New report suggests that teaching about religion is here to stay

Sunday, November 26, 2000

Religion may finally be going back to school. That's the headline
summarizing a major report released this week by the Council on Islamic
Education and the First Amendment Center.

According to the report, all of the new national and state
social-studies standards now mandate teaching about religion.

Why is this significant? Because these days “standards” drive the
curriculum. For better or for worse, the content of standards largely
determines what students learn.

If religion does make it into the curriculum, that will reverse
decades of neglect. Textbook studies in the mid-1980s revealed that religion
was largely ignored or avoided. One text described pilgrims solely as “people
who make long trips.”

Now that teaching about religion is no longer taboo, we can expect
better textbooks and more accurate treatment of religious people and ideas. Not
only is this good news for education, it's also good news for advocates of
religious liberty.

After all, if public schools are to be truly fair and neutral under
the First Amendment, they must ensure that religious as well as secular ways of
understanding the world are included somewhere in the curriculum.

The news isn't all good, however. In the U.S. history standards,
religion mostly disappears after the Civil War. State standards in world
history do include the major faith communities, but the treatment is often
superficial. And in some standards — those for economics, for example
— religion is barely mentioned.

The report also warns that it's a long road from standards to actual
classroom teaching. Will teachers be prepared to teach about religion in ways
that are constitutional and educational? Will the standards translate into
better textbooks and other teaching materials? Will study about religion be
part of the assessment of student learning? (Or as the students might put it:
Will this be on the test?)

In spite of these barriers and challenges, the findings of this report
suggest that teaching about religion in public schools is here to stay. The
question is no longer “Can or should we teach about religion?” With the
inclusion of religion in the standards, the question is now “How should we
teach about religion?”

Getting this right isn't easy. That's why the First Amendment Center
and other groups are working throughout the nation to prepare teachers to teach
about religion constitutionally and educationally.

One of the significant things about this report — beyond its
content — is the fact that it was commissioned by the Council on Islamic
Education (CIE), an organization that spends most of its time helping educators
teach about Islam and Muslim history fairly and accurately.

It is notable that CIE argues in this study for fair academic
treatment of all the world's major faiths — not just for Islam. This
flies in the face of the popular myth that America has become a hotbed of
“interest groups” all looking out for themselves and no one else.

Here's a Muslim-led group working hard for a public-school curriculum
that is inclusive and balanced. That's what it means to be an American

And that's what it means to be an American.