Students, Christianity and being good

Marking this year’s first-year exam papers I experience the – unusual – wish to preach to my students, something I am normally exaggeratedly careful not to do. I’m genuinely worried about the state into which some of them have got themselves, if they believe that what they’re writing is a reasonable representation of Christianity and believe that they are Christians. Christianity, like all religions, they think (because somebody somewhere had the bright idea of turning school RE into ‘ethics’) is about being as good as possible. You have the real meaning of a doctrine or a biblical text when you have the moral of the story. And, at the same time, difficult ethics is stuff that happens to other people (it’s stem cell research they’re all obsessed with, this year; I think that’s because I told them very fiercely that they were NOT to claim that abortion was a new moral issue, so they need a different example of something that isn’t and couldn’t be in the Bible). So ‘we’ are good people, who are expected to continue being good (but if we don’t, God can’t really blame us, because we’re good people, not like Hitler, who I’m afraid does crop up in essays occasionally). And that is apparently the whole point of religion, to tell us over and over again to be good (although actually telling other people what to do is, according to some of my students, an infringement of their free will). And then we wonder why people don’t want to sign up. I genuinely worry about people who think God only loves them if they’re good, but I worry more because there is so much anxiety in the lives of students anyway. Everything’s conditional on continued and improbable success – and on keeping the rules and being good. Perhaps that’s why they find it so hard to understand, even intellectually, something that isn’t. Or perhaps it’s just because of A-level Philosophy and Ethics.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Lisa on 24 May, 2011 at 10:37 am

    I now only teach 11-16 (have a job in a LA which does 11-16 schools and then 6th form colleges) so can’t really say what I’d do with A Level… However, my department teachers GCSE Philosophy and Ethics. Why? Firstly, I like the specification, and I don’t think it is to the detriment of students’ religious understanding.

    I think that the problem is not so much the Philosophy and Ethics, but the very real temptation to ‘teach to the exam’ (results are what matters, right?… Or at least they do when, in September, you’re sat in front of the Headteacher explaining them), without really considering what students truly UNDERSTAND about religions and their teachings, and what they go away thinking…

    But, this is not just a Philosophy and Ethics problem. I mark Catholic Christianity GCSEs, so most kids who sit it are Catholic, or at least at Catholic schools (and therefore get twice the lesson time for RE as state schools). Do they understand Catholicism? Many of them, no. Will their GCSE in Catholic Christianity help them to better understand the relationship between God and humanity, and their value as a child of God? For the most part, no. Would they be confident that God loves them regardless of whether they are good? No.

    So, I think that it is not uncommon for RE to “fall short”, and I don’t really think that GCSE is a great foundation for students’ religious understanding… And to be fair to A Level Philosophy and Ethics, if it does not have a firm foundation to build on, is it not condemned from the outset to fall short?


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