SIXTH graders in Newark, N.J., will find an addition to the
standard subjects of their world history books this year: God.
Along with facts about Alexander the Great and the fall of Rome
are lessons on the Ten Commandments, the parables of Jesus, the
teachings of Confucius, and the tenets of Buddhism.
Religion is back in the classroom. In a growing number of
states, school board officials and curriculum advisers are calling
for - and in some cases requiring - that history lessons, which
typically begin in the fifth grade, include descriptions of major
religions and religion's role in shaping history. Public schools in
Newark, for example, have adopted history texts that discuss sacred
Hindu law as well as the journeys of St. Paul.
"It's an issue whose time has come," says Beverly Armento,
professor of social studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta
and co-author of Newark's books, published by the Houghton Mifflin
Company. By omitting religion or "glossing over" it, "we've
presented a distorted view" of history, she says.
Strained euphemisms and odd historical gaps can be found in
textbooks of the past, educators say. One Alabama book, for
instance, defines the Pilgrims merely as "people who make long
trips." Others avoid mentioning that the Pilgrims' celebration of
Thanksgiving was to thank God, that religion played a key role in
the abolition of slavery in America, or that Martin Luther King Jr.
was a minister.
"It alienates many citizens to think they're being deliberately
written out of history. There's no reason why religious issues
can't be talked about," says Charles Haynes, executive director of
the First Liberty Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax,
Va. The institute, made up of educational and religious groups,
provides guidelines and resources on religious curriculum to
Many teachers and school officials took the Supreme Court
decisions of the 1960s, which banned school prayer and devotional
Bible-reading, to mean that all forms of religious study were
illegal, Mr. Haynes says. While indoctrination is forbidden by the
First Amendment, teaching about religion is not, the Court stated.
Pressure from parents and teachers to address this issue has
been building over the last five years, Haynes says. Several
states, such as North Carolina, Utah, California, and Georgia, have
endorsed plans to teach religion in public schools. Houghton
Mifflin's initiative, not without its critics, is one publisher's
attempt to ride the trend. Other publishers, such as Scholastic
Inc. and Macmillan Publishing Co., have produced books that include
religion as well.
"It's part of the multicultural movement," Haynes adds. "The
recognition of growing diversity requires that we change how we
educate our citizens. If we're going to live together, we're going
to have to learn about each other."
While a consensus has formed among educators that religion is
indeed a legitimate subject for elementary and middle-school
grades, exactly how to teach religion is far from settled. Anxiety
abounds over the potential for lawsuits and whether teachers know
how to avoid indoctrinating students or favoring one religion over
TEACHERS face "potential land mines," says Jackie Berman,
education specialist of the Jewish Community Relations Council of
the San Francisco Bay Area. Ms. Berman shares an example. One
teacher, betraying her own bias, said that explaining the origin of
religion to students is easy: Since human beings couldn't
understand nature or natural occurrences, they devised religious
beliefs that would explain them.
"That would be extremely offensive to anyone who believes in
Truth with a capital 'T, Berman says. …