East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 10, No. 4, Fall 2002, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Religion in Russian Schools:  Taking a Lesson from France

Igor Ponkin

One of the most widespread stereotypes in Russian society today is the identification of secular education with obligatory atheist (antireligious) or a nonreligious (agnostic) orientation.  This stereotype exists as a result of inertia in society's thinking produced by the epoch of state atheism and persecution of religious associations in our country.  It is useful to turn attention to the experience of France on this matter.

Several years ago France came to a paradoxical conclusion about degrading tendencies in the development of the national system of education. French society was faced with a situation where pupils in private Catholic and Protestant colleges graduated much better prepared for life in French society and culturally more developed than pupils of state schools. It was thought that this was, to a considerable degree, the result of the implementation of state policy directed at isolating religious associations from the state system of education and the elimination of traditional religious components from its culture. Today in France both high governmental workers and prominent French scholars speak of the necessity of implementing in state schools the principle of culture-conforming education (educational content that corresponds to the national culture), using humanities curricula based on spiritual and moral traditions and values.

In February 2002 the Ministry of Education of France published "Teaching Subjects Dealing with Religion in Secular Schools."  This interesting and substantive report analyzes the damage done to the national system of education as a consequence of its nonreligious nature and separation from national culture. French society is realizing more and more the threat of a collective break in the national and European memory when the insufficiency of religious and cultural education does not permit one to understand either the façade of the cathedral at Chartres, the works of Tintoretto, Mozart's masterpiece "Don Juan," or Aragon's "Passion Week." The report calls special attention to the fact that as soon as Trinity becomes for people just the name of a Paris Metro station, and Pentecost holiday becomes a simple date on the calendar, there occurs a vulgarization of everyday life, a degradation of the national culture, a degradation of society itself, and a loss of historic consciousness.

Society is being moved by a false fear to the destruction of civic solidarity and ignorance of national history, culture, and faith.  The basic idea of expanding and deepening the teaching of subjects dealing with religion in secular schools consists not in replacing secular education with religious education, giving the latter some special status, but in giving pupils of state educational institutions the possibility of becoming civilized persons in their own national culture, thereby protecting their right to choice and free discussion.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Paul Steeves, PDS Russia Religion News (www.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews).  Translated from "Is Religion Necessary In Secular Schools," Nezavisimaia gazeta, 2 August 2002.

"Religion in Russian Schools:  Taking a Lesson from France," East-West Church & Ministry Report 10 (Fall 2002), 5-6.

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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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