Why are religion and war so badly misunderstood and misrepresented by so many (often intelligent) adults? Why do they seem to bring out the worst in people and provoke astonishing displays of ignorance? It would seem that education in these areas or the lack of it, is to an extent accountable. This article examines the place of religion and war in the school curriculum.
Firstly to take religion: For many countries it is not compulsory to teach about the various religions of the world. Religion is mentioned vaguely in curriculums but in most cases not as a core subject. Most teachers are under enough pressure to get through a large core curriculum so have little time to cover non-compulsory topics. Ultimately this often leads to a lack of instruction and information on religious beliefs in schools which in turn assists in creating societies of people mostly ignorant on different religions. Needless to say, ignorance breeds fear, resentment, blame, misunderstanding, stereotypes, generalizations ... the list goes on.
Why is this important for society? What are many wars fought about? Religion. What is a key component of many prejudiced, racial or cultural attacks? Religion. What are some of the most influential historical characteristics that have made different countries what they are today? Religion.
Without delving very far, examples of the above can be found in every country of the world. Thus it seems difficult to understand why schools place such little emphasis on including religious study in the curriculum. Surely it is necessary to give children knowledge so that as young people and adults they can make informed decisions not only about which, if any, religion appeals to them, but also how to behave towards those of other religions?
Yet young people are taught how to mix copper and sulphuric acid to make copper sulphate, they are taught how to find x if 2x - 12 = 24, and they are taught that volcanoes are created through the movement of tectonic plates. How, I argue are these subjects more relevant than religion to a young person in life terms? How many young people ever need to do chemistry, understand algebra or the geographic workings of the earths crust in their everyday lives once they leave school?
Yet, religion surrounds us. It filters into our daily lives in our communities, it forms policies within our country and dominates many issues in the news around the world. How can it not be compulsory? Those that argue that they are a multicultural society and therefore cannot teach about religions as they don't want to offend one group or another are doing children a complete injustice.
If all religions are covered according to state/national guidelines in a way which is informative, and does not preach one religion over the other, then it is not offensive and more importantly children are not left ignorant on the subject. Schools & educationalists are responsible for looking at the bigger picture.
Aligned with the significance of religious teachings is war. Now, war you may argue is covered in History and depending on what country you live in, you learn about previous wars won and lost. However, to what extent are the real costs of war explored? How much is the reality of war and the actual affects on people's lives examined? Are the reasons for war political, social and economic ever analyzed?
War remains one of the most destructive elements of human society. I would argue that all aspects of war should be studied in high school with particular emphasis on the side of human tragedy. This could be easily covered in a variety of disciplines such as History, English and Political Studies. A key text for all high school students could be one such as Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. The harshness of the first World War depicted so vividly by this book would surely make students at least consider the real impact of war.
Below is an extract from Birdsong which follows the trials of Stephen Wraysford, a Captain with the British forces. In this scene, Captain Wraysford goes underground to investigate some new tunnels built as listening posts. He and some of his soldiers are moving strategically through the underground tunnel trying to track the Germans movements. Some of the tunnels are so small that they are only just high enough to give soldiers room to slither through on their stomachs with the walls touching them on every side:
"Jack pulled back his head from the wall and wheeled to face Lorimer. His urgent whisper was audible to all of them.
'There footsteps, going back towards their lines. They've got a tunnel west and about ten feet up'
Lorimer's face tightened. He said nothing for a moment, then 'Retreating did you say?'
'Then I think we should press on and do our work.'
'Yes,' said Jack, 'but they may have laid a charge. I mean, there are any number of reasons why -'
'We'll wait for five minutes,' said Lorimer, 'then we'll proceed.'
'For God's sake', said Stephen. 'You don't risk the lives of all these men to - '
The air was driven from his chest before he could complete the sentence as an explosion drove them backwards into the tunnel walls; it was as though the soil in front of them had been hurled back by some violent, compacted earthquake. Stephen's head struck wood. By the jagged light that burned into the earth he saw the flailing limbs and flying parts of clothes and kit, helmets, hands and spitting chalk that richocheted round the hollow tube, taking the human detritus with it in a roar of condensed fury.
He lay on the tunnel floor beneath the fields, and still he was not dead. He was aware of earth in his eyes and nose, and of weight. He tried to move but felt himself pinned down, as though the earth had wrapped him in heavy, comfortable blankets and was urging him to sleep. The noise of the explosion seemed trapped in the narrow tube. He pictured his way back sealed off, and a flicker of panic rose in his belly, but died again beneath the heaviness of his pinioned state. The captive sound eventually diminished.
He listened for it to be replaced by the familiar sound of human agony, of men whose limbs had been removed from them or whose brains were going free from their skulls. He heard nothing at first. Then, as the last pieces of displaced earth settled in the tunnel, he heard a long thick sigh; it was a sound he had never heard before, but he knew that it was the noise of several men expiring simultaneously.
Although, Birdsong talks specifically about the first World War, it brings home many points of the horrific reality of war in general.
Why do I urge schools to show war's reality? So that those young people who do become in positions of power think responsibly and humanely before putting people into military action. The grim conflicts of World War I some may think are a thing of the past but many other soldiers today would have equally terrifying accounts.
Media and films can also play a role, rather than schools, in showing war to young people and adults as it really is. However, in many cases the glamourization of war by Hollywood, plus the overexposure of war films can lessen its potency for reality. People have often become anaesthetized to many war films because of the frequency of their occurrence, the star actors involved and the plot which often makes it turn out just alright for the 'good guys'.
It is true that some media channels provide excellent coverage of war and conflicts. But there are other very popular stations that fail to provide anything other than one-sided propaganda and ignore the real issues. In addition to this people cannot be expected to or relied upon to analyze or even pay any attention to the news information that is available. Many have lives full to the brim and have little extra time to watch the news let alone evaluate its validity. Thus, education in high school becomes even more fundamental.
Educationalists are often under scrutiny by the public and commonly wrongly accused for not solving the ills of society in schools. Unlike many believe, it is not the role of teachers to babysit children or teach them how to behave. That is the role of parents. However, it is the role of schools to dispense knowledge and understanding so that these children when they are adults have the tools to live in society and make the best possible decisions for themselves and others. Surely part of that knowledge should be to ensure that young people have an insight and understanding of religious beliefs and the realities of war.