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Joe Perna Dr. Daly EDST 3604AA 12/10/11 Religion in the Social Studies Curriculum The United States is widely praised for its First Amendment guaranteeing religious freedom. For many it is a “city on a hill” of free religious expression and a refuge against faithbased persecution. Yet America is no stranger to religious controversy. From its very settlement by religious separatists to the modern social studies curriculum, religious disputes are a mainstay in the United States. One dilemma facing public schools is that while teachers and students retain their First Amendment right to religious freedom, the public schools, a government agency in a nation without an officially pronounced faith, cannot endorse any religion(s). Thus, it seems wise to shun religion in schools and avoid the potential dangers of proselytizing or advocating for a certain faith. The other dilemma is the sheer diversity of religious practice of modern Americans. Should teachers and students leave their faith at the school doors in fear of offending others who hold different beliefs? How can religion be presented in the social studies classroom without it crystallizing students and teachers over their differences? Are there any helpful guidelines for teaching religion in social studies? Thankfully, I have found helpful answers and approaches to these questions through my own experience in education and inquiry into this issue. There are several approaches to teaching religion in public schools. The “traditional” method calls for religious acculturation. It aims to establish one particular majority religion that influences the practices and policies of the school. This view pervaded the first social studies curriculum established by the Committees of Ten and Seven in the late 19th century. This curriculum favored teaching religious history to students in order to acculturate them to the larger American Christian culture while instilling virtue and good citizenship (Evans 5, 8). This 1


approach continues to some extent in religiously homogeneous areas. The opposite approach to such religious acculturation consists of making schools religion-free zones (Bible in School). This movement is more recent and is a reaction to America’s increasingly diverse religious practices. It attempts to avoid the potential religious controversies in the classroom by vacating the subject from the schools entirely. It interprets America’s separation of church and state very strictly. Both of these approaches have been rightfully scrutinized. There are several criticisms of the religious acculturation view. The first is that no faith should be preferred or should influence school policy in a nation with no official religion. Although this seems more apparent in today’s multicultural society, it should be noted that from its genesis the United States has always contained a plethora of religious denominations. Even when Christianity was openly preferred by the schools, its members clashed on certain issues. For instance, in the 19th century Catholics and Protestants argued over which version of the Bible should be read in schools (Bible in School). Even excluding Catholicism, Christianity in America contains a host of different Protestant denominations. Thus, other religions are likely to feel alienated in such a setting where one is officially preferred. There is additional concern for students in such environments. There is fear of religious indoctrination at the hands of teachers who could use their authoritative position in the classroom to promote their faith (cf. Breen v. Runkel, 1985 and Fink v. Board of Education, 1982). In this way teachers replace the role of the parent and or private religious school to transmit faith to youth. Students with minority religious views are more likely to become pariahs in such an environment. Some students are more susceptible to pressure and religious coercion while the minority views of orthodox or atheist students are more likely to be disregarded (Religion in the Public Schools). It is hard for schools to make all their students feel welcome in such a setting. 2


In turn, a backlash exists with a vision that models religion-free schools. They are considered potentially detrimental to an American culture rooted in Judeo-Christian values. A school without religion indirectly conveys the message that it is not important (Hudson). Some fear that without the guiding moral principles from religion, public schools are sowing potential seeds of hyperbolic cultural relativism and skepticism. Without a sense of any common religious heritage, American students may become increasingly divided. Another concern is the loss of First Amendment individual religious liberties in such schools. The faith and beliefs of some Americans is their preeminent value. Yet religion-free school zones seem to go too far in muzzling all religious expression. Nothing against the First Amendment speaks against private religious expression of students (Student Religious Practices). As government employees, teachers also have the right to address the topic with their co-workers. Yet the latter and even some students have hesitated expressing their views on the topic in fear of violating church and state and generating establishment-clause lawsuits (Hudson). Religious indifferentism seems the only freedom students and teachers can exercise in such a setting. Fortunately the shortcomings of the religious acculturation and religion-free schools have been compensated by a more moderate approach. This method attempts to affirm and model American principles on religion. It does not violate the First Amendment religious rights of students and teachers by ordering them to suppress their views. It does not inculcate a certain religion and thereby narrow religious freedom. Instead this moderate approach calls students to protect and value the religious views of its teachers and students (Bible in School). Topics about religion are addressed openly with the hope that certain stereotypes and prejudices will be replaced by respect (Teaching About Religion). Various religious traditions can be cited to affirm basic moral principles such as individual rights and the inherent dignity of all persons. 3


Religion is not divorced from social studies but instead is taught as a very important part of human history and culture. It ensures that religion, something uniquely human, has a rightful place in the humanities courses. It warns that, “All public school teachers must have a clear understanding of the crucial difference between the teaching of religion (religious education) and teaching about religion” (Teaching About Religion). In other words, schools are encouraged to take an academic, not devotional approach when teaching about religion and inform students without forcing them to accept a certain faith (Teaching About Religion). In this manner students are exposed to religion without violation of their own religious integrity. Yet one must consider the purpose of teaching religion in the social studies classroom. The NCSS declares, “Knowledge about religions is not only a characteristic of an educated person but is absolutely necessary for understanding and living in a world of diversity” (Study About Religions). Thus, the study of religion in the social studies should aim to give students a better understanding and appreciation of their world. Religion has influenced the architecture, art, culture, history, law, literature, morality, and sociology of countless societies while continuing to shape current events and the contemporary world (Bible in School). It also influences the actions and behavior of individuals, institutions, groups, and nations (Study About Religions). Thus, it is difficult to accurately interpret the past and make predictions about the future if one lacks knowledge of the world’s religions. What can be said about the purpose of the Egyptian pyramids, the Crusades, the exploration of the Americas, and the Holocaust if religion is divorced from the social studies? How can students better understand modern developments like the War on Terror and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without religious background knowledge? Another important reason to teach religion is to promote understanding and overcome prejudice in a pluralistic world (Study About Religions). Oftentimes resentment of 4


other religions germinates out of ignorance and misunderstanding. Thus, the proper study of religion in social studies can help produced informed and responsible citizens. Thankfully this moderate approach to teaching religion in the classroom is supported at the legal, political, and educational level. Legally, this can be traced in part to the results of Abington vs. Schempp (1963) where the Supreme Court ruled that the study about religions is legal and desirable in the public schools. Politically, presidents have taken measures supporting the teaching about religion in the curriculum. In 1995 Bill Clinton stated, “Nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones, or requires all religious expression to be left behind at the schoolhouse door,� while in 2003 George W. Bush threatened to cut federal funding for schools that refuse to meet the religious needs of their students (Student Religious Practices). In educational terms, the NCSS includes religion as one of the many necessary sub-topics of the social studies that need be included in the curriculum (Evans 164-165). At the state level, the NJ Core Curriculum Standards include the topic of religion in social studies. The current curriculum encourages students to determine the role of religion in shaping certain events such as the Crusades (6.2.8.D.4.d), European exploration of America (6.1.8.c.1.a), and the establishment of the U.S. Constitution (6.1.4.A.2). Students are also called to examine the religiosity of ancient civilizations (6.2.8.D.2.a), medieval civilizations (6.2.8.D.4.6), and Native Americans (6.1.8.D.1.a). Such an approach encourages teaching religion in an objective, non-devotional manner. All that remains is the proper presentation of the material by the teacher. Religion lends itself to controversy even when taught objectively in the classroom. With this in mind, social studies teachers should take several precautions before teaching religion in the classroom. Teachers should first consider their own potential bias when delivering a topic on 5


religion. They may interpret an event or trends differently than someone of a different faith. Thus, they should speculate how a teacher with a different religious would present the information to students. Teachers should also take note of their settings. What are the religious standpoints of students and the larger community of the district? This will help an educator gauge the potential controversy behind certain religious topics. There are also several tangible steps to prepare teachers before they cover a potentially controversial topic in religion. One step entails finding out whether or not the school has an official academic freedom policy (Ochoa-Becker 331). The lesson should be modified to it if needed. If this is not enough, it is highly recommended that teachers inform the principle or administration about their lesson and seek their approval. It is wise to document the purpose and rationale behind the lesson in case administrators and parents challenge it (Ochoa-Becker 331). Another helpful measure is to ensure parental consent of the lesson by requiring their permission beforehand. Teachers should be prepared with alternate assignments for parents who refuse their children’s participation in the lesson (Ochoa-Becker 331). Educators put themselves in a better position to deliver a thoughtful lesson and avoid controversy when taking these steps prior to teaching about religion in the classroom. Social studies teachers should follow several guidelines when teaching about religion. They revolve around the “Three Rs� of rights, responsibility, and respect (Teaching About Religion). The religious beliefs of students must be affirmed and respected in the classroom when learning about religion. Teachers should emphasize that religious liberty is one of the essential freedoms of American democracy (Religion in the Public Schools). Students should know they have the right to practice the religion of their choice without coercion. They should

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not be pressured to explain or justify their beliefs. Teachers cannot advocate for or denigrate a religion. Educators should promote higher level learning among their students when studying religion. They should seek to generate student critical thinking, reading, and questioning about the way religion has influenced history, culture, the arts, and contemporary issues (Study About Religions). Students should not examine religion in a vacuum. They should inquire how this topic is interrelated with economic, political, and social institutions. Teachers must respect each religion by presenting them accurately, fairly, and in a neutral manner (Study About Religions). Students should not learn about religion in passing or fragmentally. A balanced presentation of a religion should shed light on its “beginnings, historical development, sacred writings, beliefs, practices, and impact on history, (and) culture” (Study About Religions). Students should learn about majority and minority religions in a manner that promotes tolerance and respect needed in a pluralistic society (Religion in the Public Schools). The “Three Rs” helps educators avoid the many thorny controversies surrounding the discussion of religion in the classroom. My college education, field experiences, and years in high school have all in some way dealt with the issue of religion in public schools. Through it all I have seen the proper use and abuse of religion in the classroom. Fortunately my courses in education have allowed me to think theoretically on the topic. In EDST 1501, I indirectly addressed this topic through my writings on the Perennialist framework in a philosophy of education paper. I considered to what extent schools should develop the moral character of students and what role religion plays in doing so. This issue was relevant to the paper I wrote in EDST 2501on the history of the social studies discipline. That paper covered the changes and continuity of the social studies curriculum which addressed the role religion played in it. EDST 3604 additionally raised issues relevant to 7


the role of religion in the public schools such as the direction of the social studies curriculum and academic freedom. It encouraged me to explore NCSS publications and relevant websites like The First Amendment Center that provide quality information on the topic. Several of my other college courses have dealt with the topic of religion. Although Seton Hall is a Catholic university, some of the way religion was discussed in my college classes could be appropriate for use in public schools. One example of this is reading religious texts like the Bible in a genealogical or anthropological manner. The account in Genesis where Abraham begets Ishmael through Hagar and later Isaac through Sarah was read in one of my college classes that covered the relationship between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Bible shows how the three monotheistic faiths are traced to a common ancestor, Abraham. This could be a good lesson to use before discussing historical events like the Crusades. It can show that although these three religions clashed, they have more in common than most think. Perhaps this can foster inter-faith respect and understanding especially for Islam since the 9-11 attacks. Some in America view Islam as an alien religion, however, this type of lesson shows how it is indeed a “Western” faith with a direct relation to Judaism and Christianity. Another one of my classes read the writings of the renowned French scholar, Rene Girard, who studies the Bible anthropologically. Very briefly, Girard concludes that the Bible counters societal violence by defending the victimized whereas classical myths justify societal violence against communal scapegoats (Girard 1-3). This can be a useful source when considering modern society’s political correctness and concern for the victimized, the elderly, the handicapped, and minorities that was largely foreign to ancient pagan civilizations. This is one way to show the relevance of the biblical tradition in influencing the modern world. This type of genealogical and anthropological reading of religious texts is appropriate in schools. Teachers 8


should remind students that people of faith read these sacred texts in a devotional manner but for the purpose of school they will be read from a purely academic approach. During my time as a student, intern and substitute teacher at a public high school, I have experienced the richness of religion in the classroom. As a senior in high school, I wrote a research paper on the rapid expansion of Islam into Africa, Asia, and Europe in the in the 7th and 8th centuries. My teacher guided me through the research process and provided helpful advice. While doing this I gained a greater appreciation for the religious toleration of Islam. For the most part the early warriors of Islam did not massacre or even force conversion on all Christians who fell under their yoke. This seemed contrary to how some media pundits stereotype Islam as a faith full of fanatical violence lacking any sense of religious toleration. Like any religion, Islam has its fanatic elements but this should by no means degrade the faith as a whole. This is an important lesson for teachers to convey to students. Another enriching social studies lesson I experienced as a student in high school was when my U.S. History teachers handed out an excerpt from Jonathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741). This primary source of a Christian sermon gave the class a better understanding of the Great Awakening of religious fervor that swept through the thirteen colonies in the 18th century. The spirit of the age could not be grasped without the inclusion of religion. It is difficult if not impossible to master the traditional course of U.S. I without an understanding of the important role Christianity played in shaping the nation. As a junior intern, I tried to give a balanced portrayal of the Catholic Church when covering the pre-Revolutionary French Estates System for my observed lesson plan. Too often information students receive on the Second Estate, the Catholic Church, is full of half-truths. Yes Catholicism was privileged as the official religion of France and some of its higher-ranking 9


clergy were quite wealthy and supported the nobility. However, this can lead students into mistakenly concluding that the entire clergy was wealthy and supported the nobility. The majority of clergy were lowly parish priests who lived humble lives while others made vows of poverty. Some French clergy supported the Revolution’s attempt (in its early years) to make France a more egalitarian and thereby Christian society. I conveyed this idea to students by reminding them that simply because all the clergy were in the same estate did not mean they thought alike on all revolutionary initiatives. As a substitute high school teacher, I was surprised to find a primary source of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica on a student’s desk. I initially thought that the distribution of this religious work was a possible violation of the Establishment Clause. However, I took time to read the excerpt and found that despite the many times Aquinas buffers his ideas by citing biblical passages, it was not doctrinal or devotional. It instead was philosophical and was based on his inquiry into whether or not humans have free will. Although this type of reading is highlevel for high school students, it gives them greater insight into the medieval mind. How can good primary sources be found on the Middle Ages if religion cannot make any appearance in school? What understanding of this time period can students gain without some background knowledge on religion? Thus, sources like these are not completely limited to theological study and are therefore potentially valuable in the classroom. Unfortunately I have also seen teacher shortcomings when covering religion in the classroom. In one class an Islamic student was offended by the teacher’s rather irreverent description of the origin of the Quran. A verbal confrontation resulted between the two after class. This incident created an underlying hostility between the student and teacher for the rest of

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the semester. It reminded me that respect must be shown especially when describing a religion’s essential beliefs and or foundational texts. Another instance was during a high school debate on the Crusades. The assignment called for students to debate whether the primary motivation of the Crusades was religious or economic. Students assigned to the economic side referenced the Fourth Crusade and the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 as proof that the Crusades were economically motivated. They made it seem as if there was an official papal document authorizing an expedition to go directly to Constantinople and ransack it. The class had not learned enough about the event for anyone to challenge this claim and the teacher did not interject. Thankfully no hard feelings existed between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox members of the class. Only through later coverage of the event in college did I realize that the Fourth Crusade was far more complicated than the way it was presented in the debate. There are far too many details to cite for the purpose of this paper but it should have been at least announced to us that the sack of Constantinople was rebuked by the pope and that the intended destination of the crusade was the Middle East, not Constantinople. Teachers should present information to students fairly in order to avoid potential religious controversy. The subject of social studies is laden with controversy and college is an ideal time for aspiring history educators to consider them. Religion, a thorny issue outside schools, is also contested in the social studies classroom. Thankfully the two extremes of religious acculturation and religion-free schools have grown increasingly unpopular. In their stead the legal, political, and educational apparatus of the United States has endorsed a moderate approach to studying religion in the public schools. This framework provides teachers with the opportunity to appropriately implement religion in the classroom to enrich the learning experience of students. 11


Yet in order for this to take place teachers should properly prepare ahead of time and follow the “Three Rs” when presenting the lesson by affirming the religious rights of their students and presenting content in a responsible and respectful manner. In this way educators will prepare students to comprehend religion’s influence on history and the contemporary world and respect its different forms found throughout the globe. This will help ensure the creation of a responsible and tolerant citizenry.

Works Cited 12


“Bible in School.” First Amendment Center. 2002. 9 December 2011 http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/bible-in-school. Evans, R.W. The Social Studies Wars: What Should We Teach the Children? New York: Teachers College Press, 2004. Girard, Rene. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. United States: Orbis Books, 2001. Hudson, David, Jr. “Teachers’ Religious Liberties.” First Amendment Center. 2002. 9 December 2011 http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/teachers-religious-liberties. “National Curriculum Standards for the Social Studies: Chapter 2 – The Themes of Social Studies.” National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). 2010. 7 December 2011 http://www.ncss.org/standards/strands . “New Jersey Core Curriculum Standards for Social Studies.” State of New Jersey Department of Education. 2009. 7 December 2011 http://www.state.nj.us/education/cccs/standards/6/6.pdf. Ochoa-Becker, Anna. “A Social Studies Teacher’s Challenge: Thoughts from Experience. 74 (6) (2010): 332-333. “Religion in the Public Schools.” The Anti-Defamation League (ADL). 2011. 8 December 2011 http://www.adl.org/religion_ps_2004/default.asp. “Student Religious Practices.” First Amendment Center. 2002. 9 December 2011 http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/student-religious-practices. “Study About Religions in the Social Studies Curriculum.” National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). 1998. 8 December 2011 http://www.ncss.org/positions/religion “Teaching About Religion.” First Amendment Center. 2002. 9 December 2011. http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/teaching-about-religion.

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