Clergy visiting class can teach, not preach

Sunday, November 3, 1996

May teachers bring members of the clergy into the history classroom
to demonstrate and teach about their religious practices and ceremonies?

— Joe Annacharico, Ramona, Calif.

Yes, under the right conditions.

The key word in your question is “about.” Guest speakers,
especially religious leaders, need to understand clearly that
the public school's approach to religion is academic, not
devotional. Teaching about religious practices and beliefs in
a history class is fine; preaching or involving the students in
a religious practice is not.

An upper elementary school teacher might wish to invite a local
rabbi to help explain the Jewish celebration of Passover to a
class of fifth graders. A high school world history teacher might
find it helpful to ask a local Protestant minister and a Catholic
priest to discuss how their respective traditions understand the
Reformation. In classroom discussions like these, outside speakers
can be a valuable resource if, and only if, they agree to take
an academic approach to their presentation.

Does inviting one guest speaker open the door to anyone who wants
to speak? No. Your guest is there to help you teach history, and
you are free to select appropriate speakers to supplement your
course of study. “Equal time” is not required. In the
interest of a fair and balanced study of history, however, teachers
ought to have speakers prepared to discuss several different religious
traditions during the school year that are relevant to the course
of study.

To insure an academic presentation, teachers might consider inviting
scholars of religion from nearby colleges or universities. Religious
studies faculty have the background needed for an objective and
scholarly discussion of the historical period and the religion
being considered.

Some teachers ask students or parents to lead the class in a discussion
of their faith. I would avoid this practice, even if a student
or parent volunteers to do it. Religious leaders and scholars
are far better trained to discuss with depth and accuracy the
history of the various traditions. Guest speakers may explain
the various practices of religious traditions. It is my view,
however, that they should not demonstrate a practice by having
students “role-play” a religious ceremony or ritual.
The rabbi explaining Passover, for example, can show the class
the elements of the Seder meal and discuss the meaning of the
event. But the rabbi should not ask students to reenact the Seder.
Such activities risk violating the conscience of the students
by having them participate in a religion not their own.

Keep in mind that religious ceremonies are sacred to those who
practice them. Re-creations, even when led by a religious leader,
risk trivializing or, at the very least, oversimplifying the religious
meaning of the ritual. Use audio-visual resources to introduce
the ceremonies of the world's religions.

Good history courses, as well as other subjects, will require
considerable study about religion. Properly used, guest speakers
can help teachers get it right.