Newly appointed US ambassador to Malta Douglas Kmiec reiterated his message on interfaith dialogue to Maltese and American education policy-makers earlier this week during the Invitational International Seminar on Schooling (IISS) organised in Malta by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).
The group was invited to a reception at the ambassador’s residence, along with prominent officials from the Maltese education system.
Prof. Kmiec is keen to facilitate the introduction of comparative religion in the Maltese education curricula as a means of encouraging understanding between faiths. He indicated that this is a duty assigned to him by President Obama.
Coincidentally, this paper’s interview with Prof. Kmiec and AASA president Mark Bieling and executive director Dan Domenach took place last Tuesday, the day that the European Court of Human Rights delivered a ruling that the display of crucifixes in Italian public schools violates religious and education freedom.
On the subject of interfaith dialogue, Dan Domenach said: “There is no question that education can be a powerful tool in bridging differences arising out of dissimilarities in culture and religion. The educators participating in the IISS can attest to that and are willing to support the Maltese administration in that undertaking.”
Mark Bieling said that, as education ambassadors, they believe in pursuing world peace through books rather than bullets. “In the US there is a clear separation between church and state and we are used to diversity in our country. We recognise that our students have various backgrounds and we try to recognise their different religions by in turn getting them to recognise their friends’ religion. It is a challenge to run a college and simultaneously recognise each religion.”
Both Mr Bieling and Mr Domenach said that they could feel the overwhelming Christian influence in Malta, especially in schools, and understood that here religion is taught as a belief and not as a comparative subject, where various religions are explored. Catholicism, Islam and Judaism all promote peace, they said, and if this is understood, then it is the basis of interfaith dialogue.
In addition to acting on issues concerning industry, security and drug and human trafficking, US President Barack Obama had charged Prof. Kmiec with understanding Malta’s genesis. The President, he said, believes that only by understanding one’s origins can an individual come to terms with conflicts, and Malta is an ideal place for understanding different origins. “We each know our religion, but we have to understand each other’s. Religion is the centrepiece of one’s life: it defines who we are and guides us through a worldview. Education is a possible tool to help people understand different religious perspectives better. Imagine how easy it is to offend someone unknowingly, a route for misunderstandings, conflicts.”
Prof. Kmiec said the President is adamant about the need to promote mutual understanding. “If we are honest with ourselves, more needs to be done on diversity. The issue of religious comparative studies is still untouched. How can religious barriers be overcome? What is the best pedagogic practice for teaching comparative studies? What is the role of religion in science, history and geography? This is a sensitive topic and we must take a cautious approach,” the ambassador concluded.
The 36th IISS, sponsored by AASA and the University of Texas Cooperative Superintendency Program (CSP), brought to Malta a group of superintendents from the American educational system. AASA has over 13,000 school superintendents, who occupy similar positions to Maltese state school principals. It provides its members, who are responsible for educating over 55 million students all over North America, with professional development, legal advice and international exchanges such as the seminar held in Malta.
The seminar was held in Catania, Sicily at the end of October and in Malta last week. The purpose of this advanced study seminar was to bring senior policy-makers and distinguished educational leaders from across North America to Malta to discuss policies and issues that effect schooling worldwide.
The IISS has enabled and enhanced collaboration efforts between educational organisations across the globe and has offered the opportunity for constructive dialogue on important issues affecting education and society. It provided a forum for networking with policy-makers, practitioners and researchers on national policy around common global themes related to education, including interfaith dialogue. Delegates addressed such issues as world-class standards, governance and cultural diversity, sharing concerns and critically examining options for continuous improvement in national/primary schools, colleges and the workplace.
All this was accomplished through a programme that offered a structured opportunity to address these vital issues and to experience highlights of the culture of Catania and Malta. Last year’s dynamic seminar was held in Peru and previous seminars have been held across the world. Now Malta also has a place on the world map of the IISS.
The IISS brought some 30 top policy-makers from North America to Malta, including senior educational administrators involved in developing and implementing policy at state and national levels. During their time in Malta, delegates had the opportunity to visit primary and secondary schools, the Malta College of Arts Science and Technology (MCAST) and the University of Malta. They also met senior policy-makers from business, industry, government, health and social services.