Public Education in Faith through Pluralism

Teaching Faith in America’s Schools by Dilara Hafiz

The above link is to an article that I found the other morning through ReligionUpdates on twitter.  It’s a well-written examination of education of religion in public schools from a Muslim perspective.  (While you don’t have to read the article before you read this, I recommend it.)

The article opens with: “The challenge of providing basic religious knowledge as part of the American school curriculum needs to be met with a bold, new approach.”  It’s a sentiment I couldn’t agree more with.  Fall 08, I took a class at Harvard Divinity School with Diane Moore, author of “Overcoming Religious Illiteracy” called Religion, Democracy, and Education.  We  read about the history of religion and public education, examined pivotal Supreme Court Cases, interviewed teachers, and looked at several “Bible as Literature” curricula for public schools.  It was among the best of my graduate classes in religion and society, giving light to one of the most heated issues in public [secondary] education.  If we are to teach religion in the public schools, we need to approach it radically: redesigning curriculum from the ground up and restructuring the way Americans view religion.  I cannot promise a full solution, or even a plausible one since so much stands in the way.  But I can examine the history and examine the ways in which religion could fit positively into public schools.

The tagline of the article reads: “Although the roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are briefly studied in both middle and high school curriculums across the US, the historical focus leaves students unaware of the state of current beliefs and practices, as well as commonalities, within these faith traditions.”  First of all, unless I fell asleep for 7 years of my education (and I’m pretty sure I didn’t, since I graduated with a 3.91 from high school), my public school taught absolutely nothing about religious history and only briefly looked at religious literature.  None of it was Islam.  There were references to Judaism, but mostly to Christianity.  And you would think that Buddhism, Hinduism, Baha’i, Zoroastrianism, Wicca, and, well, anything else religious you can imagine, didn’t even exist.  Never once did I run across a text referencing Hinduism, or even India in high school.  (Fallstonians, correct me if I’m wrong!)  I didn’t know that some of these other religions even existed until college.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I went on to study religion in college.  Even still, you would think that Europe was a religious void, that Henry VIII just wanted to get laid and not to start a religious revolution, and that the Crusades were about gaining a bit more land and not religious fervor.  Worst of all, though, is that I didn’t go to a Bible-thumping evangelical school in the South.  I went to Fallston High School, a moderate to conservative public school only 20 minutes south of the Mason-Dixon Line (many of our teachers lived in PA).  Granted I learned nothing of evolution in school and got an abstinence-only sex education, but by limiting my access to an education about religion, the school limited my access to the history, politics, and culture of most of the world!  Thus, I also agree with the author when she says, “the historical focus leaves students unaware of the state of current beliefs and practices, as well as commonalities, within these faith traditions.”  If only I’d gotten some historical focus, then I’d have known at what point the Mughal Empire rose to power in India or when Constantine had a change of faith and lifted laws of persecution against Christians.  I had to wait till college for Constantine and grad school for Mughals.  I’m still trying to figure out some of the lasting effects of Colonialism in India, and can’t remember any of the dates attached other than 1947.  Hafiz presents the best argument I’ve read recently about teaching religion: immanent cultural and political relevance.

From the perspective of current affairs, world politics, globalization, but also for interacting with neighbors, the failure to educate in religion is the failure to prepare students to become global citizens.  Worldwide and at home, religion informs the decisions of leaders, no matter their attempts at separation of faith and politics.

Simultaneously, the deficiency of religious education fails to educate Americans about their neighbors.  Work that the Pluralism Project does provides maps and profiles of the religious landscape in America, showing us that we are no longer a country of different denominations of Christians.  Diana Eck’s book A New Religious America is the landmark publication outlining the history of “Other” religions in the United States, Supreme Court Cases they’ve fought, and what her idea of a pluralist community looks like.  Written for the lay audience, A New Religious America could serve as an introduction to current religious affairs for high school students.  It was published post-9/11, but most of the book was written beforehand, so only the forward addresses more of the 9/11 issues.  Pluralism.org, the Pluralism Project’s website, provides more up-to-date information on various religious groups.

When I posted Hafiz’s article on facebook, I got a range of interesting responses.  Those my age–20-somethings–have no recollection of learning the history of any religion in high school, though Emilia remembered hearing about Abraham in 6th grade.  My mother’s response was, “a necessary challenge to develop such a curriculum. there are scattered resources but nothing comprehensive that i know of (and what would that look like?)”  She makes a good point: some books exist for middle/high school students, though most are geared to be used in a church setting with a youth group.  A friend of mine from church who’s son is a freshman in high school, says that his curriculum requires him to pass classes in world religions, including in depth information on Islam.  According to Lisa, Rhys now watches the news in the Middle East and says, “They’re oversimplifying,” and he now has an opinion on everything.

However, Rhys is a freshman at St. Paul’s School for Boys, a private school in Baltimore City not bound by the same regulations as a public school.  Can we make such a progressive demand on all our school systems?  Sadly, the answer is probably not.  St. Paul’s is affiliated with the Episcopal Church, not taxpayer dollars, and can build its own curriculum based on the needs of the students and of the community, not bound by the Establishment or Free Exercise Clauses.  And while there are not two dichotomous sides the position of teaching religion in a public setting, the grey area causes extreme discomfort.  The two sides generally heard in such a debate are those who want absolutely no religion in public schools and those who want school prayer and no teaching of evolution.  What these two sides are both missing is the issue of education.  Both “sides” of the debate that I’ve mentioned are concerned with the practice of religion in the schools.  Education and practice are completely different issues.  (Something I think Hafiz, author of the original article, would agree with me about.)

Education (and not practice) of Religion in Schools

An education in religion is not a religious education.  To educate about religion does not mean to indoctrinate, to ritualize, or to demand belief.  There are ongoing debates about the study of religion, and whether one must be religious to study religion.  A good resource for this is The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion by Russel T. McCutcheon.  McCutcheon’s volume provides a series of essays on one of the more problematic issues with study of religion.  The question revolves around two similar premises: can you really understand a religion if you are an outsider of the faith and can you really study the religion (or anything) academically if you are an insider?  The positions range from needing to be an insider to have appreciation for the faith, or at least being a religious person, to needing to be as scientifically removed from the field of study, as in anthropology. In my opinion, though, you can absolutely be an atheist and successfully, productively, and respectfully study religion.

So to go about studying religion, you don’t need to be religious, but you need to be respectful of religions.  I don’t believe there’s such a thing as true academic objectivity, because it denies that the researcher is human.  Thus there can be no complete objectivity when it comes to the approach of studying religion, and therefore of teaching it.  I recognize that in a public school one issue will be the Evangelical social studies teacher saying improper or incorrect things about Islam, or the Reform Jewish teacher saying the wrong thing about Hinduism and thus offending everyone.  The first step is training teachers.  Harvard Divinity has a program in which they train those who want to be teachers not specifically in teaching religion in public schools, but in teaching with sensitivity and respect to the students in the class.  [Right now, they cannot train teachers to primarily teach religion because of lack job availability.]

I suppose if we’re going to train teachers, we need to do so along the guidelines of some sort of curriculum.  We really can’t (or can we?)  require high school teachers to take a comprehensive exam in world religions like is required of many religion PhD students.  My best friend just passed her first comp, in world religions, and read almost every intro level text on each religion she could find.  But Erin has also taken intense theory classes (thank you Adam Seligman, once again, for ruining our lives with theory) on the undergraduate and graduate level, and has been studying religion formally for 5 or 6 years now (Erin correct me if I’m wrong on time period there).  Can we ask that of our teachers?  Massachusetts requires all public high school teachers to have at least either an MAT or Master’s level degree in the subject they teach.

What kind of things should be taught?  Go right into teaching tolerance and pluralism?  But even I admit that pluralism is a loaded–probably politically so–term and as an “ism” is a sort of doctrine itself.  But can we approach the study of religion publicly without a form of pluralism.  I’ve written previously about types of pluralism: some forms are theologically and doctrinally plural while others are socially plural.  So while teaching pluralism may be out of the question until children are able to understand the finer nuances of a philosophical argument, using a pluralistic method is almost certainly required.

If you are going to teach religion in schools, you must pay attention to all religions, and not just the three “Abrahamic Faiths”.  I’m not suggesting that equal time is spent on Sikhism and Christianity.  Sikhs, while a very powerful religious group throughout India and the world, don’t have the same number of followers or as long a history.  On the other hand, you cannot spend four weeks on Christianity and one day on Hinduism.

On the other hand, teaching a religion means choosing which aspects of the religion to teach.  Each religion has its own controversial pasts, spin-off branches and cults, and violent histories.  How much of that needs to be taught to a 13-year-old?  For example, I’ve read articles on Hinduism that try to justify sati or the caste system using modern ideals and saying that the culture has progressed beyond that.  How do you explain to a freshman in high school that once upon a time, there were religious laws that enforced the chastity and austerity of widows in India, and that even now there are those still wary of old customs?  At what point does that start imposing external judgment on a foreign culture?  When it comes to Christianity there denominations that rely heavily on the history of the Church (Catholicism and Episcopalianism) while others focus entirely on the relationship with Jesus.

How do you choose what history to teach?  If you have a semester long college class, the answer is slightly easier, but most high schools would squish religion into a few week-long segment in social studies.  I don’t have specific answer, because I am not a team of curriculum experts.

I agree with Hafiz though, we must teach religion in relation to current events.  While I don’t think I ever made it past the 1980s in any history class, more of an effort should be made to include the religion’s ongoing effect on the global economy and on politics of war and peace.

How to go about it? Sensitivity, respect, and well- educated teachers.  Including more religion-as-literature texts.  I read bits of Genesis in high school lit class, but I’d never heard of the Ramayana until college.  Including any classes on religion as extra curricular or as electives may be the place to start, but it cannot be the only goal in introducing youth to religion.  And we cannot rely on parents, who have very little education in religion themselves to introduce their children to the religions of their future coworkers and friends.  It is our duty to ensure education in diversity.  It is our duty to say that while you may not agree with the teachings and practices of every religion, and that it is your right to disagree, each religion deserves respect and the knowledge that for someone that religion is real.

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5 Responses to “Public Education in Faith through Pluralism”

  1. JohnO Says:

    I would think that in addition to history classes, religious issues could be brought up in lit classes. Whether you are reading primary texts from ancient or more contemporary times – even statements issued from interfaith or ecumenical councils – doors could be opened into talking about religion.

    Since you talked quite a bit about the curriculum issue, it doesn’t have to be solved entirely in high school either. Painting in vague strokes, indicating that there are ugly histories and controversies in certain areas without going into them is possible. I would think you could get a lot done without going into very many details. Leaving details and a fuller treatment to a college level course.

    I think we have to approach the problem via the solution. We need people to understand how to talk about religion, and to treat the subject and one another with respect whilst discussing. That doesn’t mean that *everyone* needs to know all the details. The stratification of education is a constant, lets not fight it, but recognize it. Allowing those who go on to college to get more details and nuance – while building up a base in high school, in order that those who don’t get the college level detail can still be prepared for it: whether or not they hear that through some media outlet or their college-bound friends.

    I find communication regarding religion – even within religious boundaries – to be terribly difficult. The lack of any common base on which to approach the issues of religion (in my case with respect to method) undermines any ability to communicate effectively.

  2. Josh Says:

    I really like this discussion, and I think it hits all of they key issues for teaching and cultivating generations of tolerant, open-minded world citizens.

    As a historian, though, I would caution against removing religions from their historical context; as I think literature, culture, archeology and even science need to be taught hand-in-hand with history, religion does, too. Just to illustrate from your examples, Henry did start a religious revolution, but that wasn’t the only reason he broke with the Pope–especially in that he was considered the defender of Catholicism at points in his life; and if you look at who left on crusade, it was largely second and third sons who had no prospects to inherit. In both cases religion played a large role, but not the only one and both need to be recognized.

    As a side note, the title of the book on religion and democracy reminded me of a talk given here by Hugh Bowden of King’s College a few months ago. One of his projects has been re-evaluating Classical Athens not as an enlightened secular democracy, but as a fundamental religious democracy wherein the will of oi polloi (the many, or mob), was shaped by religious practice and portend, with a healthy dose of manipulation and interpretation by orators.

  3. JohnO Says:

    Josh,

    I entirely agree that any treatment of religion or religious work must be grounded in its history. That said, a history class wouldn’t need to spend time on any literary works of religions if lit classes did that heavy lifting. Just a suggestion to spread the load.

    “Bible as Lit” classes have always scared me since they tend not to address the “Whose Literature” issue.

  4. Dilara Hafiz Says:

    Hi Meg – just spotted this post – are you currently w/ Harvard’s Pluralism Project? I had the pleasure of sitting next to Prof. Diana Eck last year at the AZ Interfaith Movement’s langaar (Sikh event) – small world!

    Glad you agreed w/ the premise of my article- basic religious literacy is vital these days.

  5. beauty Says:

    I hardly create responses, however i did a few searching
    and wound up here Public Education in Faith through Pluralism
    | Engaging Religious Pluralism. And I do have 2 questions for you if it’s allright. Could it be only me or does it look as if like a few of the comments come across like they are coming from brain dead people? 😛 And, if you are posting on additional online social sites, I’d
    like to follow anything fresh you have to post.

    Could you make a list of the complete urls of all your shared sites
    like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

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