Book Review from British Educational Research Journal

Book Review from British Educational Research Journal
Vol. 32, No. 1, February 2006, pp. 151–152
Publisher Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group
Rethinking religious education and plurality: issues in diversity and pedagogy
Robert Jackson, 2004
London, RoutledgeFalmer
221 pp.
ISBN 0415302722 (pbk), 0415302714 (hbk)
Robert Jackson is a social scientist specialising in religious diversity. He is Professor
of Education at the University of Warwick and Director of the Warwick Religions
and Education Research Unit which over the past 10 or 15 years has established a
worldwide reputation for innovation in the study of family structure in several major
world religions, and for the research methodology and the classroom pedagogy
which has resulted from these inquiries. In his 1997 book Religious education: an
interpretive approach he explained his reservations about the then popular
phenomenological approach to the study of religions and set out his own
ethnographic methodology. His 2003 edited volume International perspectives on
citizenship, education, and religious diversity developed this social science approach to
the teaching of religion by showing its relevance to the problems of social cohesion
and cultural diversity which are issues of growing concern in the European
Community. In addition, Jackson showed how once the study of religion in schools
becomes detached from its traditional locus within specific religious communities it
acquires a wider significance in the preparation of young Europeans for the
complexities of modern life.
The secularisation thesis of the 1960s anticipated the increasing privatisation of
religious faith but this expectation has not been realised. On the contrary, the events
of the 11 September 2001, the rise of religious extremism in all the world religions,
and the possibility of including Turkey within the European Community have all
contributed to a new public presence for religion. In that context, the question is
whether the study of religion in schools is to reinforce traditional religious
boundaries or whether religious education might become a significant aspect of
public curricula in Europe.
It is at this point that Jackson’s new book emerges. Jackson argues that the
educational potential of the study of religion in state-funded schools has been
generally underestimated. He is not in principle opposed to the recent emphasis in
England and Wales on the creation of new faith-based schools, and argues that the
narrowness of outlook and tendency toward indoctrination of which they are
sometimes accused are by no means necessary features of faith-based education.
Nevertheless, emphasis upon them, whether for or against, tends to minimise the
role of the state or community school in educating for cultural diversity. Community
schools should not be thought of as places of secular education but rather as
providing a pluralist context for educational development. It is the very diversity of
religions and lifestyles in the publicly funded school which offers such scope for
In order to clarify and commend his understanding of the role of religion in state
schools, Jackson discusses a number of other contemporary philosophies of religious
studies. The main alternatives to his own interpretive ethnography as a basis
for teaching religion are the more nostalgic attempts to return to a monocultural
position, the radical postmodern approach which tends to ignore the religious
traditions and encourages the pupils’ own construction of religious insights,
and the approach through ‘religious literacy’, which although it does focus upon
the religious traditions in a pluralist manner does not take adequate account of the
inner diversity of each religion and the huge range of local religious forms. Those
whose image of religion in schools is still dominated by the stories of Noah’s ark
and the missionary journeys of St Paul may be surprised to find the sophistication
with which these complex social and epistemological issues are being discussed
today, and how generally important for education as a whole this literature has
Having evaluated alternatives to his own approach, Jackson goes on to
show the close relationship between interpretive ethnography and various
developments in north-western Europe and southern Africa. These include
contextual and dialogical methods and other techniques that have in common
an approach to diversity through the life-worlds of the children themselves.
Recent policies and projects of the European Community and the Council of
Europe are reviewed, and Jackson shows how there is an increasing concern
in these quarters for the political and ethical aspects of religious diversity. Religion
is a potential source of alienation and conflict, and some way must be found
to neutralise these elements and encourage European citizens in human values
and in mutual acceptance. One of the most impressive chapters in Jackson’s
book is the one where he reviews recent research which has led to the
emergence of his own and similar views. With its growing links to citizenship,
democracy, politics and ethics, the teaching of religion in schools
evidently offers challenging possibilities for the educational researcher and
Jackson is convincing in showing the extent to which these possibilities are being
Religious education is part of the heritage of the European Enlightenment.
It shares the scepticism of the Enlightenment, the rationalism and the emphasis
upon the personal integrity of individual and community life which is typical
of European values. Even in France the increasing significance of a modern
critical dialogical education concerning religions is being discussed. In some
ways, England and Wales have pioneered these developments and the partnership
which has emerged between cultural, social and religious educators
in Britain and other countries in the pluralist democratic tradition is likely to be
increasingly important. Jackson’s masterly work not only helps us to rethink religious
education; it shows its wider educational significance and points to its exciting
John M. Hull, Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, UK.
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