Cracks in the unified teaching of religion

Representatives of different faiths primarily discuss tolerance and morals among themselves. One pedagogue would dismantle the differentiation between “us” and “them”.

One suspected terrorist is a teacher”. This headline, which refers to a teacher of Islamic studies at a Finnish comprehensive school, propelled the topic of religious studies for school children into public debate.

According to university lecturer Eero Salmenkivi, who has studied the teaching of ethics at the University of Helsinki’s Department of Teacher Education, instruction in the smaller ethics subjects can be looked at from two angles:

“Identifying immigrants primarily through religion may encourage a division between us and them,” he maintains. “We should also debate whether the interpretation of Islam presented by, say, the City of Espoo is appropriate for the pupils.”

“On the other hand, studies have proven that ethics instruction in schools increases critical thinking. In countries where no such instruction is provided, the most peculiar beliefs take hold.”

It will take a generation

The problem with teaching Islamic or Buddhist studies, or other religions with few followers in Finland, is the lack of qualified teachers. A particular challenge is finding teachers qualified for upper secondary schools, which have even stricter qualification requirements than comprehensive schools.

“It will take a generation before we begin to produce a sufficient number of qualified teachers of Islamic studies,” Salmenkivi estimates.

The demand is particularly high for teachers of Islamic studies. The number of Islamic pupils is getting close to that of their Greek Orthodox peers.

Moral issues are universal

According to Salmenkivi, ethics subjects are a natural way to educate pupils in tolerance. In this sense, he believes there is much to improve in the teaching.

“Representatives of different faiths tend to discuss tolerance and morality among themselves,” he explains. “It would be a welcome change for pupils to debate these issues together.”

The Kulosaari secondary school in Helsinki has piloted a model in which different religious subjects and non-religious ethics are taught partially in the same class. The model has attracted media interest. But according to Salmenkivi, such a model is labour-intensive for the school, and should not be attempted with limited resources:

“The Parliament could take the initiative here. The supervision and development should come from above. Some schools are interested in the Kulosaari model to effect savings – this is not the way.”