Teaching Religion; Proper Way of Doing It Is Question

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 4, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Teaching Religion; Proper Way of Doing It Is Question

Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Charles Haynes began studying in the mid-1980s how religion is taught in public schools nationwide.

Mr. Haynes, now a senior scholar with the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, says the results troubled him.

Religion was "neglected" in most textbooks, he says, adding many educators wondered if religion should be brought up at all in the classroom.

Today, the educational climate is much more open to religion's role in education.

"There has been a sea change in how public education deals with religion and the curriculum," Mr. Haynes says. The movement changed gears from a question of " 'Should we be teaching about religion' to 'How do we do it.'"

"It's been a quiet revolution, frankly," he says. "It doesn't mean we now have fairness in the curriculum ... but we made some substantial progress."

Teaching religion in public schools may always be problematic, from overzealous teachers unconsciously pushing their own beliefs to the recent Southern California case where San Luis Obispo middle school students took pretend pilgrimages to Mecca to learn about Islam.

Many educators, however, agree teaching history, culture and other crucial topics isn't complete without a religious context.

Mr. Haynes says his nonpartisan group, dedicated to First Amendment issues such as freedom of press and religion, recently completed a study along with the Council on Islamic Education. The study found social studies standards in various states treated religion generously, incorporating the subject in classroom teaching when appropriate in matters of history, civics and, to a surprising degree, geography.

"Wherever kids are learning about history ... they need to learn that religion is part of that," he says.

The standards created by the respective school districts regarding how religion is introduced aren't perfect, Mr. Haynes says.

"After 1800, it's as though religion drops off the face of the Earth," he says of how many standards ignore religious matters post-18th century. "It's a little better with U.S. history, but after the Civil War, there is not much about religion.

"It suggests religion is something people used to believe in a long time ago, [but] that it has no relevance in the modern world," Mr. Haynes says.

He calls the lack of religious material incorporated within economic discussions "a mistake."

Religion wasn't always a tough sell in the classroom.

Dewey Wallace, professor of religion at George Washington University, says Christian-based religious materials found their way into many American classrooms during the 19th century.

"As the nation became more secularized, that kind of thing was more difficult to do," Mr. Wallace says.

Only in the last generation, though, has the prospect of religious materials being covered in class become overly contentious, he says.

Part of that perception stems from a handful of incidents.

"From time to time, what creeps in looks like it's religious indoctrination," Mr. Wallace says. That doesn't have to be the case, he says. "It's a fine line ... to recognize the importance of learning about religion and avoiding indoctrination."

That, he says, doesn't mean the line shouldn't be approached.

"You can't understand culture without religion," he says flatly.

While Mr. Haynes says progress on teaching religion from a purely academic standpoint is considerable, a key factor holding it back is the dearth of teachers prepared to handle such delicate material.

Mynga Futrell, a Sacramento, Calif.-based educator and co-founder of www.teachingaboutreligion. org, agrees. Ms. Futrell doesn't blame the teachers. They simply haven't been taught how to do so, she argues.

"There is not a good preparation program," she says. "Teachers are operating by the seat of their pants when they do this .

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