Iphone-057Learning Sumud: Acts of Meaning in Education

The Voice of Palestine in the Renewal of Religious Education



March 4th, 2011

Thom Geurts

1. A new approach of RE

In the traditional model of RE religion is identified as an institutional phenomenon. The aim of RE is making the student familiar with the beliefs and practices of an institutional tradition. The institutional practices, rites, and beliefs are the contents of RE. Its didactics are governed by a cognitive approach: knowledge dominates. The student plays the passive role of a receiver of knowledge. Due to globalization and rising awareness of religious pluralism, this model has been replaced by a neo-traditional, interreligious model of RE. Yet, in this second model religion still remains identified as an institutional phenomenon. And the institutional practices, rites, and beliefs are still the contents of RE, although they are now presented as the heritage of different religious systems. Again, didactics is dominated by the exclusive aim of increasing knowledge. The focus is still on the tradition as it is and not the way students use the tradition in their own specific situation.

In a third model religion is not exclusively identified as institutional tradition. Before religion becomes a tradition it is a dimension of human existence, and connected with man’s search for ultimate meaning. This approach to religion goes well together with new theories of learning. The so called ‘new learning’ approaches the student as a maker of meaning. People construct their own meaningful world. The results of active learning (learning by doing) are more important than the classic cognitive and memorizing learning strategies. Learning aims at the student’s development of competences.

This new approach of learning gives room for a new, post-traditional model of RE. RE is here about man’s ultimate concern and struggle for meaning and what is sense and nonsense. So, it is situated in the personal and existential questions concerning identity, life and death, freedom and responsibility, justice and injustice – all situated in everyday life. In these questions emotions play a role that is as important as the role of knowledge and cognitions. The aim of RE is here the development of competences in acts of meaning. Of course, religious traditions play an indispensable role in this existential search for ultimate meaning. The post-traditional approach is not at all post-religious!

Six actions make it possible that people take a moral or religious position. The learning of these actions is the focus of post traditional RE:

  • Be Sensitive to the Dimension of Ultimate Meaning!
  • Make Explicit the Personal Values in Personal Stories of Life!
  • Relate Yourself to Value Communities as a Source of Values (e.g. Family, Friends, Fellow Citizens)!
  • Relate Yourself to Religious Traditions as a Source of Values!
  • Make a Moral Judgement or Give a Religious Opinion!
  • Assess the Consequences of this Judgement and Opinion!

When learning and training these actions RE uses a diversity of communicative tools:

  • Ego documents: diaries, letters, photography, poems, songs, stories of life, personal websites, new social media
  • Family history, interviews, folklore, proverbs, literature, oral history
  • Institutional forms of religious traditions, the holy scriptures, narratives, prayers, morals, moral principles
  • Dilemmas and stories that describe problems of meaning in situations
  • Debate

2. Approaching Sumud

No definition fits Sumud. It belongs to the kind of words that escape the trap of definition. Like ‘freedom’ or ‘love’. The overflow of meaning of these words needs life and the voice of many to be discovered. Sumud presents an overarching ultimate meaning of life, history and existence. Sumud presents the power of life and hope that resists destruction, devastation, violence and cynism. This power is connected with our belief that the world since creation is in God’s hand and has a destiny far beyond the ongoing destruction of dignity and injustice. So, sumud is a religious practise of hope and belief. While living together and communicating in an interreligious search for a meaningful life of dignity and peace in this land, the religious traditions of Palestine should take their responsible and guiding role in connecting everyday life with sumud and the beliefs that sumud implies. This responsibility has an educational dimension.

3. Sumud in RE

So, sumud might be developed in Palestinian schools as a form for RE, not instead but together with other models of RE. As a project in the new approach to RE, learning sumud aims at the following competences of students in Palestine:

  • Staying in search of ultimate meaning
  • Presenting the wisdom of the religious traditions concerning sumud
  • Clarifying the wisdom of folklore, cultural habits, art, concerning sumud
  • Developing moral dilemmas and stories of existential questions
  • Looking for consequences: How to present sumud in a context of violence?

4. Moral Leadership in learning sumud

Moral leadership in learning sumud implies attention and the development of skills in relation to the following guidelines:

  • Be Aware of Being a Role Model
  • Be Aware that Meaning is Not a Fixed Statue But an Open Process
  • Present Core Experiences of Traditions
  • Resist Master Stories Pushing aside Personal Stories
  • Present the Implicit Wisdom of Folklore and Cultural Habits
  • Present your Personal Story of Life as a Context of Sumud
  • Keep Time and Space Open for Imagination and Hope
  • Care for Your Self! Vocational Spirituality

Yet, the role of teachers is strongly underestimated. Of course teachers in RE need didactical professionalism and a huge knowledge of religion and its sources of meaning. But even that is not enough to lead to the learning of sumud, to expose moral leadership. Teachers need vocational spirituality to confront negative forces and difficult experiences. They deserve attention by the responsible authorities to the specific needs of their indispensable work. Teaching is part of sumud, and sumud is part of teaching.