Religion is core to child’s growth

Sunday, September 28, 1997

An upset parent called her child's principal recently to complain
that the teacher was using stories from the Bible to teach about
Judaism and Christianity in sixth grade. The principal tried to
explain that the teacher was using a new curriculum, called “core
knowledge,” that calls for teaching about these religions,
not promoting them. But the parent was still not convinced that
sixth-graders should be reading the Bible in a public school.

This incident raises some big questions: What do children need
to learn about religion, and when do they need to learn it? In
the curriculum of most public schools, the answers are: “very
little” and “not until high school.”

The core knowledge curriculum offers very different answers.
Based on the work of E.D. Hirsch, this approach begins in first
grade to teach children about world civilizations and American
history. Religion is woven throughout the curriculum, as it must
be if these subjects are to be taught properly.

Imagine this: In hundreds of core knowledge public schools, students
are actually learning that religion has played a significant role
in human history and society. This is revolutionary in two ways.

First, for a long time the conventional wisdom about kids in
the early grades has been that they are not “developmentally
ready” for the study of history, much less religion. The
traditional model has focused on the child's immediate surroundings
and the present-day world of family, school, neighborhood and
community. Fortunately, educational research in the last decade
has begun to change these assumptions about children's learning.
We now know that students can and should begin to think about
times past and the wider world at a very young age.

Second, we finally have a successful model for educational reform
that acknowledges religion. The major religions of the world are
well represented in the core knowledge approach, although more
emphasis is placed on biblical traditions because of the Bible's
pervasive influence in our culture. First-graders are introduced
to the basic beliefs and practices of Judaism, Christianity, and
Islam. By sixth grade, students are ready to learn about monotheism,
covenant and other ideas central to the Bible.

Are most teachers prepared to meet this challenge? Not without
help. When core knowledge was implemented in Nashville this fall,
some teachers felt unprepared to teach young children all that
the curriculum calls for-not only about religions and cultures,
but also about history, art, science, literature and other subjects.
Teachers need in-service programs to supplement their knowledge,
good resources to use in the classroom, and adequate planning
time to find creative ways to teach the new material. The first
year might be rocky. But with some patience and hard work, the
educational payoff will be as tremendous for Nashville as it has
been for many other places where Core Knowledge has been tried.

Unlike Nashville, a few school systems are still frightened to
tackle religion at all, even when they adopt core knowledge. Two
administrators in Tennessee and Kentucky admitted privately that
they were avoiding the religion components of the core knowledge
sequence, though one said that his school will try to include
study of religion in the future.

It may not be easy to include religion, but leaving it out is
wrong – for both civic and educational reasons. In the spirit
of the First Amendment, it is only fair that a variety of perspectives,
including religious ones, be included in the curriculum. An elementary
curriculum that ignores religion gives students the message that
religion doesn't matter to people, that we live in a religion-free
world. This is neither accurate nor fair.

By requiring that children take history, literature, art, and
music seriously, the core knowledge curriculum makes study about
religion an integral part of a good education. This is an essential
reform that is long overdue.