My thoughts on attending the 2018 Harvard Religious Literacy Summer Institute. 

Over the summer, I attended a terrific professional development opportunity that I felt was tailor-made for me. As you might be aware, the topic of religious literacy and its connection to creating more pluralistic societies is one that I have been interested in for over a decade. My graduate research at the Institute of Education culminated in the submission of two final exit papers, my report for my MA Ed on Interfaith Dialogue and the Promotion of Pluralism through the Ismaili Secondary Curriculum and my dissertation for M.Teach on Student Voice and Curriculum: How to improve the Ismaili Secondary Curriculum through the active engagement of students. The first paper provided both a descriptive and prescriptive analysis of Canada’s rapid demographic change, suggesting that one way in which we can find strength in diversity is through an education that instills the value of pluralism as a way of remediating cultural conflict. The second paper which focused on voice also has links with the value of pluralism because this paper argued that the ability for students to express their learning needs and desires, and who they are as individuals. Through this disclosure, a deeper engagement with the Other can emerge. 

Both papers focused on the idea of religious literacy, though without necessarily using the term. In fact, it was only after submitting my final papers in 2010 that I first became familiar with Prof. Diane Moore’s Overcoming Religious Literacy which was also published in the same year. When I read her book, I immediately saw parallels between the work I had just completed and her writings, though admittedly her work was substantially more eloquent. The crux of her work was to advocate for the teaching of religious traditions in the secular classroom using a cultural studies approach to religion. The purpose behind such an education are elucidated in her book, one of which stands out: “the study of religion should be incorporated more fully into curricula in that ignorance about religion itself and the world’s religious traditions promotes misunderstandings that diminishes respect for diversity” (p. 31). This was very much the major argument that I made in my papers, that studying about the diversity of religious traditions is highly conducive to elevating ignorance and the conflict that tends to emerge from it. 

So as you can imagine, it was a great delight to find out that Harvard Divinity School would be hosting a week-long conference on religious literacy hosted by Prof. Moore. When the application for the program went live, I immediately set to work applying for the program. When my application was accepted, I was elated at the opportunity to learn more about religious literacy from the guru on the subject herself. 

Religious Literacy: The method 

Religious literacy according to Moore can be achieved using multiple different approaches that she highlights in chapter three of her book. Of the approaches she discusses, the one she lands on, the cultural studies approach, convincingly offers the most practical way at achieving a literacy around religious diversity. It is an approach that 1) is multidisciplinary, 2) understands the “intertwined” nature of religion/religious identities with other social elements such as politics and the economy, 3) that “knowledge claims are situated” claims in that they arise out of certain social/historical/cultural/personal contexts,” 4) that the interpreter of a religious tradition also carries with her their own biases, 5) “addresses issues related to power and powerlessness,” and 6) is aware of the political dimension of the education enterprise (that education is never neutral) (pp. 79-80). 

Ultimately, the cultural studies approach proposes the following three premises of religious studies under this model (and these I would say are the key take aways): 1) Religious are internally diverse, 2) Religions are dynamic, and 3) Religions are embedded in culture. It would take a fair bit of time to go into details of each, which is why I would recommend reading the Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States produced by the American Academy of Religions with the help of Prof. Moore. The publicly available document can be accessed here

The proposed ways in which to engage with religious diversity in the classroom put forth by Prof. Moore are quite sophisticated and well thought out. They offer important ways for educators interested in bringing into their classroom discussions about religious plurality to do so while maintaining rigour through a well founded approach. As a Canadian, I learnt that American laws around the separation of religion in public schools make it inherently difficult to discuss religious without such discussions appearing to be denominational or promoting a particular worldview over another and therefore, having a well vetted out process of instruction on the topic of religion is crucial. 

Religious Literacy: The experience

I have to say that my experience attending the RLSI left me feeling extremely invigorated and intellectually challenged. In more practical ways, this professional development course helped me to frame the learning about faith that my students were going to engage with in our classes. In fact, the three principles about a cultural studies approach to religion became cornerstone learning components for my students. It was enriching to engage with these concepts and to also go through case studies that help better understand religious diversity in such a unique setting. 

Being at Harvard for this course was also a real privilege. Seeing the school, walking through the quad, being able to access the library as a student, all of these things were overwhelming. Being at Harvard, even for such short a time, really put things into context and perspective as to why Harvard has the reputation that it does. Walking through the Harvard museum instantly made me realize exactly how and why Harvard had accrued the reputation is had. 

Most important, being able to engage with other educators, especially American teachers who I rarely have a chance to interact with was eye opening. I heard and saw the commitment that these teachers have in making their societies better and in how they are preparing their students to face the challenges of tomorrow with a more open and receptive yet critical and engaging disposition. It was amazing to hear the varied experiences that these teachers have in their classrooms and the diversity of environments and schools they teach in. It also brought to light the diversity of students that I have taught over the years, from higher income students how have access to immense resources through their social networks to students who have only recently arrived to Canada and are facing the struggles associated with language and cultural integration to students living in countries such as Madagascar where there are clear differences between urban and rural levels of education. Being in contact with other teachers really allowed me to better understand the variety of experiences that teachers have in their teaching. 

The biggest take away I have from this week-long PD is learning more about the rich lives that these other 20 or so teachers have in their professions and the amazing stories they all bring to the table. I saw my assumptions challenged through my conversations with teachers. I saw my ideas and ways of thinking pushed further through this engagement. The ideas that I found of relevance to my practice, the authors, such as Dewey and Freire, that are so vital to my teaching also found new meaning for me as I came into contact with new ideas and people. It was also a unique pleasure to be able to hear Prof. Moore, someone whose work I’ve admired since reading her book upon its release, speak to her ideas and to challenge our thinking. Ultimately, I recommend that anyone who in interested in this topic apply for next year’s RLSI. 

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Alim Fakirani