Religious Education in Kenyan Schools – Profoundly Unethical

Volume 13, Issue 3  | 
Published 04/04/2017
Stephen Derwent Partington

Teacher and writer based in Machakos county

Religious Education (RE) is of central importance to our education system, in itself but also, potentially, as a route towards social cohesion and freedom of choice in belief.

Over the decades in Kenya, successive syllabus changes have sought to move RE away from racist, colonial-period indoctrination and evangelisation, towards something more inclusive.  That hypothetical inclusiveness is apparent in the primary syllabus’ General Objective seeking that learners should ‘develop awareness…for African Religious Heritage’, and in its specific objective, to ‘respect…other religions’.

However, in practice these things aren’t done, and numerous Kenyan studies reveal that school leavers exit the system with none of those critical thinking skills that CRE claims to promote, little appreciation of other belief systems within communities, and no ability to make considered moral choices or internalise socially-acceptable behaviour. 

Indeed, Maseno researchers found that almost 100% of the time, CRE teaching fails to encourage any critical thinking; that is, the ability to make thoughtful moral choices.  Other Kenyan researchers agree with pupils’ views that CRE is ‘boring’ and ‘useless in life’.  Pupils forced to take CRE in Forms 3-4 report that they ‘hate it’, and everyone admits to opting for it because it’s ‘easy’ and to just studying ‘for the exam’.

Clearly something is wrong with CRE in its present incarnation - as an educator, I approach the debate from a professional perspective, yes, but also from my own faith angle, which is fundamentally Christian. In this article I intend to support RE, yet critique its present form and to offer alternatives.

Fundamentally, CRE as it exists at 8-4-4 is excessively prescriptive, and has not substantially shifted from the missionary ‘indoctrination’ method.  Indoctrination is a serious matter, and all moral philosophers, religious or otherwise, consider it to be profoundly morally wrong.  It is ‘unethical influencing in a teaching situation’.  One famous educational-ethicist states that indoctrination happens when schooling involves ‘drilling’ (this happens in our schools), ‘authoritarian teaching’ (this happens, too) and the absence of ‘free discussion’ (Maseno studies conclude that this is definitely absent in CRE).  RE should be a core ‘ethical’ subject; instead, ours is a profoundly unethical course.

We have no school-level Religious Education as such in Kenya; rather, we have Religious Instruction of the sort that most functioning nations, even very religious ones, have rejected.  Depending on the school attended, pupils are drilled in CRE, HRE or IRE without the right to opt out; the three religions are segregated, and whichever one is taken, pupils end up being converted and coached into mindless obedience.  And we’re not just talking about lower KCSE and KCPE level, for government is presently pushing the Kenya School Readiness Assessment Tool (KSRAT), which aims to assess whether Early Childhood ‘leavers’ are prepared for lower primary; the CRE criteria for this progression include a toddler’s ability to ‘say prayers’ and ‘sing religious songs’.  KSRAT states that ‘Children need to know that there is a supreme being’.  This is cultish; it is CRE as North Korea!

Then, at primary from Standard 1 to 8, the CRE syllabus requires pupils to ‘desire to worship [Christianity’s] God’, ‘be a follower of Jesus Christ’, ‘thank God for the work of the church’, ‘be ready to suffer for Jesus Christ’ and ‘Desire to say the Lord’s prayer always’. 

Being from a Christian heritage, I naturally think it fine that existing Christians might say the Lord’s Prayer, but I do consider CRE’s ‘grooming’ to be unacceptable.  After all, Christianity, as Jesus suggested, is ideally a freely-chosen faith.  This is not only the position of diverse Protestantism, but also of conservative Catholicism, which in recommendations sent to worldwide bishops working on RE states that ‘The rights of parents are violated, if children are forced…or if a single [faith] system of education…is imposed upon all’.  Further, this famously strict Church quotes its Second Vatican Council, that everywhere in education, even in Catholic schools, RE should ‘refrain from any…action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of any kind of persuasion’.  This is in line with the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and our own supreme document, the Kenyan Constitution, Article 32(4).

In short, Kenyan CRE, at all levels, is contrary to the theological teachings of mainstream denominations across the Christian spectrum, to internationally agreed Human Rights, and to our sovereign Constitution.  It is certainly immoral in its compulsory form.  Similarly, HRE and IRE.  Again, this isn’t education, but coercion.  Once more, even the Catholic Church explicitly argues that while catechesis (doctrinal teaching on ‘How to be a Christian’) is laudable for practising Christians outside the curriculum, the teaching of RE within the curriculum (in any schools) should be ‘knowledge about [faith]’, not instruction in it.  What the church is rightly advocating, is the separation of Church and State-offered forms of religious learning.  Our sovereign Constitution also requires this separation.

These problems with CRE are serious, but what truly matters is how our children really encounter the subject in lessons, often in ‘total institution’ boarding schools.  Pupils primarily learn through teachers and government-approved textbooks.  One widely-used Primary Teacher Training handbook instructs State-paid CRE teachers to act, not as servants of all citizens, but ‘As an agent of the church’, in effect abrogating the State’s democratic function!  This is doubly frightening when we consider how recent Kenyan studies conclude that these CRE teachers do not in practice promote critical thinking at all, but instead their biased moral structures are ‘imposed on the learner’.  And perhaps the most frequently-used primary-level textbooks in Kenya oblige pupils in catechistic fashion to mindlessly recite appallingly unfree, dogmatic statements.

Yet, I am a committed supporter of Religious Education.  It is vitally important to understand religion as it exists in our society.  This is best done through a democratically-agreed education system.  Although valuable groups in other areas, the Kenyan Protestant clustering and that section of the Kenyan Catholic Church which work with our government to design the syllabus our children are subjected to and which sometimes push to make a presently unfit CRE (or HRE or IRE) compulsory at upper secondary and ECDE level, are arguably rogue, or at least idiosyncratic and self-serving, promoting as they do a dogmatic CRE that’s contrary to wider church teaching, agreed international charters and our popularly-approved Constitution.  That government allows this, is troubling.

Let’s think how the noble intentions of Kenya’s (C)RE syllabi might be realised and adapted to better benefit Belief, fulfil State responsibilities and, most importantly, serve the citizenry.

Firstly, let’s consider how our proselytising CRE (or IRE or HRE) is fully compulsory at primary and lower secondary level, and how some are even pushing for it to exist during Early Childhood Education, in ‘Baby Class’!  Proselytising CRE as a compulsory subject is worrying, as it obliges people of various denominations/beliefs to acquiesce to a bullying, blanket form of Christianity. 

It would be socially productive, I suggest, to make all of the following straightforward and inexpensive changes: a) adopt a multi-faith RE that makes pupils fully aware of all our Kenyan belief groups; b) incorporate much more reflective critical thinking on values; c) permit parental opt-outs.

Let’s start with point (c)!  Almost all cultures, our own Constitution and international faith groups, rightly consider faith/belief to be something special, which citizens must be able to hold dear and practice unmolested.  As seen last week, the Catholic Church (amongst others) strongly argues that people of all faiths should, outside the school curriculum, be permitted access to instructional religious learning if they so choose, but that school curricula should never impose single-faith religiosity on people from other faiths, different (Christian) denominations, or those without religion.  Excepting very few Clerical States, most countries agree and offer RE as a respected school subject, but give parents (and ‘cover’ teachers) the right to opt out into alternative moral courses such as Ethics or Philosophy.  Parents need not explain their withdrawal.

Now, in Kenya, creating a new subjects (Ethics/Philosophy) for parents to opt into might or might not be impractical on grounds of cost, timetabling, staffing and clerical intransigence, and yet a reformed RE programme would both benefit those who take it and be sufficiently exciting and relevant that few would opt out; indeed, many who presently find CRE ‘boring’ or ‘useless’ might opt for it in greater numbers. 

Then, point (a): CRE must become RE, enabling a greater understanding of other beliefs.  Not only should our children learn about all beliefs, including of course their own, but they should also, as happens everywhere where religious tolerance has occurred, come to sensitively understand and evaluate those other beliefs.

Our present CRE syllabus only superficially requires Christians to know about Islam, Hinduism and traditional ‘African Heritage’, let alone additional faiths.  In reality this minor syllabus requirement is never substantially met, exacerbating religious, cultural and other societal divisions.  The British system, which I mention because it’s the most common non-Kenyan system in Kenya and because it’s less liberal than others, not only doesn’t make RE compulsory in the early years and allows opt-outs at all stages, but it also insists that the subject mustn’t proselytise and that pupils must ‘know about and understand a range of…worldviews [including humanism, agnosticism and others]’. 

This brings us to our final point, (b): the promotion of greater critical thinking.  This is at the heart of successful RE courses.  It not only increases pupil interest and boosts the relevance of the subject; it also habitualises thoughtful moral decision-making. 

Ethicist-educationalists remind us that for societal prejudices to change, pupils must freely debate, challenge fixed assumptions, and question their own views.  Courses should ‘avoid bias’ and ‘promote an enquiring, critical and sympathetic approach to the study of religion … in its individual and corporate expression in the contemporary world’; this wording is almost identical to our Constitution’s Article 32(2).  Almost all Kenyan CRE researchers agree with this critical thinking approach, believing that pupils should be allowed to explore personal decisions through ‘thought-provoking questions on moral issues’.  However, as seen last week, these researchers found that no critical thinking is offered in 8-4-4 CRE.  Rather, drilling and indoctrination is the norm; our CRE achieves the opposite of what the ideal RE course should.

These academics argue that (C)RE pupils should be encouraged to ask reflective questions such as, ‘What do I believe? How do I come to believe this? Do I really accept this belief?’  They conclude that ‘the absence of this…was noted’, and in last week’s article we saw how ‘Approved Textbooks’ oblige CRE pupils to mindlessly recite dogmatic phrases such as ‘I will believe [in a particular doctrine]’.  This isn’t holistic education; it’s oppressively poor practice and likely open to legal challenge.

Let’s end by considering how ethical RE textbooks encourage critical thinking, by focusing on a foreign textbook of Standard 7/8 equivalent level.  Although it’s British, it’s identical to textbook approaches from other societies.  Further, I choose this textbook because, as in Kenya, British RE syllabi and textbooks are designed by both elected authorities and belief groups. 

This textbook introduces pupils to the Christian spectrum from ‘evangelicals’ to ‘liberals’; further, in response to the Bible, to fundamentalist, conservative and liberal interpretations.  Pupils are encouraged to debate and choose or reject these approaches.  Miracles are open to acceptance or scepticism; one question asks, ‘Why do some people question the empty tomb story?’ another, ‘Do you believe in the feeding of the 5000 story?’  Lively, tolerant classroom discussion is encouraged.  Jesus’ actions are pondered: ‘Do you personally think [Jesus’] actions were justified [when He refused to condemn the adulterous woman]?’  Contrast how our CRE merely calls adultery ‘wrong’, er, condemning it!  Pupils in the international system are asked moral questions on issues prior to being presented with different Christian perspectives, to avoid prejudicing them.  Pupils are even told that in order to attain, they shouldn’t be definitive about what Christians believe, and that ‘Words like “most” and “some” are particularly important in your written answers’ when assessing what different Christians believe.

It’s a different approach, and an exciting one, improving pupils’ ability to make moral decisions and increasing their respect for Christianity (whether they practice it or not) and other religions/beliefs.  As our Education Ministry works on curriculum reform, I suggest – for the sake of us all, and in support of the law and the future of Kenyan RE – that we adopt this global best practice.  Only by doing so will citizens of all denominations, those of all beliefs (including, yes, the sceptical), be fully enabled to participate in education and in wider Kenyan society as free-choosing Kenyans!

This article was first published in The Nairobian issues of 6 & 14 September, 2016.

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