This principle exposes students to a new way of thinking. Not everyone may accept it, but with discussion, they may see value in it. It also teaches students the importance of being sensitive to the feelings of others and treating others as they would like to be treated. Also, it helps to develop good character by examining the qualities and contribution of positive role models from different religions and calling on students to find and emulate the positive attributes of notable people who contribute significantly to society.
Additionally, RE will help change the mindset of students as many have cultivated distorted values. What values do we need our children to adopt as a nation that will get us out of this moral rut? When did we get to a point where our children see good as bad and bad as good? The nation is in crisis and we need concerted and collaborative efforts to combat this moral decay. Students kill each other while some stand back and watch, others push, while some record the events for social media. What happened to the nation’s children? In recent weeks, the news has been dotted with acts of violence in schools. The situation has become “worse”.
I want to propose that the effective teaching of RE is a means of combating this problem of moral degradation. If we let RE die, we are denying students a pathway by which they can explore ethical principles and grapple with the ultimate issues and problems within society to form their own ethical code. We must conquer this beast because if we don’t, the Jamaica of tomorrow will be a more bitter place.
I am in no way saying that RE education alone will stop all our ills within schools. Of course, peace initiatives are also necessary; for example, a few years ago there was the Peace and Love in Schools (PALS) program, which was extremely helpful in teaching students how to resolve conflict.
The level of violence that is spreading in our schools is very worrying. The school must offer students an alternative. The subjects we teach must be applicable to life and the activities in which they engage must encourage them to think and make rational decisions. Consider social studies, for example, it helps develop students’ social skills and highlights the functions of family, groups, and communities, and the need to live in harmony. It has its place in the curriculum. A subject of this nature helps students develop a sense of community and calls them to be active and noble citizens who contribute positively to society.
We may need to adjust the way we teach RE, Geography, and Social Studies, and this will need to be taken into account, given our current reality. It is not just about imparting knowledge, it is also about inculcating the values and morals necessary for a harmonious life. Emphasizing the affective domain in teaching lessons across the curriculum will also bear fruit in appealing to the conscience. This will force students to apply themselves to their lives and will slowly transform their thinking, actions, and way of life.
Nattalie McKenzie is a senior lecturer at Shortwood Teachers’ College and a PhD candidate in educational leadership and management at the Jamaica University of Technology. Send your comments to the Jamaica Observer or [email protected]