Binding Things Together: Teaching a Religious Activity by Ronald Noone. Published by Monash University Publishing 2020
Rev Dr Ron Noone enjoys something of the status of living legend in chaplaincy circles in the Diocese of Melbourne having worked in two of our most prestigious schools, Geelong Grammar and Melbourne Grammar. As Senior Chaplain at MGS Ron had a public profile that no other Victorian chaplain has enjoyed making regular forays in the media, his opinion sought on issues of the day.
After forty years of teaching in a variety of educational contexts, Ron has retired, but fortunately has taken the time to share his collective wisdom in two books. The first ‘Opening Hearts and Minds,’ about the ministry of Anglican school chaplains was published in 2014, and this year sees the release of his second book ‘Binding Things Together’ about Ron’s other great passion – teaching.
The issue of chaplains and classroom teaching can often generate some animated conversation in chaplaincy circles. Some chaplains have a largely liturgical role, rarely gracing the door of a classroom while for others, classroom teaching is the major component of their job. For Ron, the classroom is where some of his most significant ministry took place.
As the book makes abundantly clear Ron sees himself first and foremost as a teacher, thanks to some critical moments in his formation for ministry where his path crossed with two leading educationalists – Neil Postman and Gabriel Moran. Ron had intended to pursue his interest in systematic theology but his encounters with these two teachers profoundly impacted him and instilled within him a lifelong passion for being a religious educator.
The book reflects on the current state of teaching especially in light of the ever increasing presence of technology in the classroom. Ron invites us to step back and ask how things have come to be the way there are by providing an historical overview of the nature of teaching and the development of the modern school.
Ron brings to bear the insights of the two educationalists that had such a profound impact upon him – Neil Postman and Gabriel Moran. Having known these two thinkers personally, the book benefits from someone who is not only very familiar with their work but is able to share personal insights as well.
Noone draws on the work of Moran and Postman to ask some of the big questions about education – what does it mean to teach, how do we teach, and what is the purpose of schools? Using the insights of these thinkers he challenges much of the contemporary thinking around schools that argues their threefold purpose is to “help students get a better job, become good consumers and learn to adore technology.”
The book provides an overview of the current state of religious education in schools in the United States, England and Australia, teasing out the sometimes challenging distinction between the teaching of religion and teaching about religion. This leads Noone to survey the demise of Special Religious Instruction in Victoria. Ron is well placed to comment having been actively involved in this very public debate in Victoria. He was an outspoken critic of SRI, a position that put him at odds with his Archbishop at times. Ron argued that ACCESS Ministries, the main SRI provider in Victoria, had a mission to ‘make disciples’ and that this ran counter to what he believes should be the aim of religious education.
Ron is a passionate advocate for General Religious Education “Politicians and the general public need to understand that instead of banning religion from the classroom, a proper academic examination of religion is a necessary and crucial part of our educational future.”
Noone’s advocacy of GRE comes against the backdrop of the demise of the specialist RE teacher in Protestant independent schools here in Victoria over the past twenty years. Most chaplaincy positions in our Anglican Schools come with a teaching component and so the chaplain finds themselves having to be in the classroom whether they want to be there or not.
There are some really significant obstacles to the teaching of GRE, even in Anglican schools. I am mindful that some states in Australia do a much better job of this, but speaking from the Victorian context as well as the demise of the specialist RE teachers, most Anglican schools would also look back at the last twenty years having witnessed a decline in the amount of time their students spend undertaking RE lessons.
As anyone who works in schools knows only too well our students are very busy and the curriculum is crowded. Time for RE has been reduced to free up time for other more pressing concerns. Our Anglican schools are highly responsive to parent concerns and the reality is, in a time of declining adherence to religion, many of our parents are happy to see less RE in our timetables.
The challenge is how to get the teaching of religion into our modern secular schools against the backdrop of declining religious adherence in society and a profound distrust of the intuitional church. It is sobering to consider that we are in the process of educating the most religiously illiterate generation in our history; a fact our schools are actively contributing to rather than challenging. What we need is a realistic pathway for how the amount of General Religious Education teaching can be increased in our Anglican schools and how to overcome the major obstacles that stand in its way.
In the book Noone casts a sceptical eye over the place of technology in our schools. Against the ‘luddite’ criticism that is typically levelled at technological sceptics he cites Postman “To be against technology makes no more sense than to be against food. We can’t live without either. But to observe that it is dangerous to eat too much food, or to eat food that has no nutritional value, is not to be ‘anti-food’. It is to suggest what may be the best uses of food.”
Schools should be the appropriate place to ask the hard questions of about the place of technology in modern society. However, in Noone’s view, schools have largely uncritically embraced technology driven by marketing, a need to keep up with the Jones, and a ‘love of the new’ when it comes to tech.
It was an interesting experience for me to read the chapters on the place of technology in the classroom having come off the most technologically reliant period of teaching in our history. For me as a Melbournian in lockdown with students learning at home my entire term’s teaching was totally dependent upon and facilitated by technology.
Noone draws on Postman’s concept of ecology to address the often fraught relationship between education and cultural change. “The role of education is to try to conserve tradition when the rest of the environment is innovative. Or, it is innovative when the rest of society is tradition-bound. The function of education is to always offer the counter argument, the other side of the picture.”
Teaching is therefore a subverting and a conserving activity. “For this is a time of real discernment about what needs to be subverted and what needs to be conserved in our education system.” Towards the end of the book Noone offers ten guiding principals for teaching based on this subverting and conserving model that act as a summary of his thinking about teaching.
The book offers a thought provoking read and it is worth being read by every chaplain, especially those who have a significant teaching load. Chaplains, by virtue of their position, are often asking the challenging questions in our schools and this book provides rich fodder to help facilitate this.
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