Religion in Schools: How Should Faith Influence Education?
by The Milton Measure on Friday, March 31st, 2017
By Henry Westerman ’17
In the fall of sixth grade, my social studies teacher once began class in his usual way. Eyes closed in thought, he rummaged through a bucket of popsicle sticks, picked out names two at a time and opened his eyes to call the chosen partners. With each pair, he glanced down to a list on his desk, and uttered the name of a religion. By the time he reached me, all the big ones were gone, and I was left with an unfamiliar term: “Jainism”. “What’s a jainism?” I remember calling out, to which he replied something like “Google it.”
We were assigned to prepare a powerpoint presentation on our world religion — detailing its fundamentals, doctrines, and holy texts, along with the behaviors and cultures of its followers — which we would then present to the class. I learned that Jainism is a minor religion from India, whose practitioners are so devoted to pacifism that they practice veganism and even avoid harming insects while walking down the street. Through the course of the project, and the rest of the World Religions unit at my middle school (a small, private, K-8 institution with roughly 30 kids in my grade), I learned a lot not just about Jainism, but about Islam, and Hinduism, and Judaism, and even Atheism. Though I may have cringed a bit at my classmate’s outsider description of Christianity — in which he managed to somehow butcher every definition from Eucharist to Emmanuel — I walked away from the class with a wider worldview and better understanding of the faiths of people around the world, not just mine.
I often take my religious education background for granted. I was raised in a Catholic household, went to church every weekend for my entire life, attended Sunday school for years, and learned about a variety of religions at my small, private middle school. However, my experience is an unusual one, at least compared to the rest of the country. The majority of Americans lack even my rudimentary understanding of religions other than their own. According to a recent Pew study of Religion in America, though 69% of adult surveyed reported attending a religious service at least once a year, on average Americans of all religions only correctly answered 16 of 32 questions on a survey of religious knowledge (Catholics, unfortunately for me, answered only 14.7 on average, one of the worst performing religious groups). The survey was formatted with 12 Bible/Christianity questions, 11 world religions questions, and 4 religion in public life questions; yet, even those groups that would be expected to perform well in certain areas (i.e. Protestants/Catholics on theological questions) on average got barely half of the answers correct. Most unfortunate, though perhaps most symptomatic, of the results of the survey, proved the fact that, though 89% of Americans knew public school teachers cannot lead their classes in prayer, only 36% realized public schools can offer a comparative religions course, while only 23% knew public schools can teach the Bible as a work of literature.
Figure 1: Stats from Pew’s Poll on Religious Literacy in the US
What can be done to improve religious literacy and tolerance for different groups around the country, especially in times like these where intolerance and xenophobia are reaching all time highs? To me, the easiest way to improve religious literacy and tolerance around the country is to improve the state of religious education in our school system, which, given the current state of the nation, is clearly not efficient. Currently, each school takes its own approach to teaching religion; some, like my private middle school, offer a required, comprehensive comparative religions course as part of a cultural or social studies class. Others, like Milton Academy, offer courses in religion, but don’t require them; most public schools follow this model as well. Religiously affiliated schools, on the other hand, take an entirely different approach. Perhaps if each style of school took a look at how the others were doing things, we could all work towards a better standard for how we talk about religion in our schools.
I recently visited the Saint Clement School, a Catholic institution for grades 6-12 in Medford, MA, where I had the privilege to speak to Ms. Lucia Papile, a member of my church who also happens to be the Dean of Students at the school. I drove to Saint Clement’s on a rainy afternoon, the building itself an unassuming and unadorned rectangle of bricks, lined with windows on each of the three floors, much as one might expect a school to be, placed next to the equally modest Saint Clement’s church. Lucia greeted me at the door, and led me through locker-lined halls to her small, skinny office, wedged between a classroom and the college counselors’ rooms, with a window ajar at the far end looking out onto the school’s central courtyard. By the window, an old stereo played the static of a Christian talk radio station; the walls were lined with pictures of former classes, artwork given to her by students, and a framed picture of the school’s mission. A ladder in one corner had been decorated with a picture of the Mouth of Truth in Rome.
Students at Catholic schools live in an environment where religion is all around them at all times during the day. Each classroom is decorated with religiously themed art, pictures, and posters; a crucifix also adorns almost every whiteboard. The math classroom I visited might have been mistaken for one in Ware Hall at Milton; the desks were almost identical, arranged in a semicircular pattern facing the whiteboard. However, the portrait of Mother Teresa on the back wall, flanked by a laminated Galileo quote reading, “Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe,” reminded me what school I was in. “We have prayer every day,” explained Ms. Papile as we took in the classroom. “Before first period, students gather in their classrooms, and we do a community prayer over the loudspeaker, led by a different student every day. Some teachers, especially the religions teachers, do begin every class with prayer. We also have a formal liturgy [a Catholic mass in our neighboring parish church] once a month.”
At Catholic Schools like Saint Clement’s, religious education is obligatory. “We’re a 6-12 school; in middle school, students take ‘Religions’, and in upper school they take ‘Theology’. Religion works into their school day much like any other class like Math or English. We follow the prescribed bishop’s curriculum, studying the Bible some semesters, branches of philosophy or theological thought in others… they do study world religions for a semester, but the focus is obviously on Catholicism.”
As opposed to public schools which derive funding from the government, private schools are funded mostly by parents, and thus administrators are free from the ‘separation of church and state’ argument that ideally should keep religious proselytizing out of public institutions. That being said, at secular schools like Milton, religion plays a relatively small role in students’ daily lives. The only classes that teach about religion, other than in a brief summary in history classrooms, are optional electives.
I spoke with Mrs. DeBuhr, the school’s chaplain who also teaches the religions course, about her thoughts on religion’s role at Milton. She has a vibe to her when she speaks to you personally which makes it unsurprising that she has studied theology in depth. She wears warmly colored clothes which contrast with her bright, angled glasses, and speaks in a quiet tone despite the roar of students passing by outside her centrally located classroom. “Milton has the chapel program, where religious and spiritual reflection happens publicly. Originally, chapel, because Milton is a boarding school, was meant to give religious students access to services, back when the population here was majority Protestant. When I craft the chapel program today, the goal for me is to foster an interfaith space to help students understand their own spirituality, which isn’t necessarily through a single religion. I want to help us discover what has meaning for each of us and how we can find meaning in our own lives.” She explained that, at Milton, we strive to value the diverse experiences of our peers; we work to appreciate the people of different faiths and cultures who make up our community. Thus, the chapel program, which once might have taken a form much more like the monthly masses Saint Clement’s students are obligated to attend, has evolved into a more open ended spiritual experience.
Chapel isn’t the only way that some Milton students experience religion in their daily lives; many opt to take the Religions of the Middle East or Religions of Asia semester courses, the only formally religion-based classes taught at the school. According to the course catalogue, these courses offer students a deeper understanding of the major religions and philosophies followed around the world from a “global and historical view,” and possibly to help them consider their own spiritualities. As one of the course’s descriptions illustrates the course’s goal, “in our shrinking and pluralistic world, having knowledge of religion has become increasingly important in order to be an informed citizen.” In Mrs. DeBuhr’s opinion, these classes should be required, or at least the lessons of them should be worked into other required courses, so that every student gets at least a taste of the values they offer. “To live in the world today, we have to have a broader understanding of other people, and a huge part of that is understanding what other people believe. We’re more responsible as citizens when we know more about religions in general.”
In the public sphere, given the difficulties of straddling numerous rules and regulations around the teaching of religion using public funds, different school districts take different approaches, mostly based on the opinions of the local school board. The public middle schools in Wellesley, MA, for example, have for many years been teaching a required course in world religions to their sixth graders. As outlined in a Boston Globe Magazine article by Linda K. Wertheimer titled “Test of Faith,” administrators of Wellesley Middle School explained that “the risks of teaching about religion are worth the potential rewards, which is why [the school took] the unusual step of making its class mandatory. Even though most US states now include world religions in their education standards, they rarely require that students take a class. According to state records, roughly two-thirds of Massachusetts school systems offer comparative religion courses, but those are usually electives.” Wellesley’s religions course spent about a month discussing the core tenets and traditions of each major world religion, and culminated each unit with a field trip to a local house of worship. For years, educators raved about how courses following this model could help foster tolerance and understanding in students from a young age.
However, as with all things, politics eventually got in the way. In 2010, things at Wellesley Middle School changed; following a field trip to a mosque in Roxbury, a parent leaked footage of students learning to pray in Islamic style to Fox News, which then ran a story suggesting that the school district intended to convert the children to Islam. Wellesley managed to play down the scandal by issuing a number of apologies and removing the field trips from the official curriculum, but the middle school religions course continues to be taught more or less in the same form today.
As in the case with Wellesley’s Fox News fueled scandal, conservatives around the country often take a different side on the issue of religious education than New England liberals might. Instead of longing for a way to improve religious tolerance in students, they want religion to return to the public school classroom, by saying prayers before classes, teaching religiously influenced views on a variety of topics, or even offering required courses on Christianity for students, as might be seen at religious schools. “It’s a sticky wicket, using public funding to advance someone’s private agenda,” explained Ms. Papile with a sigh, when I asked for her thoughts on how public schools should approach religious education. “A lot of people, especially in other parts of the country, want to see some of the things we do here in their public school system. And I don’t know how I feel about that, because, though I agree that we do a lot of those things here, and that some of them work well for us, we still have the same issues that other schools do. Religion in school isn’t a fix-all, which some people say it would be.”
Over the summer, I met Blake Leffingwell, a proud conservative and one of the kindest and most warm hearted people I’ve ever met. Blake lives in Round Rock, north of Austin, Texas, where he attends a private high school, having previously attended public elementary and middle school. During our time together, we discussed a number of political issues, including the differences between our own educational experiences. “I’m interested in science, but at school, sometimes people will openly deny climate change, or will defend intelligent design or creationism as an alternative to evolution,” he once explained to me. “This doesn’t seem unusual, though, because in my community so many people have these views. My community is deeply religious; most people attend church regularly. So it’s not uncommon for Christian views to come up in any classroom conversations, because we have this assumed shared experience.” Blake’s stories, even in a private school, aren’t surprising. Many schools in Texas, including almost all charter schools, use textbooks published by companies like Responsive Education Solutions that question whether science can predict the age of the earth, call the fossil record “sketchy” and claim that evolution is an “unproved theory” (one passage asks, “How can scientists do experiments on something that takes millions of years to accomplish? It’s impossible”). Despite the 1987 Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard which made teaching creationism in public schools unconstitutional, as Blake would attest, many schools in conservative parts of the country still keep debate open for discussing different sides of the ‘scientific debate’ surrounding the topic advocates claim teaching creationism or intelligent design alongside evolution ‘builds critical thinking’ in students by teaching ‘all sides of competing theories’.
At religious schools, even in liberal leaning parts of the country, such conflicts around lessons that go against religious teachings also arise. I talked briefly to a science teacher at Saint Clement’s named Mr. Murphy (a recent graduate of a Catholic college who wore a funky, science teacher tie covered in jungle plants and playful monkeys), who mentioned that sometimes students will struggle in his classrooms to separate religion from other types of learning. “Especially with my younger students, they’ll say things like, ‘evolution, climate change, that’s because of God, God decided that.’ And since it’s a Catholic school I’ll reply ‘at the end of the day, everything comes from God, but let’s go further, let’s put our science hats on, and think about the scientific perspective.’ After a while, they realize that God isn’t the answer for that class, where it might be in another class.” After Mr. Murphy left, Ms. Papile recognized that the way Saint Clement’s handles these interactions is a reflection of the area we live in; a Catholic school teacher in Texas or Indiana, she explained, might not have made such a correction.
Milton sees the complete opposite of this hyper-religious spectrum: instead of seeing religion seeping into classrooms where it doesn’t belong, we hear almost no discussion of religion whatsoever, or at least not in a positive light. As a Milton student, I almost laughed at the quotes I read from the Texan science textbook. Many members of our community likely would have laughed as well. Students react poorly to attempts by the school to ‘force religion into their lives’; chapel services are generally disliked, as was the spirituality speaker last spring, who spoke on how spirituality can help with personal development, and who critics claimed to be collating depression with a lack of spiritual awakening. There are yearly arguments over whether or not to teach the Bible as literature in English class (as I already mentioned, by law schools are allowed to do so). Our community’s normalized scorn for religion alienates the religious members of our community. I recently attended a meeting of Christian Fellowship, an affinity group at Milton, which is held in hidden corner of campus in the basement of Straus Library. “It’s hard to maintain faith when people are constantly questioning you. Even the faculty members judge people for being religious; I once heard a teacher calling someone a ‘bible thumpler,’” explained one concerned member of the club. “On an intellectual campus, faith is not viewed as a rational thing to have,” added another. “Religious people are seen as the minority. My classmates constantly ask me for help explaining a biblical reference in English class, or ask me to explain how people use God to defend not believing in global warming, assuming that I can speak to these issues because I’m religious.”
This third sentiment echoed with me in particular. As a Catholic, I constantly find myself reproached by my atheist friends, who ask me whether I believe in gay marriage or I think they will all go to Hell for not attending church. Some even joke that I was lucky to not be sexually assaulted by a priest as a child. At a place where we value the diverse experiences that make up our community, how can such actions still be happening every day? We may not have parents and teachers trying to sneak religion back into secular classes like at other schools around the country, but marginalizing people of faith in our community is no better way to build unity.
The issue overall with religion in schools, in my opinion, is just as Ms. Papile put it: religion is a ‘sticky wicket.’ People have such strong opinions on their own faiths, and on peoples of other faiths, that it’s hard to not avoid the topic altogether. As Mrs. DeBuhr explained, “Students can go through Milton and never cultivate any sense of spirituality or knowledge about religion. The institution feels responsible to have some way to speak to the spiritual concerns of our community, but it’s hard to fit that into any school experience, especially one that’s not linked to a particular religion: how do you convince kids who are already busy to pick up another commitment to further something that’s intangible, and already not a priority in many cases? Spirituality isn’t part of the ongoing conversation among students, and adults for that matter.” Though most Miltonians generally prefer to remove religion from their lives, religious schools like Saint Clement’s offer an example for what a school more infused with faith looks like.
Saint Clement’s seeks to “help students achieve full spiritual and academic potential” (goals listen in their mission), which, according to Ms. Papile, includes building religious tolerance. “Parents choose to send their kids to Catholic school, knowing that God is such an important part of what we do. They send their children here not just to learn what they might at a secular school, but also to further their faith and gain a deeper understanding of religious teachings. We work to give our students that moral foundation in addition to an academic foundation, and as a teacher, being at a place where everyone chooses to be there and to receive these lessons is very fulfilling.” However, these lessons, she explained, aren’t exclusively offered to Catholic students. “Probably about three quarters of the school is Catholic, so for those students who don’t share that faith, taking a class like Theology can be difficult. But, all of the students here, no matter what they believe, are taught to be respectful of people with different beliefs, in part through their education in world religions and cultures and their interactions with students of different backgrounds.” Though non-Catholic students are still required to attend religious ceremonies and engage in prayer, Ms. Papile has found the community to generally be accepting of people with any beliefs, as all students relate to the importance of faith in their lives.
I spoke to a student, Brianna, who stopped by Ms. Papile’s office to get some papers signed. She wore the same plain uniform from the pictures lining the walls, with a green “Saint Clement’s Basketball” sweatshirt over it. “[having to take religion classes, attend masses, etc.] can be hard for kids with different religious backgrounds, but they all respect that this is the faith of their classmates and of their school, even if they choose not to participate in mass.” She explained. “At the same time, students take pride in learning about the different religions that people follow; religion is all around us at all times of the day. It blends into the background, and makes its way into our conversations inside and out of the religions classroom. Everyone is very open about their faith.”
World religions courses at the public and private schools we have seen offer an example for the type of religious education that our schools need: programs that give a comprehensive view at the different religious groups of the world, in order to fill in gaps of misunderstanding and eradicate dangerous misconceptions. However, I think the experience Brianna recognized is exactly what places like Milton are missing. We don’t need to say prayers before every class, or have chapel every day; we need to change the conversation around religion on a larger scale. In order to become a more understanding community, we, as a school and as a country in general, need to learn not just from the lessons taught in a religions classroom, but also from the experiences of our peers. We need to learn to listen to others, and be more accepting of people with different faith backgrounds. In the end, as Mrs. DeBuhr explained, religion is about finding meaning in our own lives; each person does that in their own way. It’s truly a shame that programs like Wellesley’s field trips so often get shut down by parents — both liberals and conservatives — crying ‘proselytization.’ In my opinion, the Fox News scandal, instead of making Wellesley shut down its field trip program, should have only emboldened the school’s firmness in the importance of its mission.
I recently spoke, alongside my peers in the club Students Interested in Middle Eastern Affairs, at a chapel meant to give our listeners a basic understanding of Islam. I and a couple of my non-Muslim peers explained the basics of the religion, but the most moving speeches of the night came from the Muslim members of the club, who spoke about their own experiences with Islamophobia in this country and elsewhere. Mateen Tabatabaei, the head of SIMA, told the story of how, having grown out his beard junior year, he began to find himself pulled over for “extra screening” by TSA every time he went to the airport. Once, he said, an officer even forced him to condemn the crimes like the Orlando shooting committed in the name of his religion. After the speeches, several people came up and thanked us for the insight we’d offered them; even the basic information about what Islam actually stood for, and the disgraceful stories of Islamophobia in action, offered more real insight about Islam and the Muslim community than many had heard before. To me, it’s this kind of cross cultural dialogue, which fosters an understanding of both the religion and the real humans that follow it, that our country and world needs most in these dire times.
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