The subject matter of religious education

Here’s the abstract for a piece I am working on for a forthcoming collection on knowledge in religious education. I’ll update as it develops.

This chapter draws on a phenomenological account of education and  a hermeneutics of curriculum to argue that we should not conflate the ‘subject matter’ of religious education with a determination or specification of religious knowledge. I begin by exploring different knowledge-based accounts of religious education: the social realist account, which would cede the determination of subject matter to the academic disciplines, and the critical realist account, which would alternatively equate the subject matter of a religious education either with a ‘concrete object of concern’ (e.g. God) or a ‘stratum of reality’ (e.g. the ultimate or transcendent). I hope to show that a phenomenological account of subject matter (die Sache) as what is at issue between participants in a dialogue is to be preferred, educationally speaking, to either of these accounts.  In relation to the first, I argue that while subject matter is approached via the disciplines, it is not constrained by them.  This is important because the history of religious education in different national contexts is in large part determined by the contestation between the different disciplines (e.g. theology, sociology of religion, philosophy) that have sought to influence or take ownership of the curriculum area. In relation to the ‘critical realist’ approach, it must be recognised that either the concrete object or ‘ultimate’ stratum are subject to existential contestation in a way that is unique among curriculum subjects.   

Religious education uniquely confounds the social realist or critical realist justification of curriculum subjects. A hermeneutics of curriculum, alternatively, would pay attention both to the historicity of religious education as a curriculum subject in the varied national contexts in which it has emerged, as well as the way in which subject matter ‘emerges’ in educational dialogue. The subject matter of religious education is the indeterminate achievement of a dialogue as much at the level of curriculum as at the level of classroom dialogue.

A phenomenological account of subject matter does not reduce the importance of knowledge in religious education but extends it into a consideration of the ontology of the knower who is transformed in their orientation to subject matter (takes a stand) and whose knowing has a particular history. There are drawbacks of this phenomenological account when compared to the appeal of ‘powerful knowledge’: it cannot provide a definitive account of the ‘knowledge’ of religious education that transcends particular national contexts, and it cannot offer a neat curriculum justification for discrete religious education; rather it points to a kenotic ‘self-emptying’ of religious education into the curriculum.

Carnal Knowledge

In an article ‘On the Essence of Education’, Alex Sidorkin argues provocatively that ‘Education owes its existence to death’ (2011: 522). As the specialised knowledge required to maintain human existence becomes harder to learn within the span of a human lifetime, we invent new techniques for the massification of learning – these technologies are what we call ‘education’. Taking us through a number of stages of the development of education, Sidorkin points ahead to a final stage – Learning 5.0 – in which learning ‘will defeat death itself. We will learn to extend our productive lives … And/or, we will learn to download semantic memory more efficiently into our children’s minds’ (523). At this point, the educational demand of balancing limited time, inclination and resources with the requirements of specialised learning will be overcome. The close association of education’s final end (in both the teleological and the terminal sense) with overcoming death resonates with the transhumanist hope of attaining ‘substrate-independent mind’. Sidorkin’s language of ‘downloading’ is suggestive of a brain-machine interface, and only a mind that could be transferred from one (organic) substrate to another (synethetic) could permanently escape biological entropy.

Although the language is new, the association of the transfer of knowledge with the disembodiment of mind is, of course, not. As Plato’s location of knowledge in the immaterial realm of the forms depended on his doctrine of the transmigration of the soul, the educational belief that knowledge can be ‘downloaded’ from one mind to another or uploaded from some external source (a book or other medium) participates in the current technological metaphor of the lossless transfer of data from brain to hard disc to page. Just as (software) programmes can survive transfer from one (hardware) server to another, the transhumanist hope is that an artificial emulation of a human intelligence might eventually be able to persist in digital space, overcoming its current dependence on instantiation in a particular biological form.

Contemporary attempts at conceiving learning scientifically, far from being ‘materialist’, assume the essential disembodiment of knowledge. So cognitive psychology describes the mechanisms by which ‘knowledge’ is transferred from teacher or page to working memory, from there to long term memory, back again to working memory, and so on in an economy of ‘load’. Neuroscientists interested in education, even, must disembody knowledge before they can look for its ‘neural correlates’ in the viscera within the skull. While it is tempting to think of knowledge as persisting across different material instantiations (mind/ voice/ page), what is offered in teaching is an explication, which is an abstraction from what is known. In teaching, as in attempts to ‘store’ knowledge through writing or other notation, the knowledge (or rather, its reduction to the form of an explication) becomes a ‘datum’. What is given, of course, is not what is learned, and although a datum might persist across material instantiations, the explication is not and never was the knowledge.

This insight can be expanded with reference to the work of Michel Serres, who reminds us that if all acquired knowledge required an explication, then ‘By this line of reasoning, we wouldn’t know very much’ (2011). This ‘foolishness’ prevails, Serres argues, wherever attempts at educational assessment require that a student can recall a given explication with clarity. In place of clarity and recall, Serres offers an account of learning which ‘drives gestures down into the blackness of the body; thoughts too, besides; knowing is forgetting.’ He adds that ‘Happily, I’ve learned many things by heart, that wonderful expression, whereby people show things can be learned in such a way that they do not yet rise back up to the brain; my body chewed it over and made it my own, without my knowing it.’ ‘The unconscious,’ Serres argues, ‘is the body’, and ‘Human intelligence can be distinguished from artificial intelligence by the body alone.’ Stronger yet, ‘A mechanical procedure can reproduce any of the understanding’s operations, never the actions of the body.’

Serres reminds us of a learning that preceded what Sidorkin calls ‘semantic memory’, and involved adjustment to the movements of the mother, communication through the touch of skin. These ‘mimetic processes flowing since the dawn of time’ persist into the classroom, where ‘The teaching body dances its knowledge softly … so that, through virtual mimicry of its gestures, a few ideas will enter their heads via the muscles and bones, which though seated and immobile are solicited, pulled toward the beginnings of movement, perhaps even by the written work’s little jig.’

In a paradox that far from escapes Serres’ attention, what characterises the body’s ‘hardware’, and renders it so distant from the promise of lossless data transfer, is precisely its inefficient malleability. The knowledge of the body is characterised by feedback, noise and resistance to the clarity of the explication; it has a history of folds and convolutions by which it is lost, returns and transforms.

One implication of Serres’ insight is that it undermines the hope of maximising education’s efficiency. ‘Invent a powerful enough memory’ (as Serres characterises the hope) ‘and there will be no more need to economise.’ Rather, since the body’s knowledge has a material history, it will always take time to educate a body. I once observed teachers being instructed in response to a psychological study to have blank white walls in their classrooms, to minimise distraction from the offered explication. The various attempts to perfect the operations of the cognitive mechanisms of attention, memory and perception are efforts to prevent the mind from wandering. Serres urges us rather to let the body learn.

This caution against the implicit metempsychosis of even avowedly materialistic approaches to learning is consistent with various relatively recent disciplinary turns – embodied cognition, the sociology of the body, carnal hermeneutics, and so on – and can be expressed in its starkest terms as follows: knowledge is meat.

Serres, M (2011) Variations on the Body, Minneapolis: Univocal

Sidorkin, A (2011) ‘On the Essence of Education’, Studies in Philosophy and Education 30:5, 521-527