“Little Rock” and Religious Education

Johan Ardui & Pieter De Witte

Religious education seems problematic in our times. One of the reasons for this could be the alleged decrease of interest in religious matters in Europe and North America. It is possible, however, that the real challenge of religious education should be described in terms of theological anthropology. Education has often been related to the question of what it is to be and become human. If education is more than the acquisition of a set of skills that are useful for society’s smooth functioning, then it can only be defined as the formation of human beings. It is difficult to imagine education beyond the moulding of highly functional cogwheels in the production process without an explicit or implicit idea of what it is to be human, an idea about what is intrinsically (and not only functionally) valuable about human existence. The problem with religious education is that religious traditions have their own vague or more distinct anthropology. The challenge is how to reconcile (or rather: how to organize the clash between) anthropologies implied in contemporary educational practices and in religious traditions. One way this clash is visible in contemporary thinking about religious education is the call for more ‘relevant’ practices of religious education, with more emphasis on communication, identity formation and interreligious dialogue. This would prepare young people for their active participation in a pluralistic world. Sometimes it is felt, however, that such emphases prevent teachers from offering a comprehensive discussion of what religions have to say about human beings.


One way to start reflecting on this issue is to be inspired by some ideas of Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). Arendt was first of all a political thinker, but she also wrote on education. Her idea of political action converges with the dominant emphases (mentioned above) in large sections of the contemporary discourse on religious education (plurality and interaction between individuals). At the same time, Arendt’s view on education does not converge with the call for more politically relevant education. Quite to the contrary, Arendt believes that education will only prepare young people for a life in the polis if they are to a certain extent protected from the confusion and pressure of the public sphere. They first have to learn in a relatively untroubled atmosphere about the world and the way it is traditionally conceived. Only when education is to a certain extent ‘conservative’, children will later be able to change the world in unforeseeable ways. The paradoxality and sharpness of her ideas on education is perceptible in her essay on ‘Little Rock’.

The ‘Little Rock Crisis’ refers to the events in 1957 in a school in Arkansas. A group of African American students wanted to be enrolled in this all-white school and they met serious resistance. In the end the American government forced the group’s entrance into the school, even using military strength. Hannah Arendt wrote a challenging and even provocative essay on this issue. There is no doubt about Arendt’s support for racial desegregation. Yet, she questions the way education was used as a means to implement this desegregation.

Arendt writes:


“I think no one will find it easy to forget the photograph reproduced in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, showing a Negro girl, accompanied by a white friend of her father, walking away from school, persecuted and followed into bodily proximity by a jeering and grimacing mob of youngsters. The girl, obviously, was asked to be a hero–that is, something neither her absent father nor the equally absent representatives of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] felt called upon to be […] The picture looks like a fantastic caricature of progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world in which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it. Have we now come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change or improve the world? And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the school yards?” (Hannah Arendt, Reflections on Little Rock)

Arendt’s point is clear. It is a highly dubious pedagogical procedure to pass on the problems adults cannot solve themselves to youngsters and children. Yet this is exactly what also happens today in our schools. Adults face the challenges of racial segregation, multiculturalism, inter-religious encounters, clashes between irreconcilable ideologies, political indifference, nationalism and many more. Often they are not able to settle such problems in the public sphere. What happens quite regularly is that such problems are more or less directly introduced in the classroom in order to prepare the future generation of citizens. Crucial skills and attitudes such as dialogue, tolerance and civic commitment are fostered for this purpose.

Arendt points out, in her Reflections on Little Rock as well as in her essay The Crisis in Education, that the result of this is undesirable in all respects. Adults do not assume their responsibility of dealing with these issues in the public sphere. Instead, they introduce the turmoil of politics in the place where newcomers should learn in relative serenity about the world. Adults live with the illusion that they are doing something about these challenges, while in fact they are excluding the possibility that the newcomers will ever be able to do something about them. For only the relative quiet of study and learning will allow young people to overcome the clichés and ideological catchphrases that dominate the public arena. Only when they are not exposed to the pressure of the life of the citizen will they be able to surmount banality and to really learn and think about realities like race, religion, culture, political history and national identity.

Perhaps Arendt’s reflections should inspire us in our thoughts on contemporary religious education. Many assumptions are at work in current discourses on religious education in a pluralistic world: “Religious education should be the place of interreligious dialogue”, “Religious education can help solving the problems related to religion in the public sphere”, or simply: “Religious education should foster religious tolerance”. Obvious as such assumptions may seem, they are highly questionable in a world where adults themselves do not succeed in speaking and acting thoughtfully when it comes to religion.

This post is an excerpt of a paper given at the workshop Politics of Love? Christliche Liebe als politische Herausforderung (org. Anthropos Research Group and Katholische Akademie Berlin), Berlin, 21-23 March 2013.

Dr. Johan Ardui teaches Catholic religion at the Teacher Training Program of the Limburg Catholic University College (LCUC, Belgium). Dr. Pieter De Witte is researcher at the LCUC and prison chaplain in the prison of Mechelen (Belgium). Both are involved in the research project (2012-2014) “A Plausible Course? In Search of a Teaching Methodology for Roman-Catholic Religion” at the LCUC.