For years now, I have been both impressed by and yet frustrated by the EREA Touchstone Liberating Education. What liberates? What enslaves? What traps? What depersonalises? What gives hope? What takes hope away? Do we really educate or do we simply wrap curriculum and assessment around the uninformed expectations of the market economy and or the dominant culture? Education – from the Latin – Educare – means ‘to liberate’! Do we graduate young people inwardly free, critically-skilled and Gospel-missioned to “be the change they wish to see in our world”?
While the Touchstones are intimately connected – I often felt that Liberating Education was misunderstood. Too often, before the Touchstones ‘matured’ within EREA communities through use and reflection, I believe Liberating Education was seen simply as ‘excellence in teaching’ almost as an end in itself. I truly believe this is changing.
I once worked in an EREA school that invited students to be involved in an immersion experience to Timor Leste. During that immersion the students were exposed to both sides of the Timor Gap Oil and Gas argument. The students were encouraged to think about the matter critically. Upon their return to Australia the students produced a journal of their experience and in several pieces of writing the students were critical of the Australian stance on the ‘Timor Gap Treaty’. One of the parents complained that we had brainwashed the students and demanded that the journals all be shredded. I was reminded of this incident recently when our EREA schools had to discern whether to allow their students to take part in Climate Change demonstrations.
I love debating! Sadly, because of my stutter I was never a great debater – the warning bell would have sounded before I had said, “Good evening adjudicator, ladies and gentlemen!” What I loved about debating is its ability to teach students to think and argue critically. There is great value in inviting students to argue a case that they don’t necessarily believe. Debating teaches objectivity, logic, lateral thinking and focus. It demands that one listens to the argument, to the points for and against, and to listen critically beyond dualism.
For many long years there was been a constant debate between Church and State. Some would argue that politics and religion have no place with each other. Others would argue that Jesus was the ultimate political agitator. The result of this debate is a dualism where politicians claiming to be Christian argue vehemently for and vote for policy that destroys the environment, excludes the weakest and marginalised and affirms systems that are inherently unjust where the rich grow richer on the backs of lower wages and poorer conditions for the poor. All of these are clearly against the Gospel. Any exegesis of ‘The Beatitudes’ (Matthew 5: 1-12) or Jesus’s words in the Synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21) would contradict this selective version of Christianity. But this is the selective and dualistic view of faith and morals that so many within our society adhere to.
The communities that make up our EREA family educationally now face their biggest challenge. How do we work to create inclusive communities, based on the Gospel, which graduate young truly liberated people who are people of justice and solidarity – missioned to engage with all that is poor, powerless and oppressed within our world?
We have three big enemies in this challenge. On one hand we face the danger of totally educationally buying into the innate dualism at play within society. We too divorce the sacred from the secular – when they are intrinsically linked. Secondly – like lemmings – we can simply march to the drum of the dominant culture. Thirdly, we are in danger of lip service and tokenism where we – like the aspro – do enough for ourselves and our community to ‘feel good’ so that both Edmund and Jesus would be proud of us.
But there is hope – great hope. We now have some educational initiatives in play that are chipping away and creating a culture of true educational liberation.
I would like to make mention of five initiative that point to this changing culture.
Firstly, we have ERA 4 Change. ERA 4 Change is a grassroots student movement (supported by staff) within our schools that is inviting students into the very critical thinking that I am naming here and inviting specific, real response.
Secondly, we have EREBB – Edmund Rice Education beyond Borders that is beginning to create a sense of us as global educational citizens. EREBB invites us to “act locally and think globally” with our Edmund Rice brothers and sisters who are often trapped in poverty that we can only see on TV screens. Ricean education is beginning to have an educational depth beyond excellence in teaching as an end in itself.
Thirdly, we are seeing a myriad of Immersion and other Service Learning initiatives that are leading our communities into true relationship with ‘the other’. These relationships have within them the possibility of true and long lasting heart transformation.
Fourthly, we have an increasingly inclusive student population despite huge pressure from more well-to-do parents for places in our schools.
Finally, we have the great gift of Youth Plus and the network of Flexi Schools that in so many ways model what is at the heart of a liberating education.
We are not for one second naming the answers we wish the students (and ourselves) to come to. Rather, our aim must be to equip all with the skills, the social and structural analysis, theological reflection and human dynamics that will make the Gospel real in a world so desperate for it.
If we do this, our education will be truly liberating and we will stand out – within the Australian education landscape - as a beacon on a hillside.