Separation of Church and Sense

by Robert Pondiscio
January 4th, 2011

You may have missed it in the hours before Christmas, but Andy “Eduwonk” Rotherham delivered an important column at TIME on “The Real War on Christmas.”  It’s not the push to secularize Christmas in public schools, as annually portrayed by fevered cable TV news hosts that should trouble us, Rotherham notes.  The larger problem, he points out, is that public schools are skittish about teaching much of anything about religion at all. 

“Although there is little hard data, the consensus among those who study the issue is that to the extent world religions are taught, they are treated superficially, usually with the help of just a few textbook pages that have been heavily sanitized to avoid even the hint of controversy. And that’s not good news if you believe a working knowledge of the world’s religions and their history is an important aspect of a well-rounded education.”

Or a “well-informed citizen,” he might also have added.

Andy is on the money with this.  School teachers are notoriously gunshy about talking about religion, which leaves students ill-prepared for the globalized world, poorly equipped to understand basics of history and geography, and lacking critical background knowledge to make sense of current events at home and abroad.  “It’s hard to understand many contemporary issues without knowing religious history and the tenets of the world’s major faiths,” Rotherham observes.

That said, it’s not hard to see how some schools and teachers might come honestly by their reluctance to teach religion, when some are quick to confuse proselytizing and learning about religion. In the comments section following Andy’s piece, the husband of a kindergarten teacher describes the reaction of parents of her students who were upset with her teaching Kwanzaa, “which they said is a made up holiday…That family decided to send in pictures of Jesus for their daughter to color while the rest of the class was learning about other world holidays.”  Teachers’ own knowledge of religion—or lack thereof—is another pitfall.  Too many are ill-equipped to teach much of value about the world’s major religions, even at an elementary level. 

As a driving force in shaping civilizations and cultures, knowledge of world religions is essential and indispensable.


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  3. Rotherham is right on this one. Charles Haynes has written extensively on the subject, too–a familiar one to music teachers. Since a large percentage of music–especially music written before recording and broadcast–stems from sacred purposes, it’s hard to teach musical masterworks without including religion. Here’s another take:

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — January 4, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

  4. Did you hear about the recent poll (by Pew, I think) that showed that most American Christians know little about their own faith, much less others? Athiests were the best informed about religion.

    Comment by Ben F — January 4, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

  5. Stephen Prothero of BU wrote an excellent book on the lack of religious literacy among Americans. The problem is that it’s such a “hot button” topic that it’s difficult to teach it in a way that doesn’t upset someone. Look at all the controversy over the Biblical Literacy Project. That has come under fire from both conservatives and liberals.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — January 4, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

  6. In California, seventh graders are supposed to learn about the origins and basic beliefs of Islam; the split between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches; the power, glory and shame of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages; the Reformation; the Counter-Reformation; and the splintering of Protestant denominations. I say “supposed to” because history tends to get short shrift in the ubiquitous “core” (language arts/history combo classes). And even if the teacher does try to teach the history, reliance on the lame textbooks will leave but a wan impression on kids’ minds.

    Comment by Ben F — January 4, 2011 @ 11:38 pm

  7. Well, I’m glad someone is concerned about some aspect of teacher preparation. Where were they when teachers were REQUIRED to teach math and science with maybe a couple hours of each in their own curriculum?

    Comment by ewaldoh — January 5, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

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