Preparation, resources essential for schools to teach about religion

Sunday, June 22, 1997

When the basics about religions are taught in public schools,
how can we be sure that teachers will give accurate information?

Catherine Monager, Tulsa, Okla.

Your concern is well founded. In North Carolina, California and
other states, public school teachers are told to teach more about
religion. But too little is being done to provide the preparation
and resources needed to do this right.

Nationally, there is a remarkable new consensus that teaching
about religion in public schools is a good idea. Both the Christian
Coalition and People for the American Way, for example, sponsor
a statement that says: “Schools demonstrate fairness when
they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion,
where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education.”

Unfortunately, this agreement hasn't yet translated into new
curricula guidelines, additional teacher education or improved
textbooks-all of which are needed for schools to take religion
seriously in the curriculum. Without adequate resources and preparation,
simply telling teachers to include study about religion is a recipe
for disaster. Teaching about religion accurately and fairly takes

There are some signs that things are getting better. Textbooks
are gradually improving their treatment of religion, though they
still have a long way to go. Recent editions of many world and
U.S. history texts, for example, include more discussion of the
role religion has played in history and society. Too often, however,
the textbooks simply mention religious ideas and influences without
providing much depth or background. Mentioning religion is not
taking religion seriously.

In the area of teacher preparation, there is some progress. The
Georgia Humanities Council is offering in-state workshops this
summer that are designed to introduce teachers to the constitutional
guidelines for teaching about religion fairly and objectively.
In California and Utah, the First Amendment Center supports statewide
“Three Rs” projects (Rights, Responsibilities, and Respect)
that help prepare teachers to teach about religion in social studies
and literature courses. These projects link public school teachers
to scholars in religious studies at local colleges and universities
so that ongoing resources are available for future staff development.

In the coming year, additional workshops are planned in North
Carolina, New York, and Oklahoma. (For more information about
these programs, contact the First Amendment Center.) But these
programs reach only a small percentage of teachers. Much more
needs to be done.

If you want to be sure that teachers are teaching about religion
accurately, then you need to encourage your school district to
offer staff development opportunities on all grade levels and
to provide supplementary classroom materials that reflect the
best available scholarship.

Is it risky to include more teaching about religion in the public
school curriculum? Yes, but the greater risk is not to do it.
Superficial treatment of religion in the curriculum sends a false
and dangerous message to students that religion isn't important
in human history or contemporary life. Omitting the role of religion
also makes many religious parents feel that public schools are
hostile to religious ways of seeing the world. The question should
no longer be: Should we teach about religion? The question should
now be: How can we do it properly?