Religious Education plays a key role in the life of Waverley College. It introduces students to the place of faith and religious tradition in society, but also encourages them to think philosophically – addressing key questions about life and their own role in society, as well as generating an informed understanding of the multi-faith world we live in. This kind of higher-order thinking, and the exploration of their own stance on ethics and other philosophical questions, is what makes Religious Education so valuable to students at HSC level, as well as being an excellent grounding for tertiary education. Head of Religious Education Martina Cooper speaks here with Ray Paxton, who is responsible for Edmund Rice Education's national formation programs.
When I speak with parents, I discuss that whilst we do have a curriculum to develop learning skills, and we have relationship building within schools, one of the main purposes of the College is to get students to address the key questions of life. Questions around meaning, existence, and around what contributions the students are going to make to society, as well as questions about what drives that. Addressing these questions is key to the purposes of a Catholic school within the context of the Catholic church.
Yes, and in terms of what we actually teach, the syllabus in Years 7–10 is focused on Catholicism: starting off in Year 7 by understanding where the school fits in terms of Catholicism in general and in the local parish. And then in Years 11 and 12 the students have the choice of doing a more in-depth study of religion, including other religious faiths such as Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism, which of course in our multi-faith society is really important.
What we are trying to do is address an intersection between building community and exploring meaning. So we are in a community of Catholic schools and we deal with the Catholic church context, but the boys have individual journeys to explore within in that context. So we look to address how a community – being the school – supports that individual journey and, along with parents, we approach issues of need.
I think it’s very important that parents are involved and that we are sensitive to the students’ backgrounds. We have some students that are not from a Catholic, or practising Catholic background, but we need to support their journey too, and the acceptance of others along the way is important.
Another key area is the importance of a school within a religious tradition. The young people that we are dealing with need to understand the rituals of that tradition. Life is intercepted by stages of the journey, which are marked by rituals. People are born, become ill, die, get married, people go through these different stages of life. And these are the actual lived experiences of the community. How rituals from that religious tradition mark those times is one of the great strengths we have in Catholic schools generally.
That’s also reflected in the links with the other schools in the parish. For example, last term, some boys from Waverley were confirmed in a combined parish celebration. Again, it’s giving that meaning and purpose to the context of the school being a religious school, and also the adjoining area it fits into.
As an education institution, I think a primary goal is religious literacy. The College has a strong program of teaching and learning, which brings students to understand their tradition with strong critical and questioning activities. The aim is to dispel stereotypes and to address the issues of generalising about faiths and traditions; for which interfaith dialogue is key.
In that context, Waverley has two excursions in Year 11 where students can experience Buddhism at the Nan Tien Temple in Wollongong, and Islam in the Gallipoli Mosque at Auburn. Of course our geography is fantastic in terms of understanding Judaism, and later this term we will also take a group of students to Moriah College to participate in an interfaith conference. I think the students are so lucky that they can engage in their world with knowledge and experience, and be able to talk about other faiths.
Religious Education is such a valid subject, it goes beyond the boundaries of the College, it adds to life experience, to general knowledge, and it adds to students’ place in society. While Australia is predominantly Christian, we do have other religious traditions, and we need to understand the plurality of faith in the world in which we live. We should also bear in mind that some universities look favourably on the study of religions as well.
It also encourages critical reflection. To me, it’s the ultimate subject in which you are actually moving towards philosophy, moving towards philosophical questions, away from just the evaluative. So you start thinking about why we do what we do. It helps academically as the highest-order questions in any HSC paper now, no matter what the subject is, are approaching philosophical questions. So it’s questions about life, rather than questions about religion – and this is reflected at University.
Ethics as a discipline, whether you do a business degree, a medical degree or a humanities degree, is quite a common aspect of those courses. And it’s a huge part of the studies of religions. So I think we give them a good basis to start their tertiary education.