By Goolbai Gunasekera There is not the slightest doubt that some system of morals and ethics has to be taught to children beginning, if possible, from the age of two or three and hopefully continuing until they are old enough to think for themselves and act as moral, upright adults. Of course this happy state [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Stop the religious rift by spreading the word of Value Education

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By Goolbai Gunasekera

There is not the slightest doubt that some system of morals and ethics has to be taught to children beginning, if possible, from the age of two or three and hopefully continuing until they are old enough to think for themselves and act as moral, upright adults. Of course this happy state of calm is not often achieved. Religion seems to inflame passion not to quench it and some of the bloodiest wars in History have been bitterly fought over religions –The Crusades for example are one of the worst instances of religious bigotry and intolerance.

Two hundred years of continuous fighting between Christian and Muslim achieved nothing. All that resulted after thousands of lives had been wasted was that the status quo was established at the end of the final 8th Crusade. The only lasting good was the cultural exchange ; the West picking up the highly civilised and luxurious living habits of the Arabs along with games like Polo, Bridge and Chess. As one historian remarked, “ What a great world this would be if people would spend as much energy practising their religion as they spend quarreling about it.”

Buddhism was the one exception to all this blood letting amongst those with different religious beliefs. Its spread was effected without a drop of blood being shed and does this not seem short of miraculous in an age where warrior cultures like the Samurai of Japan for instance were so glorified?

Reasons for the peaceful spread of Buddhism are many but I leave them to be properly articulated by research historians for whom I have much respect. One of my favourite reasons runs thus: When the Great Emperor Asoka of India sent his missionaries in various directions of Asia, the rulers of those lands were so overawed by a message from this great king, they listened to his missionaries preaching the Dhamma without protest. Often Buddhism was incorporated into the existing faith of the country as happened in China or co-existed comfortably alongside the already entrenched religions like Shintoism in Japan.

Another reason for its quick growth was probably because the non-chauvinistic attitude of Buddhism was mightily attractive to the female sex – in particular to ambitious queens. And a more down to earth reason was probably that Kings of Asia were tired of priestly castes who over rode their dictates at times and they were therefore happy to embrace a religion that denied the superiority of any Brahamin-like class.

But to return to my subject. A Pope once said, “Give me a child up to the age of seven and after that anyone can have him.” This early religious training of childish (or children’s) minds was considered so important that Church, Temple and Mosque got into the act of influencing their adherents from birth. They did this to the extent that sometimes men’s minds were totally controlled by the beliefs of their faith. Outside thinking was not always encouraged. Indeed it was actively discouraged. I need hardly repeat the sad tale of Galileo being forced to recant his theory that the earth moved round the sun by the ignorant but powerful Medieval Papacy. History relates that he complied with the order to deny the scientific fact but muttered under his breath, “Per se mouve,” (but still it moves.)
Religion is a compulsory subject in all local schools and as the former Principal of an International School I started teaching it from Grade 2 to Grade 8. We had to make our own syllabuses and were carrying along merrily before we ran into trouble. One practical problem was space. The school was not in its own buildings at the time so where were we to seat two or three parallel classes, each of 25 kids, divided into the four main religions of the Sri Lanka?

Then there was the vexatious question of syllabuses. Buddhism was not a problem but one sect of Muslim parents objected to the way the Islam was being taught by the Muslim teacher from another sect. There were little rumbles elsewhere too so I cast about for a way in which we could solve this question of ethical instruction without annoying or upsetting the children of all faiths.
On my visits to the United States I would usually check the schools in the area I happened to be visiting. It was always possible to find innovative ideas. Now Sri Lanka has a strongly Buddhist/Theosophical background after Colonel Olcott, that well known Theosophist, founded Ananda College and many other Buddhist/ Theosophical schools in Sri Lanka. Marie Musaeus Higgins, another well known Theosophist, founded Musaeus College around the same time.

There are quite a few schools in India and the USA operating along these philosophically oriented lines like the Rishi Valley Schools in India and others in California. Such schools are private and very expensive – especially the one I visited with my daughter, Khulsum, in Ojai ( the Happy Valley School )– a mainly residential and co-educational institution. Ethical and moral training was high on their academic agenda and, as it was a basically Theosophist/Krishnamurti (the famous Indian sage) school there was no emphasis on any one religion. All religions received equal importance and the philosophy, rather than the myths of religion, were taught to all.

Accordingly I sent for those syllabuses and my daughter ( a serious student of philosophy herself), set about incorporating what was useful to us from those syllabuses and then drawing up a new agenda suitable to students in our school.We titled this course ‘Value Education” and it was an instant success. The syllabuses were carefully drawn up and a great deal of thought and effort went into the planning of those classes. Parents loved the idea and the students themselves enjoyed studying together without being separated during the religion period. They approached the class enthusiastically. Few people know that the idea of value education and citizenship courses were originally mooted by our own Dept. of Education as a clause in the National Curriculum. It would be interesting to know which forward thinking educationist included such an innovative idea in this document.
In an introduction to “National Policy on Social Cohesion and Peace Education’ Minister Susil Premajayanth had this to say, “Educational Institutions cannot singlehandedly achieve social harmony but they can have long term effects in building a culture of Peace”
The same Document mentions that the Citizenship Courses are already being taught in grade 10 and 11 local schools’ OL classes) which I am told, are proving highly popular. One particular section is of interest to me. It is titled, “Thinking Outside the Box” and this is where I see Value Education fitting in. Briefly some of the points mentioned in the National Curriculum in this section are:-
Introduction of ethnic groups
Appreciating diversity
Use of student parliaments and debates
All of the above can promote solid religious values and also civic values.
I still remember one of the ideals upon which we based the study of Value Education. “Religion should be the motor of life, the central heating plant of the personality, the faith that gives joy to activity, hope to struggle, dignity to humility and zest to living.” The older students were encouraged to bring up topics in class germane to the times. One such lively debate which I sat through was on Dietary Customs and the debaters delved into their own religious background to come up with answers.
Parents realised that their children were suddenly being terribly inquisitive about their own religions because they needed to be able to counter arguments of opponents. One mother told me her son picked up the Bible voluntarily for the first time in his life. Students learned to respect the ideas of other faiths and to draw parallels with their own.
The syllabus included an overview of philosophers like Socrates, Pythagoras and Plato, the Biographies of the Great Teachers and how the world has been influenced by them, The Age of Reason and Logic etc.
Naturally there was a great emphasis on ‘Moral Values’ but the teaching could never get personal. It was carefully monitored so that feelings could never be hurt. The children were encouraged to ‘Role Play’ – where a scenario was given to them and then they acted out a solution taking different roles at different times. Here is one example of such a scenario.
“A Parent has laid down the rule that there is to be no entertainment on a Sunday because it is a Holy Day. Your best friend’s birthday falls on the Sunday. How do you resolve it?”
Students played different roles. One was the mother, the other the father. Sister, brother and friends also came into the scene. It was instructive as well as entertaining. I might add that such Role Play is quite popular in big business at the moment. I do not think there were any solutions as such but the kids debated happily often taking the side of a religion not their own. They certainly learnt a lot. And they learnt an incalculably valuable lesson of ‘Unity’.
Another innovation at that time was the inclusion of the Lower School in this way:- Often older students had an unexpected free period. These free periods were organised with the Grade 3, 4 and 5 time tables so that they too had a short Value Education class when they were read to by these older ones from carefully monitored books. The younger classes learnt about the lives of the founders of the four main world religions plus those of lesser known teachers like Guru Nanak (Sikh) Zoroaster (Parsi) Mahavira (Jain) and others.
They also read the Jataka tales, Stories from the Old Testament, Stories of the childhood of Krishna etc. There was not a single dissenting voice at the time from the school’s parents. The children themselves (both older and younger) remember those classes to this day. In fact it was with regret that I had to drop Value Education. I needed more than one liberal minded and appropriately trained teacher to conduct such classes but for a short time it served as a wonderful model for unity and was a course which the students who took part never forgot.
At the moment International Schools form oases of unity in our war torn country. Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslim and Burghers sit next to each other in class without knowing or caring which faith is followed by whom. They play and study together as Sri Lankans not as ethnic divisions. The President and Government are trying their best to bring about more widespread feelings of unity than now exist but communalism is already rearing its ugly head. Would it not be a practical idea for children today to be given Value Education Courses in schools so that we might hope for such unity in the future? We are now divided both by religion and language. Communal links need to be sought.
To end with a lesson from History. Genghiz Khan was one of the most vicious conquerors ever to walk the earth. He was also one of most brilliant. His administration was impeccable but most praiseworthy is the fact that he had no religious prejudice. All religions in his empire were protected by his Mongol Government. His own religious beliefs were probably eclectic in extreme – assuming he had any!
There must be some method which makes Religion a force for good rather than conflict. Perhaps Value Education for all students in Sri Lanka may be a good idea.




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