Schools Tackle Lessons on Religion Some World History Texts for Elementary Grades Now Teach about Different Religious Beliefs
Laura Van Tuyl, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 schools.
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 another.
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. …