Arthur, Chris, (1990) Biting the Bullet: Some personal reflections on Religious Education, Edinburgh: St Andrews Press
This collection of essays by Chris Arthur inspired me to think much more critically about the potential for positive and negative outcomes of different sorts of religious education. With a career in RE teaching in my sights when I read it at age 20, I thought that what the world primarily needed was less ignorance about different religious traditions. I was probably right, but my plan was that I would ‘tell’ pupils what (I thought) religious people did and believed, and somehow peace would break out in the world as a result of my efforts.
This set of reflective essays on RE showed me my naïvety, and just how potentially undermining to my (well-meant) aims it was. Arthur’s collection of meditations on different classroom experiences tackles the difficult theoretical task of distinguishing education in religion from education about religion. It explores the challenge of doing RE in an environment dominated by the distortions of mass media — seeing RE as an alternative form of mediation, with the potential to challenge dominant worldviews. It asks whether RE should ‘break the skin barrier’. In other words, can an RE which avoids allowing the central experiences of religion to impact on students, really claim to take religion seriously, and if the answer is no, then how can it negotiate the intellectual and pastoral pitfalls of potential indoctrination?
Despite the Department for Education’s language of ‘delivery’, pupils are not tabula-rasa onto which teachers pour ‘facts’. First there is the question of how those ‘facts’ have been distilled and extracted in the first place (through the filters of colonial and gendered power dynamics), and then that of what, precisely, RE teachers are expecting these facts to ‘do’ to their recipients. Arthur explores these and other questions through a number of compelling metaphors, which make me shiver (as much today as when I was 20) with the realisation of the need for deeper reflexivity.
Wendy Dossett is Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Chester