- The Washington Times - Monday, March 4, 2002

Charles Haynes began studying in the mid-1980s how religion is taught in public schools nationwide.
Mr. Haynes, now a senior scholar with the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, says the results troubled him.
Religion was "neglected" in most textbooks, he says, adding many educators wondered if religion should be brought up at all in the classroom.
Today, the educational climate is much more open to religion's role in education.
"There has been a sea change in how public education deals with religion and the curriculum," Mr. Haynes says. The movement changed gears from a question of " 'Should we be teaching about religion' to 'How do we do it.'"
"It's been a quiet revolution, frankly," he says. "It doesn't mean we now have fairness in the curriculum … but we made some substantial progress."
Teaching religion in public schools may always be problematic, from overzealous teachers unconsciously pushing their own beliefs to the recent Southern California case where San Luis Obispo middle school students took pretend pilgrimages to Mecca to learn about Islam.
Many educators, however, agree teaching history, culture and other crucial topics isn't complete without a religious context.
Mr. Haynes says his nonpartisan group, dedicated to First Amendment issues such as freedom of press and religion, recently completed a study along with the Council on Islamic Education. The study found social studies standards in various states treated religion generously, incorporating the subject in classroom teaching when appropriate in matters of history, civics and, to a surprising degree, geography.
"Wherever kids are learning about history … they need to learn that religion is part of that," he says.
The standards created by the respective school districts regarding how religion is introduced aren't perfect, Mr. Haynes says.
"After 1800, it's as though religion drops off the face of the Earth," he says of how many standards ignore religious matters post-18th century. "It's a little better with U.S. history, but after the Civil War, there is not much about religion.
"It suggests religion is something people used to believe in a long time ago, [but] that it has no relevance in the modern world," Mr. Haynes says.
He calls the lack of religious material incorporated within economic discussions "a mistake."
Religion wasn't always a tough sell in the classroom.
Dewey Wallace, professor of religion at George Washington University, says Christian-based religious materials found their way into many American classrooms during the 19th century.
"As the nation became more secularized, that kind of thing was more difficult to do," Mr. Wallace says.
Only in the last generation, though, has the prospect of religious materials being covered in class become overly contentious, he says.
Part of that perception stems from a handful of incidents.
"From time to time, what creeps in looks like it's religious indoctrination," Mr. Wallace says. That doesn't have to be the case, he says. "It's a fine line … to recognize the importance of learning about religion and avoiding indoctrination."
That, he says, doesn't mean the line shouldn't be approached.
"You can't understand culture without religion," he says flatly.
While Mr. Haynes says progress on teaching religion from a purely academic standpoint is considerable, a key factor holding it back is the dearth of teachers prepared to handle such delicate material.
Mynga Futrell, a Sacramento, Calif.-based educator and co-founder of www.teachingaboutreligion. org, agrees. Ms. Futrell doesn't blame the teachers. They simply haven't been taught how to do so, she argues.
"There is not a good preparation program," she says. "Teachers are operating by the seat of their pants when they do this … it just plain ol' takes training."
Part of the problem is the personal nature of the subject matter.
"It's more difficult to stay in the academic domain [with religion], Ms. Futrell says. "It's easy to treat arithmetic academically. It's difficult for an educator to disconnect to allow him to teach religion in an academic way."
Mr. Haynes says subtle challenges await teachers dabbling in religious matters.
Teaching older students about the Bible, for instance, is fraught with difficulty.
Some teachers read from it as if it were a history book, he says.
"That isn't OK. It's not a history book. It's a sacred history," Mr. Haynes says.
One area Ms. Futrell disagrees with Mr. Haynes on is the ages children should begin learning about religion. Mr. Haynes believes religion can be introduced as early as the first grade, given it is handled in a simple manner.
Ms. Futrell says learning about Hinduism in elementary school may not be the "most appropriate framework."
"There's some question that that's the most appropriate age to deal with abstract concepts," she says. "That's very far removed from a child's experiences."
Another reason teaching religion can be more daunting than other topics is that otherwise exemplary teaching techniques aren't good fits for the material.
A typically productive technique involves role-playing or hands-on training, like handling test tubes or examining an African sculpture.
"Generally, that's quite an effective strategy," Ms. Futrell says. But with religion, she says, "role-playing is an inappropriate instructional strategy."
Russ Phipps, high school social studies curriculum specialist with the Fairfax County School District, expresses confidence that he and his fellow instructors remain as neutral as possible when teaching religion.
In his district, the teachers don't have a choice.
Part of the Fairfax County Public School Code says, "Religion shall not be regarded as a taboo subject but rather shall be dealt with directly and objectively when and where it is intrinsic to the learning experience."
Mr. Phipps says students connect personally to religion and matters of faith.
"Some students are naturally going to find discussions about religion to be generally very engaging," he says.
In the Fairfax school district, students study religion through world studies units, where comparisons can be made between the various faiths. The materials, he says, are tightly woven into the curriculum.
So much so, in fact, that the district offers few electives on comparatve religion because so much religion finds its way into the main study areas.
Mr. Haynes says teachers appreciate the chance to include religion in their lesson plans.
"Teachers tell me once they've been liberated to teach more fully, their teaching is transformed," he says. "If it's done right, parents are happy. Their faith is involved but at the same time they like the idea of their kids getting a fuller picture of what's happening in the world."
Mr. Haynes says educators should teach religion through attribution, saying things like, "Many Buddhists believe …" rather than declaring items to be facts. The latter could draw the notice of parents, who otherwise need not be consulted that academic religious matters are being introduced.
Even inviting a priest or rabbi as guest speakers can be appropriate, he says.
"Religious leaders, as long as they understand the guidelines, are great resources," Mr. Haynes says.
Ms. Futrell says religious instruction is basic to our rights as citizens.
"We're all supposed to have the right to hold our convictions," she says. "It's important … that students understand that they have this right and respect it not only for themselves. It's something we all share.
"If you ignore these things, particularly when kids are in high school, you won't have as good a chance to have a civil society," she says.


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