Guest Blog: Samuel J. Richards
International schools often promote international mindedness. This fuzzy phrase is ubiquitous but oftentimes not well-defined. The definition used by the widely-influential International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) has changed over time. At its core, international mindedness is an aspirational call for students and faculty to recognize our interrelatedness as diverse nations and peoples. Ideally, education helps us acknowledge and understand perspectives different from our own in order to live and work together to make our world a better place. Learning about religion—rather than learning a religion—is an essential component of this.
The Power of Religion
Religion remains a powerful force in our world even when we choose not to discuss it. While reflecting on her career in global diplomacy, Madeleine Albright, the United States’ 64th Secretary of State wrote, “Religion is perhaps the single largest influence in shaping the human conscience, and yet it is also a source of conflict and hate.” One indication of this influence can be seen in ways numerous governments have sought to manage the complex interconnectedness between religion and public policy. This is evidenced in the United Kingdom’s official churches in England and Scotland, the Saudi king’s preferred title as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the United States’ separation of church and state, France’s laïcité (secularism), and China’s regulation of clerics and houses of worship under its State Administration for Religious Affairs. These policies reflect different approaches while revealing ways religion is a consistent influence across cultures.
Nearly 50 years ago Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis observed that, “Westerners, with few exceptions, have ceased to give religion a central place among their concerns, and therefore have been unwilling to concede that anyone else could do so.” It is noteworthy that the European-based IBO curriculum reduced “knowledge and religion” to a list of five optional themes in the 2022 revision to its foundational Theory of Knowledge (ToK) course. If we are going to be truly internationally minded, learning about the ways in which religious belief systems influence personal and societal decisions of the past and present cannot be optional. Diane L. Moore puts it succinctly, “Religion has always been and continues to be woven into the fabric of cultures and civilizations in ways that are inextricable.”
What We Need
Schools have a responsibility to equip our students to think critically about our world. This includes the academic, rather than devotional, study of religion. Internationally minded students need schema for understanding and respectfully discussing ways religious beliefs and customs are shaped by and shape our communities both historically and today. Whether we are members of a faith community or none at all, we live in a world where religion matters.
(Cover Photo: Zongfo Si Buddhist Temple near the palace of the former Dai kings in XishuangBanna, China by Samuel J. Richards)
Madeleine Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006): 64.
“Right and Left in Lebanon” (1977) in Bernard Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): 284-285.
Diane L. Moore, Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007): 5.
About the Author
Samuel J. Richards teaches history and global politics at Shanghai American School in China. He is one of four founding faculty in the school’s Pudong Innovation Institute, an interdisciplinary project-based learning program. He enjoys students’ “lightbulb moments” and has a passion for literacy learning, the humanities, and curricular improvement. His career spans public and private schools as well as teaching grades 6-12 including AP and IB courses, undergraduate history, and mentoring pre-service teachers.