on August 18th 2015
Genres: Religion, Education, Multicultural Education, Philosophy & Social Aspects
An intimate cross-country look at the new debate over religion in the public schools A suburban Boston school unwittingly started a firestorm of controversy over a sixth-grade field trip. The class was visiting a mosque to learn about world religions when a handful of boys, unnoticed by their teachers, joined the line of worshippers and acted out the motions of the Muslim call to prayer. A video of the prayer went viral with the title “Wellesley, Massachusetts Public School Students Learn to Pray to Allah.” Charges flew that the school exposed the children to Muslims who intended to convert American schoolchildren. Wellesley school officials defended the course, but also acknowledged the delicate dance teachers must perform when dealing with religion in the classroom.
Courts long ago banned public school teachers from preaching of any kind. But the question remains: How much should schools teach about the world’s religions? Answering that question in recent decades has pitted schools against their communities.
Veteran education journalist Linda K. Wertheimer spent months with that class, and traveled to other communities around the nation, listening to voices on all sides of the controversy, including those of clergy, teachers, children, and parents who are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Sikh, or atheist. In Lumberton, Texas, nearly a hundred people filled a school-board meeting to protest a teacher’s dress-up exercise that allowed freshman girls to try on a burka as part of a lesson on Islam. In Wichita, Kansas, a Messianic Jewish family’s opposition to a bulletin-board display about Islam in an elementary school led to such upheaval that the school had to hire extra security. Across the country, parents have requested that their children be excused from lessons on Hinduism and Judaism out of fear they will shy away from their own faiths.
But in Modesto, a city in the heart of California’s Bible Belt, teachers have avoided problems since 2000, when the school system began requiring all high school freshmen to take a world religions course. Students receive comprehensive lessons on the three major world religions, as well as on Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and often Shintoism, Taoism, and Confucianism. One Pentecostal Christian girl, terrified by “idols,” including a six-inch gold Buddha, learned to be comfortable with other students’ beliefs.
Wertheimer’s fascinating investigation, which includes a return to her rural Ohio school, which once ran weekly Christian Bible classes, reveals a public education system struggling to find the right path forward and offers a promising roadmap for raising a new generation of religiously literate Americans.
You know this book was hitting all kinds of hot button issues for me. I read parts of it out loud to the husband. He couldn’t understand why I get so mad about people assuming everyone is Christian and people trying to use public schools to target kids for Christianity. “You act like there is some kind of conspiracy.”
“Yes! That’s it! There is a conspiracy and I know there is one because I was once on the inside.”
I get all sorts of angry about people who assume that everyone around them is Christian so they think it is ok to have public Christian prayers. These are the same people who would lose their minds if a public Hindu or Muslim prayer was offered.
I don’t understand people who think that the faith that they have taught their children is so weak that just learning about the origins of another religion will cause their children to convert.
Most of the controversies in the book are based on anti-Muslim feelings. What reasonable person would object to kids learning the basic facts about Islam when so much of the news today concerns Islam? Apparently lots of people object violently.
There is also a lot of anger about people who want to treat Christianity like any other religion. How dare they? Taking away Christianity’s privileged position is not persecution. It is fairness but people who are told over and over that they will be oppressed because of their faith see it as proof that their pastors are correct.
When the author talks to the kids who have taken these courses she finds that they are very supportive of them. It is the adults relying on hearsay who are losing their minds. I think kids need to know the basics of different faiths in order to understand history (the crusades, Pilgrims, Ghandi), literature (Moby Dick’s religious allusions, The Scarlet Letter), and current events (ISIS, is that person Sikh or Hindu). Maybe it is too much to expect that people can think rationally about this. Maybe these courses will raise a new generation who might be able to think calmly about religion?