We live in difficult times. We are confronted with daily media images and news of violence and turmoil. We face a struggling economy and growing stratifications of wealth. We live in a divided society, polarized by issues of war, healthcare, marriage, and moral values, among others. Moreover, a growing culture of fear has left little room for difference, diversity, or dissent.
Education is our hope for the future; it is the best resource and means for countering these dangerous trends of prejudice, violence and exclusion that plague our society. Peace educator Betty Reardon writes: "Education is that process by which we learn new ways of thinking and behaving, a very significant component of the transition-transformation processes. Education is that process by which we glimpse what might be and what we ourselves can become." (2)
However, traditional methods of education have not typically aimed to affect constructive social change. Their practices tend to promote assimilation rather than transformation. Transformative education seems not to be on the agenda of our contemporary public educational system, as current educational trends lauding standardized tests seem to illustrate. Subsequently, many educators are developing and advancing alternative educational methods. These educators recognize that nurturing productive citizens requires a holistic approach that takes into account not only the intellectual needs of students, but the emotional and spiritual dimensions as well.
As educators strive to meet the challenges of the 21st century, many also recognize the critical role that religion plays in our world. Throughout history, religious traditions have existed in a reciprocal relationship with the world's civilizations and cultures. In this current social climate, religious discourse has been both polarized and marginalized. This discourse is dominated by language and notions of fear, exclusion, vengeance, and control. As many educators, practitioners, and religious leaders recognize the seminal influence of religion on the futures of individuals, communities, and societies, they have thus turned to interfaith education to shed light upon the challenges of our times.
Interfaith education has an important role to play in the search for new methods of education that will advance broad social transformation, shifting away from a paradigm of dominance, exclusiveness, and violence and toward a new paradigm of equity, inclusiveness, and peace. In what follows, I will look at the contours of the field and consider the distinctive strengths that position it to meet the educational objectives of a paradigm and culture of peace. I will then argue for strengthening the transformative capacity of interfaith education through the cultivation and elaboration of a critical pedagogy drawing from the pedagogical method of "critical pedagogy."
The Field of Interfaith Education
Interfaith education is an emerging field still working to define itself and the challenges it faces. (3) What constitutes not just interfaith education, but good interfaith education? What criteria should be used to measure and evaluate best practices? These questions involve sub-questions of location, objectives, and defining characteristics.
Regarding location, the broad field includes the educational methods of the classroom, the academy, and the seminary, alongside the grassroots practices of dialogue and community building among people of diverse religious backgrounds. (4) The field is interdisciplinary in nature, drawing from the areas of religious studies, including comparative religions, theology, sociology of religion, and religious education, as well as philosophy of education, peace education, critical and cultural studies and community organizing. Moreover, interfaith education strives to build bridges between the academic and the grassroots.
The nascent field of interfaith education includes practitioners who seek to explore and develop understanding of diverse religious worlds; yet learning about diverse religions is not pursued as an end in itself. …