Neutrality depriving schools of religion as learning topic

Sunday, September 27, 1998

The public-school curriculum virtually ignores religion. Except for brief treatments of the topic in history and sometimes literature, most subjects are taught without any attention to religious ideas or ways of seeing the world.

Is this the “neutrality” toward religion that the First Amendment requires? Is this what we mean by a good education?

Not according to a new book — Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum — that I wrote with Warren Nord of the University of North Carolina.

Our book mounts a challenge to the conventional wisdom that says public-school students can learn everything they need to know about whatever they study (with the possible exception of history) without learning anything about religion. We call for a radical rethinking of the curriculum in order to ensure that religious perspectives are taken seriously.

According to the Supreme Court, First Amendment neutrality means neutrality among all religions and between religion and non-religion. For public-school educators, that should mean making a good-faith effort to include religious as well as secular perspectives when teaching history, literature, economics, health education and other subjects. It's hardly neutral or fair to leave religion out.

Even if you don't buy our First Amendment argument, there are educational reasons for taking religion seriously. A good education exposes students to the major ways in which humanity seeks to make sense of the world — and some of those ways of understanding are religious.

Consider, for example, economics. Clearly, most educators don't think religious ideas have any place in an economics course. Our review of the national standards and of four leading textbooks found that religious views concerning economic issues are entirely missing from both.

As a consequence, economics courses in public schools say nothing about morality or religion. But surely this isn't right. All religious traditions have much to say about such issues as poverty, consumerism, the environment and work. Most economics textbooks include chapters on Marxism and socialism. Why not a chapter on religious views of human nature, justice and economics as well?

This isn't an argument for promoting religion or for indoctrinating students. This is an argument for including religion in the curricular discussion, for taking it seriously.

Given the heated conflicts of the culture wars, it may surprise you to learn how much support there is for our argument on all sides. At the launch of the book earlier this month, representatives from both Focus on the Family and People for the American Way spoke strongly in favor of taking religion more seriously in the public-school curriculum.

At the same time, there are those who have significant reservations. Some on the left don't buy our argument that government neutrality under the First Amendment requires public schools to include religious as well as secular perspectives. From the right, there's support for the First Amendment argument, but skepticism about the willingness of public educators to re-think their treatment of religion.

Educators themselves — those who have read the book — are unsure that the reforms we call for are possible or practical, though most agree that more study about religion would be desirable.

We acknowledge in the book how much work needs to be done before religion can be properly presented in the public schools. Teacher education will have to change so that teachers get some preparation in the study of religion. Textbooks and supplementary materials that offer an accurate, academic treatment of religious perspectives will need to be created. And, if religion electives are to be offered in greater numbers, certified teachers must be available to teach them.

Is all of this realistic? It's too soon to tell. But we're optimistic. After all, not very long ago textbooks ignored the contributions of African Americans and women. That's now changed. The same re-thinking must address the place of religion in the curriculum. If we sincerely want to be fair and neutral under the First Amendment, and if we are determined to offer the best possible education to our students, then surely we'll find a way to take religion seriously in the public-school curriculum.

Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum is published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and the First Amendment Center, and is available from ASCD (1-800-933-2723).