The role of religion and language in public education

I would argue that religion and language are two of the aspects of our identity that defines us the most. Further, it would not be wrong to say that education should provide a safe and nurturing environment for children to develop a sense of self and finding their place in society. Does it not follow that religion and languages should have a central part of public education?

Ultimately, we must determine how much of a child’s education should take place in schools (the public sphere), and how much should be left up to parents and/or religious institutions (the private sphere). Is it necessary for the state to provide culturally relevant education to all citizens, or is it enough simply to facilitate this by for example cutting down the time students have to spend in school? At a school I taught at, students were off Wednesday and Friday afternoons, at which time most of them attend classes in subjects like Islam, foreign languages, or other subjects not provided by the school. The school was so multicultural (both in terms of religious beliefs and languages), that the administration could not possibly meet the needs of all students. Is this practice nurturing diversity and multiculturalism, or is it strengthening the divisions between ethnic groups in society?

Ultimately, we must determine how much of a child’s education should take place in schools (the public sphere), and how much should be left up to parents and/or religious institutions (the private sphere)

Milligan (2006) observes that by separating Islamic education and public schools, the Philippines government is producing citizens who are “virtual foreigners in their own country” (p. 416); they are Muslim Filipinos who see their nationality as being completely separate from their religion and language (Arabic). Would decentralization of the educational system remedy this situation? Could we have certain school districts with “Islamic” schools, and others with “Christian” schools? Or how about introducing Arabic as language of instruction (LOI) as an option for Muslim students? Would such arrangements lead to a healthy flourishing of cultures, or would we see closed-off religious ghettos, each with its own educational system? My worry is that through decentralization and less nation-state control we are building boxes that only fit certain stereotypes. I mean, what happens to the Christian minority in a Muslim area? Or what of the children from mixed families?

My worry is that through decentralization and less nation-state control we are building boxes that only fit certain stereotypes.

I’m asking a lot of questions in this post, and it’s not for the rhetorical effect, but because I really do have trouble making up my mind on this one. As I mentioned above, I think it is crucial to have a clear understanding of the difference between education and schooling, and of what we want our schools to provide. Michael W. Apple (2001) states that, “[c]urriculum reflects what is considered by an education system as valid and legitimate knowledge” (as cited in Gross, 2006, p. 607), but by this definition most nation-states today would come off as rather neglectful. In Rwanda, for example, the national language is at best allotted a couple of hours each week, while imported languages like English and French have taken over as language of instruction. What signal does this send to the children about their origins and culture? Which values are transmitted through the national curriculum?

Perhaps it is a (wrongful) essentialist assumption to think that Muslim students require Arabic classes to be “whole”, or that Jewish students should be entitled to Hebrew classes because their language is what makes them Jewish. From my own experience, though, I would claim that there is a lot of identity tied up in language. Like May (2008), I feel that “[c]hanging the language preference of the state and civil society, or at least broadening then, would better reflect the cultural and linguistic demographics of most of today’s multinational (and polyethnic) states” (p. 164).

References:

Gross, Z. (2006). Power, Identity, and Organizational Structure as Reflected in Schools for Minority Groups: A Case Study of Jewish Schools in Paris, Brussels, and Geneva. Comparative Education Review 50(4): 603-624.

May, S. (2008). Language and minority rights: Ethnicity, nationalism, and the politics of language. Routledge: New York.

Milligan, J. A. (2006). Reclaiming an Ideal: The Islamization of Education in the Southern Philippines. Comparative Education Review, 50(3): 410-430.

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