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Teaching the Nation: Religious and Ethnic Diversity at State Schools in Britain and the Netherlands

by Thijl Sunier - 2009

Background/Context: The article presents the outcomes of international comparative anthropological (qualitative) research on multiculturalism, citizenship, and nation building in schools in Paris, Berlin, London, and Rotterdam. The findings presented here are based on fieldwork carried out over a period of 1 year at secondary schools in the Dutch city of Rotterdam and in London. The project has demonstrated a close relationship between national specific modes and trajectories of integration and the ways in which the schools deal with diversity.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article addresses the growing diversity in religious and ethnic backgrounds among students at primary and secondary schools in Western Europe. The debate about the place of religion in school has gained momentum after the arrival of large numbers of migrants, especially those with a “new” religious background, such as Islam. Their presence challenges existing arrangements and privileges and puts matters that were previously taken for granted back on the agenda. Religion and ethnicity at school touch on a fundamental issue, namely the place of state schooling in the making of modern nation-states. Several issues need to be taken into account: To what extent is religion a legitimate moral resource? Why should one learn about religion, and who should teach it to whom? Is it more important to get religious nurturing or to study the plurality of different belief systems? Should the school accommodate religious and cultural diversity, or should it rather be a neutral arena that deliberately disregards this diversity? These questions do not arise together in one package but present themselves in fragmented, occasional, and contingent ways.

Setting: The data were collected during intensive ethnographic fieldwork in four secondary schools in Neuköln (Berlin), Saint Denis (Paris), Crooswijk (Rotterdam), and Haringey (London).

Research Design: Qualitative fieldwork, case study in secondary schools.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The outcomes of the study demonstrate that although schools are, to a large extent, unique settings that cannot be lumped together, they are crucial sites where principles of national civil incorporation are transmitted to pupils. Although the two schools described in this article resemble each other to a large degree in terms of ethnic composition of the neighborhood, problems faced, and policies adopted by the school board, they each have their specific way of dealing with ethnic and religious diversity. These ways reflect national specific political culture in each of the two countries.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 6, 2009, p. 1555-1581
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15337, Date Accessed: 9/16/2021 5:09:32 PM

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About the Author
  • Thijl Sunier
    University of Amsterdam
    E-mail Author
    THIJL SUNIER is senior lecturer in cultural anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. He is a member of the program committee of the research program the Production of Islamic Knowledge in Western Europe, of the International Institute for the study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) in Leiden; a member of the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research (ASSR); a member of the board of the Amsterdam Centre for Conflict Studies (ACS); and a visiting fellow of the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies (IMES). He has conducted research on interethnic relations in postwar neighborhoods and on Turkish youth and Turkish Islamic organizations in the Netherlands. He has also participated in comparative research among Turkish youth in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the Netherlands and on nation building and multiculturalism in France, the Netherlands, and Turkey. He studied cultural anthropology at the Universities of Utrecht and Amsterdam, where he completed his PhD thesis, “Islam in Beweging. Turkse jongeren en islamitische organisaties” ("Islam in Motion: Turkish Young People and Islamic Organizations") in 1996.
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