Cultural and Religious Concepts of Education Research Paper

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Because not everyone assigns the same meanings to education, culture, religion, and concepts of education, it is important to explain how those terms are intended throughout this research paper.

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Education means intentional efforts to improve people’s knowledge, skills, goals, or values. Culture means the beliefs, patterns of behavior, and physical objects shared in common by members of a group and passed from one generation to the next through education and daily experience. Groups that display particular cultures can be of various kinds—family, community, regional, national, ethnic, occupational, social-class, religious, and more. Religion, as a subcategory of culture, is typically an integrated system of beliefs about a supreme being or gods (theology); the origin and control of the universe (cosmology); the nature of existence (ontology); rules governing human relations (ethics, morals); knowledge and its proper sources (epistemology); and the goal of life (teleology).

Concepts of education are beliefs about what is worth learning and how people should acquire that learning. A group’s concept of education can be inferred from the dominant educational agencies, objectives, curriculum content, methods of teaching, and techniques of evaluation found within that group. To demonstrate how different groups’ concepts can result in variegated modes of education across cultures, the following discussion is designed to illustrate the proposition that all cultures pursue the same five basic educational goals, but cultures can vary in: (a) the specific learning objectives and curriculum content under those goals; and (b) their system for delivering instruction. This research paper closes with a brief interpretation of historical trends in cultural conceptions of education.

The examples cited in support of this proposition focus on three cultural categories—national, ethnic, and religious. However, it is apparent that those three categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, national, ethnic, and religious are essentially identical in such countries as Saudi Arabia (82 percent Saudi ethnic origin; 99 percent Muslim) and Portugal (98 percent Portuguese ethnic origin; 92 percent Catholic) (Calhoun 1999). However, in such multicultural countries such as Canada, India, Indonesia, and the USA, significant differences are found among national, ethnic, and religious cultures.

1. Educational Goals

By outright statement or by implication, all cultures direct education toward the same five general goals: (a) knowledge and support of cultural traditions; (b) citizenship; (c) moral conduct; (d) vocational preparation; and (e) physical and mental health. However, because of the sociohistorical differences among cultures, the specific learning objectives and curriculum content under each of these goals can vary from one culture to another.

1.1 Knowledge And Support Of Cultural Traditions

The first goal is to teach each new generation the culture’s dominant worldview and history, including the traditional language, social organization, explanations of phenomena (physical and social sciences), and arts. For example, to communicate within their group, Pakistanis learn Urdu, Tunisians learn Arabic, and Peruvians learn Spanish, Qechua, or Aymara. To understand social organization, Tongans learn the traditional chieftain structure of their society, North Koreans learn the country’s version of communism, and South Africans study their republic’s multiparty system and national assembly. In the realm of literature, India’s youths study the epic poems Ramayana and Mahabarata, students in Taiwan read the Analects of Confucius, and those in Spain read Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

1.2 Citizenship

A society’s system of governance determines what people need to know about their own role as a citizen and about how their own role relates to the role of other people. Because societies’ social systems often differ, citizenship education varies across cultures. The proper behavior of serfs in a feudal society differs from that of citizens in a socialist state or in a capitalistic democracy. The roles of leaders in the Roman Catholic hierarchy differ from the roles of leaders in Quaker, Presbyterian, and Buddhist cultures.

1.3 Moral Conduct

Moral education concerns proper ways to act toward other people and, in some cultures, proper ways to act toward supernatural forces (gods, ancestral spirits), nonhuman beings (animals of specified types), and physical surroundings (sacred forests, mountains, and waterways). All cultures teach such virtues as honesty, loyalty, respect, and courage. All disapprove of theft, deceit, and murder. Most usually prescribe additional moral rules not found in every other culture, e.g., obeying God’s commandments is an essential moral rule in Judaic, Christian, and Islamic cultures but not in Chinese Taoism or international Communism (Thomas 1997).

Cultures often differ in how they identify the people to whom their moral rules should apply. For example, most cultural traditions teach, at least by implication, that moral rules should guide relationships with friends (‘our kind of people’ or ‘members of our group’) but not with enemies (‘those who threaten our welfare’). Therefore, one moral education objective can be that of identifying the social conditions (war, economic competition, and religious confrontations) under which the moral rules should and should not apply to selected groups. Furthermore, as social conditions change, the way moral principles affect personal-social relations often change as well. During World War II, the British and the Germans were enemies, so they were taught to hate, deceive, and slay each other. In contrast, a half century later the British and Germans, both members of the European Union, were taught to apply their common set of moral principles to each other.

1.4 Vocational Preparation

Societies vary markedly in the types and complexity of vocations for which each new generation is trained. Cultures that depend chiefly on hunting and gathering or on agriculture for obtaining food and clothing have far fewer types of vocations than do highly industrialized, occupationally specialized cultures. As a consequence, the detailed learning objectives and instructional content for occupational training can differ significantly across cultures. Furthermore, where vocational preparation is obtained can vary greatly. In dominantly nonmechanized agricultural societies, children learn their vocation through family apprenticeships—working beside their parents in the fields. In highly industrialized societies, most youths prepare for occupations in schools (learning communication, computation, social interaction, and technical skills) and in on-the-job programs away from their homes.

1.5 Physical And Mental Health

Variations from one group to another in the exact aims and content of health education can result from cultural differences in beliefs about: (a) what constitutes health, sickness, and deviant behavior; (b) what causes sickness and deviant behavior; and (c) how to treat sickness and deviance.

In their conceptions of sickness, cultures can disagree about the sorts of distressing conditions that call for healing measures.

Diviners, curers, oracles, shamans, and doctors the world over are not only consulted about bodily ills, but also about mental ills, social problems, and calamities of supernatural provenance which express jealousy, hatred, and suspicions emanating from conflicts over land, money, and inheritance, over marital and sexual disputes, and from political ambitions and rivalries. Further, the bodily ills are commonly taken to be mere epiphenomena: themselves material outcomes of immaterial forces and agencies that inflict punishment for social misdeeds (Worsley 1982 p. 327).

Contrasting cultural views of deviant behavior can be illustrated by a cluster of symptoms (impaired sociability, language, and communication which are accompanied by a constricted range of interests and activities) that are interpreted in typical Western industrialized cultures as indicative of autism, a regrettable malady that should be remedied. However, cultures that attribute autistic-like behavior to possession by spirits can elevate individuals who exhibit such behavior to a respected position reserved for enchanted members of society. Such is the case of individuals classed as Nit-ku-bon in West Africa, where an infant who would be diagnosed as autistic in Western cultures is said to be a ‘marvelous child’ (Ellenberger 1968).

2. Systems For Delivering Instruction

The term ‘educational delivery system’ refers to a society’s manner of organizing the people and institutions that provide education for the populace. One way to identify differences between cultures in their delivery systems is by recognizing (a) the nature of systems’ structures and (b) the manner in which components of systems acquire responsibility for particular educational goals.

2.1 Delivery Systems’ Structures

A society’s educational delivery system can be understood in terms of its institutions, personnel, and roles. An educational institution consists of a group of people (personnel) who together are pursuing the same educational objectives, with each person playing a particular role in the sense of assuming a specific part of the responsibility for achieving the objectives.

Types of institutions found in virtually all cultures are known by such general labels as family, school, church, youth clubs, and television programs. Subtypes that are committed to more specific objectives and roles are identified by more exact labels. Under the designation school there can be such subtypes as nursery school, secular junior high school, Islamic Koran school, junior college, Greek Orthodox seminary, military academy, Chinese language school, cooking school, etc.

In many institutions, roles are identified by titles that enable knowledgeable members of the culture to estimate the responsibilities and skills that those titles imply. Examples of titles and of national cultures in which such titles are used include docent (France), imam (Egypt), headmaster (England), guru besar (Indonesia), and superintendent of schools (USA).

Sometimes roles are traditional ones not overtly defined but learned informally by neophytes’ copying the behavior of established members of the institution, with the neophytes then learning what is expected of them by their being praised for performing the role properly and being admonished for deviating from accepted practice. Cultural differences in informally learned educational roles within the family can be illustrated with parents’ behavior in Tahiti and Nepal. Levy (1996, p. 134) observed that children in Tahiti were allowed to go about their business of growing up without much verbal direction by adults; and when Tahitian parents did apply directive verbal interventions, their remarks were primarily negative: ‘don’t do this’ or ‘stop doing that.’ In Nepal, parents offered much verbal guidance to their offspring as the children were learning to perform a new task, and this guidance was usually in positive, encouraging terms. Only after a child had achieved a measure of mastery would negative remarks appear, and then in a moral form, such as ‘it’s not right to do that,’ rather than, ‘don’t do that.’

In other instances roles are formally described, as in the description of duties included in a contract that a headmaster signs when employed by a school system. Role definitions may also assume the form of the curriculum in a teacher-education program or of the skills and knowledge individuals must display in order to receive a license to teach in an accredited school.

In sum, cultures can differ in the types and subtypes of educational institutions they include and the roles that personnel are expected to perform.

2.2 Institutions’ Assignments

The responsibility for achieving educational goals is usually divided among a society’s educational institutions, with this division of labor often varying from one culture to another. Typical variations can be portrayed for the realm of moral education.

Whereas every society depends heavily on the family for teaching moral values, cultures often differ in the institutions outside the family that are authorized to promote morality. Some nations mandate a separate class in public and private schools for teaching religion, with much of the subject matter stressing moral behavior. Such is the practice in Finland, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Spain, Thailand, and much of Latin America. Other countries, such as Indonesia and Taiwan, require a class in moral education that is not religious in character but includes an emphasis on citizenship and civic responsibility. Public schools in the USA are proscribed from teaching religion, and they rarely maintain moral education classes. However, as in other countries, teachers in all subject matter areas in US schools are expected to foster moral behavior by the way they routinely maintain discipline and encourage amicable social relationships in their classes.

Variations among cultures in the responsibility for achieving educational goals can also result from variations in learners’ access to such educational media as schools, books, television programs, and computer networks. Differences in access are principally the result of the availability of such media in a society. Although the latter half of the twentieth century witnessed a marked increase in the availability of schools in virtually all societies, by the twenty-first century the opportunities for formal education still differed significantly among nations. Even more dramatic than the variations in access to schools were the differences among schools in the preparation of teachers, teacher/pupil ratios, and the quality of facilities—reading materials, television, computers, and access to the worldwide computer network. The extent of five such differences in 12 countries near the close of the twentieth century is indicated in Table 1, which reports: (a) the percentage of nations’ school-age children enrolled in school; (b) teacher pupil ratios; (c) the proportion of the general population over age 15 that was literate as the result of available educational facilities; (d) numbers of personal computers per 1000 persons; and (e) numbers of computers connected to the worldwide network.

Cultural and Religious Concepts of Education Research Paper

3. Historical Trends

Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, interactions among cultures increased at an accelerating pace and affected societies’ educational practices. The most striking trend has been observed in traditional societies replacing their indigenous educational institutions and teaching methods with ones deriving from Europe and North America. The original purveyors of the European-style school were Christian missionaries who accompanied Western military and commercial forces that colonized much of the non-Western world. Even after most former colonies gained political independence following World War II, the expansion of Western educational practices continued, expedited by foreign-aid projects for developing regions and by advanced communication technologies, such as television and international computer networks.

By the early twenty-first century, the Western-style school—with its constant flow of technological innovations—continued to be the dominant mode of formal education throughout the world. However, this intrusion of European and North American culture into indigenous cultures has not gone unchallenged. Education at the family level has continued to follow long-established traditions in many regions. In addition, conservative forces in various societies have sought to stem the encroachment of formal Western education on non-Western societies’ inherited schooling practices. Such resistance has focused particularly on curriculum content. The most frequent curricular changes have been in the fields of history, literature, and the arts. In numerous societies, history books have been rewritten to interpret events from the vantage points of ethnic and religious groups that have gained significant political influence. Indigenous literature and art have been widely encouraged. Less common, and more controversial, have been efforts to teach science and mathematics that reflect traditional cultural worldviews. For example, in India during the 1990s, Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party sought to replace Western science in schools by introducing Vedic mathematics and the ancient science of astu shastra. Party spokesmen charged that Western science was a source of imperialism and rationalism that conflicted with Hindu tradition (Gutek and Thomas 1998). In Australia, curriculum developers sought to accommodate Aboriginal political interests by issuing science-curriculum directives that accorded equal importance to: (a) Aboriginal modes of interpreting natural phenomena; and (b) scientific methods deriving from European American tradition and practiced internationally (Maratos 1995).

What has been referred to as ‘the crises in Islamic education’ is the controversy in Moslem societies over the teaching of a Western scientific perspective which includes such precepts as: (a) conclusions about ‘truth’ should be based on empirical evidence; and (b) all conclusions are tentative and subject to revision on the basis of additional empirical evidence and logic. In Islamic tradition, the sources of true knowledge are the principal holy book, the Qur’an, and the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed recorded in the Sunnah. In any conflict between the revelations in the Holy Scriptures and ‘scientific’ theories (such as Darwin’s theory of evolution), the ‘scientific’ theories are judged to be wrong. However, matters not treated in the holy books—such as computer technology or the geology of petroleum production—can be settled by empirical, scientific means. Moslem educators thus face the challenge of convincing learners that they should: (a) limit the application of scientific precepts to issues not dealt with in the holy scriptures; and (b) accept on faith the authority behind the doctrines that bear on matters treated in the scriptures. This same challenge is faced in other religious persuasions as well— Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and more. It seems likely that the foregoing trends will continue in the future, with education systems across the world becoming increasingly alike in form and content. At the same time, ethnic and religious groups will probably continue their efforts to imbue curricula with content reflecting their own cultural traditions.


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  2. Ellenberger H F 1968 Impressions of psychiatric problems observed during a sojourn in Dakar. Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal 13(6): 539–46
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