Education, Education, Education: What the children who join IS need to know 86



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Kids join Islamic State (ISIS) because they are hungry for a passion. In the grey world created for them by their adults, they want something exciting to believe in, some dramatic good they can achieve, something great they can create, a cause to give their whole life to. Of course they do. They are adolescents.

And they are also ignorant.

Teenagers these days know so many things, and they can Google what they don’t know, but we have failed them dismally in teaching them about religion and about the religions expressed in cultures around the world. For various reasons, we have been afraid to have any religion taught in schools, and yet this is the very learning area that would prevent the radicalisation of young people.

I mean, of course, religion taught well, and taught by competent teachers. This is so urgent as to be the fourth ‘R’ of the 21st Century: young people need to know about religion alongside reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

They need to know why billions have embraced religion and found that religion provides wisdom, comfort and direction for their lives. They need to know what motivated Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and what produced the luscious religious art of the Renaissance. In a word, they need to know something of the passion, commitment and engagement in life that religion brings to many people.

They also need to know why millions reject religion. Religion is not just passion. It’s not just a response of the heart. It requires thought and discernment as well. Agnostics have reasons for questioning, and atheists have reasons for believing that religions have got it wrong, and students need to grapple with those reasons and see if they too are convinced.

It’s our fault that our young people don’t know about religion, don’t know its complexities, don’t know how rule of law, democracy, and science all came about through the work of devout Jews, Christians and Muslims, and how the modern world could not have come into existence without religion.

They have not been introduced to the proposition that morality, morality like reverence for life, arises from the pages of the scriptures of the great religions.

It’s our fault as a community. Rectifying that error will not be easy. When he was Minister for Education forty years ago, Kim Beazley Senior proposed a National Curriculum with nine Learning Areas, one of which was Religion. He foresaw that Religion needs firstly to be taken seriously as a curriculum area.

Countries such as Denmark that seem to be doing better in embracing minorities, including Muslims, are currently strengthening their ‘identity-carrying subjects’ such as history and Christian studies. Australia will get a similar result through serious teaching about all religions.

Politicians, principals and academics should publicly champion the teaching of Religion Studies as a national priority.

The Year 11 and 12 courses that now exist like ‘Religion and Life’ in WA need boosting into greater visibility in order to create a bigger demand.

We need to identify competent teachers to mentor other teachers who, though highly trained in other areas, feel inadequate to teach religion. There are such master teachers, particularly in church schools and in professional associations like the Australian Association for Religious Education.

Universities should review teacher training programs to make sure that they prepare teachers thoroughly to teach Religion. Sadly, the Universities I know have dropped successful courses because administrators have been indifferent. That should change!

The aim should be to make the teaching and learning of religion as engaging and fascinating as religion – and the debates about it – are.

Schools need to make sure that there is sensible space in the time-table for Religion. Students cannot take seriously a subject that is allowed only 45 minutes a week. Imagine if Science or Maths had only one period in a week! ISIS has had runaway success in meeting its educational aims. As a community we can do better than ISIS.

In other words, our community needs a plan to end the ignorance by creating and nurturing a new, a ninth, Learning Area. Every student who sees through the extremism of ISIS because she learns that Islam is something different altogether is a treasure saved for Australia.

Ted Witham is Immediate Past President of the Australian Association for Religious Education and a retired Religious Educator.


Do you agree with Ted?

Ted Witham

Ted Witham lives with his wife Rae and energetic Jack Russell dog Lottie in a Retirement Village in the beautiful south-west corner of Australia. His articles on Australian music teachers have appeared in Limelight and Insight History, and he enjoys writing short stories and poetry. He is currently attempting a novella and receives great encouragement from his writers' group.

  1. No! Aboriginal History and culture would be my choice and be more beneficial to Australia…

  2. There are some solid arguments expressed here. I agree with some, not convinced by all. But one thing is certain and that is there needs to be a belief in something. Not only youth but all ages.
    And education is the key.

    6 REPLY
    • Sorry, I don’t agree you need to believe in something. For me, I take responsibility for my own actions. I think too many people abrogate responsibility.

      1 REPLY
      • Correct. Why replace one lot of bigotry with another equally as bad.

    • I feel the same Marlene, but alas the majority don’t. They need something to believe in, no matter what. It’s one thing that differs us from the rest of the animal kingdom, this need to have control over our own destiny (supposedly).

    • As a friend of mine said when our children were very young….. They have to have something to question from…..and fair enough…..but islam as it is currently peddled is NOT that.
      I agree Marlene, taking responsibility is not something ligions have a concept of. I know I learned that as I grew & it’s source was outside “organised religion” that I had rejected as a young teenager.

    • Yes maybe they need to have something to believe in, but they also need to be responsible for the decisions they make.

    • Could not agree more with the responsibility for actions. There are so many people who do not take any ownership of their actions. It is always someone else’s fault. Consequences for actions and decisions can be good or bad depending on your choice.
      As for belief, it does not have to be a religion. I never said that. I said people need to believe in something. Many believe in themselves like Marlene and Julie, which is wonderful.

    • Being responsible for your actions is a basic principle in being religious, and learning about Christianity. Children need to be guided through their informative years,and being taught about God is good for them. They are taught about love, not hate, caring for each other. It gives them the concept about right and wrong. Developing a conscience, and learning to say sorry when they have hurt someone. The list goes on. Their faith can develop as they get older? It’s not something you leave until they are older and they can choose themselves. By then in a lot of cases it’s too late!
      These are ideals that can’t hurt these children, but may help them developing into decent caring young adult. Hopefully then the last thing they would turn to is a radicalised youth wishing to join ISIS and behead, murder people. That religion for want of a better word, teaches and evolves around hate!

  3. I do think you have no valid argument against something (anything, not just ISIS) unless you have a clear understanding of the subject in the first place.

  4. Teaching the ideologies, religions and cultures of the world would give young people an understanding of people’s differences. I don’t think it should be just religion, but a more broad belief system. I have never believed teaching a single religion in schools be it Judaism, Christianity or Islam is healthy. To teach your religion as the ‘right’ and only religion creates an us and them.

    2 REPLY
    • I agree. I think they should know the different teachings & then when they are old enough to have the freedom to choose what suits THEM best. Although I would say to teach them to be kind to each other accept them for their differences, however GOD is something different to many people or don’t really believe in GOD.

  5. I don’t believe this is so.
    I am agnostic. However, I sent my children to Sunday School so they coukd make up their own mind about what they wanted to believe in.
    None of them have followed through with the teachings. That is their choice.

    1 REPLY
  6. I agree too. We , as a community have lapsed badly in this area over the past three generations. We are talking about the Christian religion, of course, the adherents of other religions make very sure their young people know all about their religion. We are failing ours , I,m afraid. If after knowing their religion, they then disregard it, that is their decision, but at least they are not ignorant of it. A well written piece, thank you.

  7. Totally disagree with this writer. Religion should be kept to the home or church, it has no place in learning institutions. And, Denmark is having many problems due to immigration, so is not a good example.

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