Teaching About Religion

As more state governments try to influence what local public schools actually teach, curriculum reform has picked up speed.

That's opened a door for more teaching about religion (rather than teaching religion).

Many teachers, administrators, and parents, however, are understandably leery of stepping over a constitutional line. One false comment about a religion by a teacher can create a public furor or a legal case.

Those fears shouldn't prevent a clearer understanding of the importance of religion in history and in today's culture. Too many schools keep their teaching to safe cases where religion clearly influenced history, such as the Holy Roman Empire or the Pilgrim voyage to America.

As the US becomes more religiously diverse and many international events faith-driven, high school graduates must know more about the symbols, practices, and concepts of various religions.

A new study, sponsored jointly by the First Amendment Center and the Council on Islamic Education, took a hard look at how each state is using several professional educational guidelines on teaching about religion.

The study points out that most of these standards, such as those put out by the National Council for Social Studies and the National Standards for History, encourage the inclusion of religion in courses. State standards, which are the ones that most affect instruction, typically rely heavily on the proposed national standards.

Sometimes the standards are not clear on controversial teachings about the role of religion. Should the Scopes trial be included in a survey of early 20th-century American history for high-schoolers? Should discussions of religious diversity in America, or the world, delve into the distinctions between different religious teachings?

Or should religious values be given an airing in increasingly popular classes on character education?

Educational reform in general has created fresh opportunities to implement the best of the national standards. "Despite religion's secure place in state and national standards, it is possible to conclude that teaching about religion in US public-school social studies programs is in fact limited, and it is questionable whether the topic is being pursued with much seriousness or depth."

Much depends on the skills of teachers. There aren't always easy lines to draw, but more teachers and schools should rise to the challenge.

The best way to safeguard religious liberty is to raise public understanding of other religions.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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