Neutrality is answer to religion in schools

Sunday, August 3, 1997

Pity the poor public school teacher. In the middle of a history lesson about Martin Luther, a student stated emphatically: “My church teaches that anyone who believes that is going to hell.” Angry, another student fired back: “Oh yeah? Well, my church says that you're going to hell.” The rattled teacher tried to calm things down by saying: “You're both right!”

The teacher immediately realized that her answer hadn't come out the way she intended. What she meant to say was: “You both have the right to hold very different convictions.” Obviously, Catholics and Protestants do not see the Reformation in the same way. Teaching history often means confronting the fact that religious groups, even within the same tradition, understand truth or revelation differently.

The teacher's role is to expose students to the marketplace of ideas. When religions differ, teachers should not take sides. Teachers, like the curriculum, should be officially neutral.

Does this mean that the teacher should tell the students that there is no such thing as absolute truth? No. Just because both students in our example have contrary beliefs doesn't mean that they're both wrong. They are making different claims about what is true. Students shouldn't be given the impression that because people deeply disagree there is no truth. A vital part of education is learning how humanity has struggled to find the truth.

The first responsibility of the teacher is to teach about the different religious perspectives fairly and accurately. This isn't easy when students disagree.

A teacher recently asked me how to respond to the eighth-grade history student who comments during the discussion of Mormon westward expansion: “My church believes that Mormons aren't Christians.” My answer: The teacher must take the time to explain that Christian churches disagree about what it means to be a Christian. If students are to make any sense of the deep conflicts during the 19th century, they need to know something about how various groups understand the Christian faith.

That's the academic answer. But what happens when students attack one another personally? The teacher can teach about religion accurately and fairly and still be faced with hurt feelings and angry confrontations.

To prevent this from happening, teachers—especially social studies teachers—should start the year with a talk about ground rules for class discussion. Let the students know that, when it is relevant to the discussion, they have a right to express their views, including their religious convictions. Differences are important, and they shouldn't be covered up. But ask students also to think about how different views should be handled. Given the opportunity, most will agree to avoid personal attacks and to debate differences with civility. They will come to understand that they can disagree with one another and, at the same time, respect each other's right to hold another view.

The greater challenge for many teachers is the lack of familiarity with the various religious traditions that need to be discussed in social studies, literature and other courses. The only solution is for school districts — and schools of education — to do a better job of preparing teachers to address religious issues in the classroom and the curriculum.