It’s been a motivator for people like poet Emily Dickinson, Michelangelo and President Abraham Lincoln, yet the topic of religion is short-changed in many public schools.
Scholars nationwide are pressing for public schools to do more, even offer courses on religion.
Many freshmen arrive at college without a basic understanding of world religions, professors say.
Students can’t begin to understand Israel’s wars with its Arab neighbors if they don’t know the history of the Jewish people. Nor can they fully appreciate Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” if they’re unaware of the strict Puritan code of behavior.
“Ignorance about religion is just startling,” said Professor Adam Raley, who teaches the subject at Eastern Washington University. “If you don’t know anything about the Bible, you are culturally impaired in America.”
Raley recently surveyed about 60 students in an introductory religion class at EWU. One-third admitted to knowing nothing about the Bible, its authors or its content.
“The Bible is just full of images, themes and references,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what your beliefs are, the Bible has been a dominant force behind much of literature. And Christian believers have been a dominant force in this country.”
The shame of the matter is that Americans are perhaps the most devout group of people in any industrialized nation, said Whitworth College Religion Professor Jerry Sittser. Yet, their knowledge of religions outside their own is limited.
Students who have no training outside their own Christian denomination tend to have a very limited view of Christianity itself, let alone other world religions, Raley said.
“Americans tend to be much more inclined toward religion, much less informed about religion,” Sittser said.
That may be part of the problem.
Public school officials say religion is a lightning rod for classroom controversy. In a recent example, the American Civil Liberties Union crusaded against a Cheney Middle School teacher who brought in a guest speaker to talk about creation as an alternative theory to evolution.
The teacher was suspended for two days for failing to get prior approval for the speaker.
Devout parents, as well as those with no religious affiliation, are likely to raise questions if they hear their children talking about religion being taught, administrators say.
“There is probably more than necessary caution,” said Joan Kingrey, assistant superintendent at the Mead School District. “But there’s good reason for that. Teachers don’t want to be accused of religious teaching.”
School administrators say they must balance the cultural demands of communities with students’ academic needs.
“That controversy is indicative of the different people that we have in our country, the different beliefs we have, and all of these people coming to the melting pot called education,” said Judy Drake, Coeur d’Alene School District’s director of secondary education.
“We are servants of the public and we need to remember that they pay our salaries.”
However, Drake said, that is no excuse for shying away from certain topics. She emphasized teachers must pick and choose their subjects with care.
Few, if any, public high schools in Eastern Washington or North Idaho offer specific courses like the history of religion or the Bible as literature. Humanities, English and history teachers, however, all have ample opportunity to discuss religion.
How much religion a public school student learns varies from teacher to teacher and school to school.
West Valley humanities teacher Nancy Cartwright finds religion inseparable from her course work. Her class textbook includes excerpts from the Koran, the Tao, the Bible and other holy scriptures.
Religion becomes almost a daily discussion as she teaches on topics as varied as the artwork of Salvador Dali and the music of Aaron Copeland.
“People have been afraid to mention religion at all,” she said. “But how can you teach about character, about values, about good and evil if you can’t mention religion?”
Religion, including proselytizing, was a common topic in public schools earlier this century. It was gradually excised from the classroom beginning around World War II, said Whitworth’s Sittser.
While many people blame the U.S. Supreme Court for throwing out the teaching of beliefs and values when it threw out school prayer in 1963, that’s a simplistic interpretation, he said.
In fact, Sittser said academics throughout the world began dismissing religion, spirituality and faith as important subjects in the post-World War II era as they embraced the scientific approach to learning.
“Religion was seen as only a matter of personal preference,” he said. “It had nothing to do with real learning; it wasn’t scientific enough.”
Changing that notion may take a whole new generation of teachers, administrators and parents, said Nicholas Piediscalzi, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a member of the National Council on Religion in Public Education.
Change has to come first at the colleges of education, religion experts say.
“We have not, for the most part, been able to crack the colleges of education,” Piediscalzi said. “Most of the places where teachers go to learn to be teachers are still teaching that religion is not important.”
Robert Drovdahl leads a graduate course on teaching values and ethics in the classroom. When he first offered the course at Seattle Pacific University 14 years ago, most students, who were teachers themselves, objected to the idea that the classroom is the place to teach such ideas.
Recently, things have changed.
“The treatment is still skewed against religion,” he said. “But more and more, teachers aren’t looking for a way of escaping the teaching of values, they are looking for an appropriate way of doing it.”
Educators at both the college and the high school level agree that religious discussion is certain to become more prominent in the classroom as Americans grapple with teaching values.
“Religion is just gigantically important,” Sittser said. “I think we are honestly going through a religious revolution in modern America that is as significant as probably anything that has happened in world history.
“Religion is moving back into public life in a very different way.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: 10 basic questions Here are 10 questions about religion that experts say most high school graduates should be able to answer. 1. Name the four largest religions of the world. 2. Name two American-born Christian denominations. 3. What is the difference between a denomination and a religion? 4. What was controversial about John F. Kennedy’s religious beliefs? 5. What are three common names for the Supreme Being? 6. Where does the term seventh heaven originate? 7. Who was the founder of Islam? 8. What are the two most significant holidays for Jews? 9. In addition to going to church, what are other common forms of worship? 10. For what religions is Jerusalem a holy city? Answers: 1. Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. 2. The Methodist, Baptist and Mormon denominations were all founded in America. 3. Denomination is primarily a Christian term used to describe a subset of Christianity, such as Lutheran or Episcopalian. Religion is a system of beliefs and practices, usually centered around the Creator. 4. Kennedy was a Catholic. Although Roman Catholics are the largest denomination in the country, he remains the only Catholic ever elected president. 5. God, Yahweh, Lord, Allah are some of the many names for the Supreme Being. 6. Muslims believe in seven levels of heaven, the seventh being the highest, where Mohammed resides. 7. Mohammed. 8. Jews mark the high holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, at the synagogue. Passover is the most significant home observance. Hannukah, most rabbis say, is not a major holiday. 9. Fasting, prayer, dancing and feasting are all common forms of worship throughout the world. 10. Jews, Christians and Muslims all consider Jerusalem the site of significant religious events. - Kelly McBride
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