The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What should students know about religion? New guidance on teaching it in public schools.

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Try to guess when this was written:

“In this era of educational reform, the social studies curriculum has been a frequent target of critics representing every point on the political spectrum. While educators argue that history is neglected and traditional values are missing, others contend that the curriculum lacks social relevance and avoids significant public issues. Most agree, however, that religion is not adequately included in the social studies curriculum. They argue that teachers, administrators, school boards, and textbook publishers have tended to strip social studies courses of all but the most bland references to religion as a social force in the past and present. As a result, students are prevented from learning in school about one of the most significant factors in human societies from the prehistoric era to the world today.”

If you had said that it is current, you could be excused, as it reflects prevailing thinking, but, in fact, it was published in 1988, the start of a piece titled “Teaching About Religion in the Social Studies.”

Now, all these years later, the National Council for the Social Studies has attached a supplement to its College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, as noted here by Education Week.  The new section, which is described by its authors as “Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History,” joining sections that provide resources on teaching psychology, sociology and anthropology.

The big problem with what Trump just said about religion in schools

Why now? The introduction to the section — titled Religious Studies Companion Document for the C3 Framework — notes:

“Student inquiry into complex issues — including the dynamic relationships within a religion, between religions, and between religion and secularism — provides a unique environment to learn how to recognize and evaluate assumptions without undermining personal religious identity, to navigate diverse and shifting cultural values, to engage respectfully with diverse neighbors, and to resist common misunderstandings that have negative real-world consequences. These skills are invaluable in a society whose increasingly multicultural schools, workplaces, and local, national, and international public spheres all need informed, critical, and engaged citizens.”

It adds:

“The study of religion from an academic, nondevotional perspective in primary, middle, and secondary school is critical for decreasing religious illiteracy and the bigotry and prejudice it fuels.”

Education Week quoted American Academy of Religion Director Jack Fitzmier as saying in a statement that the timing of the new section “could not be more apt” and that the “rise in religious misunderstanding accompanying global migration, world conflicts, and religious identity politics signifies the need for a renewed focus on the academic study of religion.”

What, then, is a religiously literate person? The American Academy of Religion’s definition says the answer is someone who possesses:

“a basic understanding of the history, central texts (where applicable), beliefs, practices and contemporary manifestations of several of the world’s religious traditions and religious expressions as they arose out of and continue to shape and to be shaped by particular social, historical and cultural contexts; and the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place.”

The newly added section to the framework notes widely accepted guidelines for teaching about religion:

  • The school’s approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
  • The school strives for student awareness of religions, but does not press for student acceptance of any religion.
  • The school sponsors study about religion, not the practice of religion.
  • The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view.
  • The school educates about all religions; it does not promote or denigrate religion.
  • The school informs the students about various beliefs; it does not seek to conform students to any particular belief.

It says that students of religious students “utilize primary and secondary sources to analyze how religious values, interpretations, and expressions both shape and are shaped by individuals and communities.” And, it says, teacher-guided inquiry “will explore how and why some religious individuals and communities gain social and political prominence and influence while others become socially and politically marginalized.”

Here’s one example given of how teachers can address a specific topic: