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.
by Robert Pondiscio
November 28th, 2009
The ACLU is suing Florida’s Alachua County School District alleging students’ free speech has been “unlawfully censored.” The Orlando Sentinal reports several children were suspended or threatened with suspension for “wearing tee shirts promoting their religious beliefs about Christianity and Islam in school and at school events earlier this school year.”
Initially, students went to school wearing shirts with “Jesus answered ‘I am the way and the truth and the life; no one goes to the Father except through me’” and “I stand with Dove World Outreach Center” on the front and “Islam is of the Devil” on the back. The same phrase was displayed on a billboard at the students’ church, Dove World Outreach Center, prior to the beginning of the school year.
“The message on the t-shirts is an unfortunate expression of religious intolerance, but the School Board’s policy of banning any message that are ‘offensive to others’ or ‘inappropriate,’ unfortunately draws the line in a way that unconstitutionally prohibits freedom of speech,” the ACLU’s Howard Simon tells the paper.
A controversy over teaching about Islam is also roiling a New Jersey school district, where parents of some 6th graders are objecting to the school district’s social studies curriculum and a book used to teach them about Muslim culture and Islam. At issue is an assignment asking students to “create a mini-Quran.” A story about the controversy in the Hunterdon County Democrat is short on specifics. (What is the book parents are objecting to? How does the assignment cross the line to indoctrination, as some parents allege?) Several alarming reader comments follow the piece, including one who writes we should ”hunt every last one of the 1.5 billion muslims in this world down like dogs and eliminate them, in the name of Christ.” Such comments are by themselves a compelling argument for why kids might need a strong body of factual knowledge about world religions–and a healthy grounding in the American tradition of religious tolerance.
by Robert Pondiscio
July 15th, 2009
The persistent battles over school curriculum in Texas have turned into a debate over how much faith belongs in American history classrooms. It’s an unhelpful development for anyone who wants to see kids get more history in school.
The Texas Board of Education is revising the state’s social studies curriculum, the Wall Street Journal reports. “Three reviewers, appointed by social conservatives, have recommended revamping the K-12 curriculum to emphasize the roles of the Bible, the Christian faith and the civic virtue of religion in the study of American history” reporter Stephanie Simon notes.
The conservative reviewers say they believe that children must learn that America’s founding principles are biblical. For instance, they say the separation of powers set forth in the Constitution stems from a scriptural understanding of man’s fall and inherent sinfulness, or “radical depravity,” which means he can be governed only by an intricate system of checks and balances. The curriculum, they say, should clearly present Christianity as an overall force for good — and a key reason for American exceptionalism, the notion that the country stands above and apart.
Simon has more to say on the WSJ blog The Juggle, describing history class as “a new front [that] has opened in the curriculum culture wars.” If so, it’s a most unwelcome and unhelpful one. Core curriculum is already starved for oxygen in too many schools. Fear that history is a stalking horse for religious instruction offers one more reason to downplay its importance, eliminate it from the school day, or reduce it to mere pabulum, as one commenter observes:
At this point, I don’t even care about the culture wars any more. I just wish the schools would teach a lot more history. My kids get so little history, and what they do get is mainly in the form of little nuggets of usually incorrect information. They do Columbus in October, Thanksgiving in November (and yes, they do mention God, and the kids color some pictures of Indians, usually in completely wrong attire, and that is about it). In January they learn that “Martin Luther King was a great man who got everybody together.” No mention of Jim Crow, no mention of civil disobediance, no mention of slavery. It is horrifying. My son just finished third grade and doesn’t know about slavery or the Civil War. What sense does Martin Luther King make if you don’t know about slavery? My sense is that the schools here are so scared they might offend someone, both conservatives and liberals, that they just don’t teach anything at all.”
Hard to disagree with that common sense perspective. And even harder to see how emphasizing the “Christian character” of the U.S. is going to make secular teachers–or parents–more enthusiastic about teaching history. It’s just what the effort to beef up core curriculum doesn’t need–turning history into the next “intelligent design” debate.