Why Public Schools Should Teach Kids About Religion

First-grade teacher Deborah Fagg giving a lesson on world religions at the Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School in Wichita, Kansas during fall semester 2013. (Linda K. Wertheimer/Courtesy of Linda K. Wertheimer)
First-grade teacher Deborah Fagg giving a lesson on world religions at the Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School in Wichita, Kansas during fall semester 2013. (Linda K. Wertheimer/Courtesy of Linda K. Wertheimer)

If we want kids to understand their world, they need to know the basics about different faith traditions.

The day Jesus entered my fourth-grade classroom, my childhood forever changed.

It was 1974, and my family had just moved from western New York state to rural Ohio. I was the new kid, and all I wanted was to fit in. But one afternoon that first week, a woman hired by local churches walked into my public-school classroom and my regular teacher left. She stuck figures of Jesus Christ and his disciples on a flannel board, told us how Jesus could solve people’s problems and, a little while later, asked us all to sing the hymn, “Jesus Loves Me.”

Here’s the thing: I’m Jewish.

I didn’t know the song and I didn’t believe in Jesus. I told my parents and they complained to the school, but the agreed-upon resolution was excusing me from this weekly religious instruction. My brothers and I were the only Jewish kids in the school system, and every week when it came time for religion class, my 11-year-old brother and I were, effectively, banished by our classroom teachers.

That was roughly 40 years ago, and if this sort of proselytizing were the norm today, I’d certainly understand why many parents remain skittish about outsourcing the teaching of basics about different religions to the public schools. But if anything, when disputes arise over teaching about religion as part of public school curriculum, educators wind up getting the message that they might be better off playing it safe and shying away from the subject, even at a moment when it’s critical that children are equipped with an understanding of various religions and the role they play in today’s world — particularly the religion that’s so often misunderstood: Islam.

Take the example of Wellesley Middle School in suburban Boston. In the fall of 2010, a parent chaperone, concerned about a sixth-grade field trip to a local mosque, videotaped a handful of students who appeared to kneel and pray in a line of male worshippers. The kids were only copying what they saw, but critics said the kids were effectively learning to “pray to Allah.”

The idea of children praying in a mosque on a school-sponsored trip raised fears that the program was forcing religion on unsuspecting children. And the school system rightly acknowledged that the boys shouldn’t have wound up participating in the prayer — they should have only observed. But for more than a decade, Wellesley has been getting it right when it comes to teaching about religion, and the school’s detractors have come primarily from outside of the district. Most Wellesley parents I interviewed around the time of the incident appreciated that their 11- and 12-year-olds spent a semester learning about Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.

Every year at Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School in Wichita, Kansas, first graders learn about Judaism, Christianity and Islam over the course of several weeks — a curriculum the school has stood by, in spite of a misunderstanding two years ago about a bulletin board that illustrated the Five Pillars of Islam.

On occasion, yes, schools get into public messes over where the line is drawn between church and state — like recent reports of a “mass baptism” taking place on campus prior to a Georgia high school’s football practice.

But in my travels around the country reporting for my book, “Faith Ed.: Teaching About Religion in An Age of Intolerance,” I didn’t see teachers trying to preach Christianity — or any — faith. I saw educators trying to provide kids with facts about the histories and practices of  world religions, including faiths about which few students knew anything.

And the takeaway isn’t that there’s a danger our schools will veer toward religious indoctrination. It’s that schools should do more to give religion a firm place in the curriculum, beginning as early as the elementary grades. That way, kids will be prepared, as they grow, to evaluate what they see every night on cable TV based on real information, rather than a set of stereotypes.

They should know the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Islam — not as a perfunctory nod to diversity, but because they’ll be able to better form opinions about the Middle East conflicts that dominate the news. They should know the difference between Sikhism and Hinduism, considering that those are the respective religions of the last two prime ministers of India — the world’s largest democracy. They should have a historical perspective on the differences between Catholicism and Protestant denominations when the pope visits their country, as he’s doing this month. It’s problematic, as Texas State University’s Joseph Laycock notes, to wait for college to teach religion as a subject, because “many Americans never have the opportunity to go to college.”

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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Linda Wertheimer

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