|Moses Who? Literacy, Citizenship, and the Academic Study of Religion in the Schools|
Bruce Grelle, Department of Religious Studies California State University, Chico
Bruce Grelle is coeditor of this edition of Spotlight on Teaching. He is Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of the Religion and Public Education Resource Center at California State University, Chico. He serves on the AAR’s Religion in the Schools Task Force, and is the statewide contact person for the California 3 Rs Project (Rights, Responsibilities, and Respect): A Program for Finding Common Ground on Issues of Religion and Values in Public Schools. His Publications include Explorations in Global Ethics: Comparative Religious Ethics and Interreligious Dialogue (coeditor with Sumner B. Twiss, Westview Press, 1998).
A few years ago, one of my students stayed behind to speak with me after class. We had just spent several sessions reviewing some of the main outlines of classic stories from the Hebrew Bible. These included stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Israelites, stories of Moses, the Exodus, and the Ten Commandments, and stories of King David, the prophets, and the Babylonian exile, among others. My student said that she wanted to thank me for all that she had learned during our recent class meetings. She explained that she had not been raised in a religious family and that all of these stories were brand new to her. I expressed appreciation for her comments and assured her that even students who had been raised in Jewish or Christian families often needed a “refresher” when it came to the details of many of these Bible stories. I also pointed out that elements of these stories had become part of the general cultural legacy of people in our civilization, and that most people had at least some familiarity, however vague, with many of the main characters and events in these narratives. “So, for example, even though you don’t come from a religious background, you’ve at least heard of people like Moses,” I said to her. “No, I never heard of Moses before this class,” she replied.
Assuming that she must be exaggerating, we chatted for a while longer. Further conversation persuaded me that she was not pulling my leg. Not only had she been unaware of the biblical narratives, she was not familiar with photographs of Michelangelo’s famous sculpture, could not recall having ever sung or heard the African-American spiritual, “Go Down Moses,” nor having ever watched television re-runs of The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston in the role of Moses. (Neither one of us had seen Disney’s 1998 rendition of the story, Prince of Egypt).
This young woman had been born and raised in the United States. She was not a poor student. She came to class regularly, completed her reading assignments, turned in her written work, and passed exams. Nonetheless, she had completed twelve years of schooling and three years of college before she had “heard” of Moses.
What is even more disheartening about this story is that this young woman was preparing to become a high school teacher. The course in which she was enrolled as my student is entitled, Teaching About Religions in American Public Schools. This course is populated by social science majors who plan to apply to a single-subject teaching credential program on their way to becoming junior or senior high school teachers, and by liberal studies majors who plan to apply to a multiple-subject credential program and become elementary school teachers. While my student was more candid than many Americans about the degree of her cultural and historical illiteracy, she is by no means alone among her peers when it comes to gaps in knowledge about the world’s religions.
Recently, I administered an informal multiple-choice questionnaire to students at the beginning of the semester in order to assess their familiarity with some basic facts about the world’s religions. Among students enrolled in one section of my Teaching About Religions course, 37 percent thought that Confucianism had originated more recently than Islam, and 40.7 percent defined “Nirvana” as the “continuing cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth in many differing forms and conditions of existence.” Fully 37 percent thought that Muslims believe Muhammad to be the messiah, while 29.6 percent thought that Muslims believe Muhammad to be the incarnation of Allah (25.9 percent correctly identified the Muslim view of Muhammad as the last and greatest of God’s prophets). In another section of the same course, 38.7 percent of the students thought that Christianity had originated earlier than Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, 35.4 percent identified the Qur’an as a religious scripture most closely associated with Hinduism, and 29 percent thought that the stories and ceremonies associated with the Jewish holiday of Passover are based on the war of rebellion led by Judas Maccabeus (compared to the 19.3 percent who correctly identified Passover with the story of liberation from slavery in Egypt. One can only imagine how these students might have responded to the question, “Who was Judas Maccabeus?”). Not only does this raise questions about the degree of cultural and historical illiteracy among university students in general and among future teachers in particular, it also raises questions about how well these individuals will be able to function as citizens in a religiously diverse society.
Religious Literacy and Democratic Citizenship
The relationship between democratic citizenship and knowledge about the world’s religions was the topic of a guest commentary by high-school student, Chana Schoenberger, published in Newsweek a few years ago and reprinted in Finding Common Ground.1 In her essay, “Getting to Know About You and Me,” Chana describes her experience as one of twenty teens who spent five weeks during the summer studying acid rain at the University of Wisconsin at Superior as part of a National Science Foundation Young Scholars program. Represented among the students were eight religious traditions: Jewish, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Methodist, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, and Lutheran. Chana was amazed at the degree of ignorance regarding other people’s religions among this otherwise outstanding group of students:
According to Chana, “Nobody was deliberately rude or anti-Semitic, but I got the feeling that I was representing the entire Jewish people through my actions.” She winced at the thought that many of her new friends would go home to their small towns believing that all Jews liked Dairy Queen Blizzards and grilled cheese sandwiches, since that was true of all the Jews they knew — in most cases, Chana herself and the one other Jewish student enrolled in the summer program.
Chana recounts her astonishment that this professor who, “had a doctorate, various other degrees and seemed to be a very intelligent man...apparently had no idea that he had just made an anti-Semitic remark.” She and the other Jewish girl in the group wrestled with the question of whether they should say something to him about it. They agreed that they would confront him, but neither of them ever did. No doubt Chana speaks for countless students of all ages and grade levels from around the country when she writes, “For a high-school student to tell a professor who taught her class that he was a bigot seemed out of place to me, even if he was one.”
As Chana Schoenberger goes on to explain, she had always been under the impression that in America we are expected “to respect each other’s traditions.” Yet, as she correctly observes, “Respect requires some knowledge about people’s backgrounds.” Clearly, without such knowledge it becomes all too easy to caricature and trivialize the religious beliefs and practices of fellow citizens who belong to religious, racial, or ethnic communities different from our own. How long can a civil society survive in such a climate of ignorance and misunderstanding?
Religion in the Curriculum and Teacher Education
It comes as no surprise that, as a professor of religious studies, I am convinced that the academic study of religion makes an indispensable contribution to historical and cultural literacy. It is impossible to achieve an adequate understanding of history and culture (literature, art, music, philosophy, law, ethics, politics), without knowing something about the role that religious ideas, practices, and institutions have played and continue to play in human life. One does not have to subscribe to E. D. Hirsch’s theories of cultural literacy, nor to those of any particular one of Hirsch’s allies or critics, in order to think that it is important for future teachers — and citizens generally — to have “heard” of Moses, to know that Confucius lived before Jesus, or that Muslims do not believe that Muhammad was the incarnation of Allah.
Along with Chana Schoenberger, I am convinced that knowledge about the world’s religions is an integral part of education for citizenship in a pluralistic society. While there may be good reason to be disheartened by evidence of widespread ignorance regarding the world’s religions, there really is no good reason to be surprised.
Until quite recently, the academic study of the world’s religions (as contrasted with formal and informal school sponsorship of the religious symbols, holidays, and agendas of the dominant religious groups in various localities) has been all but absent from the public school curriculum. Despite the fact that religious diversity is nowhere more apparent than in America’s public school classrooms, the professional preparation of public school teachers and administrators typically includes no systematic attention to the ethical, legal, and pedagogical issues that arise in connection with the topic of religion in the schools.
While there are many reasons for this lack of attention to religion, among the most significant of these is the widespread misunderstanding of Supreme Court decisions regarding the First Amendment and public education. In the school prayer cases of the 1960’s, the high court ruled that school-sponsored religious exercises, such as prayer and devotional Bible reading, are violations of the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment. Governmental agencies such as public schools are prohibited from involving themselves in the organization, promotion, or sponsorship of such religious activities. Many Americans — supporters and opponents of school prayer alike — believe that these court decisions effectively banished religion from the public schools altogether. But this belief is mistaken.
The Equal Access Act, passed by Congress in 1984, and upheld by the Supreme Court in 1990, safeguards the religious liberty rights of public school students. In upholding the constitutionality of the Act, the Court noted that there is a “crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses protect.”2 Under the terms of The Equal Access Act, secondary school students have the right to pray individually and in groups, to read the Bible and other types of religious literature, and to form religious clubs. These activities must be initiated and led by students, not by school officials, and they are subject to the same “time, place, and manner” restrictions that school officials apply to other student activities. So long as schools allow other non-curriculum-related student activities, however, they must not discriminate against student religious groups.
Moreover, the courts have acknowledged the important role played by religion in history, society, and culture, and they have made it quite clear that learning and teaching about religion in the public schools is perfectly consistent with constitutional principles. Indeed, as Justice Tom Clark wrote in Abington School District v. Schempp:
Even so, as Marcia Beauchamp’s article in this issue of Spotlight on Teaching makes clear, schools have been slow to integrate the topic of religion into the curriculum.
If public schools have shown little interest in religious studies, it is also true that scholars of religion (with such notable exceptions as Nicholas Piediscalzi and his associates), have shown little inclination to become involved in teacher education nor in efforts to introduce religion into the curricula of elementary and secondary schools.4 Most scholars have not been socialized into a professional culture that values and encourages collaboration with teachers and teacher educators, and such work has not been recognized and rewarded by the tenure and promotion systems of most departments, colleges, and universities.
There are signs that things are changing, however, both in the schools and in the profession. In California, for example, the State Board of Education has adopted a history-social science curriculum that explicitly calls for more attention to be given to the study of religion and ethics. This document stresses the importance of religion in human history and states, “students must become familiar with the basic ideas of the major religions and the ethical traditions of each time and place.”5
The newly adopted California History-Social Science Content Standards further ensure that knowledge about religion and religious liberty will be part of what students are expected to know when they are tested. Because of their specificity, the standards will encourage teachers to delve more deeply into the social and historical roles of religious ideas, texts, values, and institutions.7
It is one thing to say that more attention should be given to the topic of religion in the public schools. It is another thing to prepare teachers and administrators to deal knowledgeably and responsibly with the range of historical, cultural, legal, and pedagogical questions that arise in connection with the topic of religion and public education. The responsible integration of the study of religion into the public school curriculum requires teachers to have substantive knowledge of the religious histories and traditions about which they are now expected to teach. In California, for example, the world history curriculum for seventh and tenth grades deals explicitly with the religions of India, China, and the Middle East. Other grade levels deal with the role of religion in American history and society. Some general knowledge of world religions is also a necessary background for understanding many of the “current events” that are discussed throughout the K-12 curriculum.
Teachers must also be prepared to deal with religion as it arises in the lives of many of the students in their classrooms. A basic knowledge of the world’s religions will not only help teachers to teach more effectively about ancient civilizations or the history of the United States, but also help them to better understand and communicate with students and parents who may be Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sikhs, Muslims, evangelical Christians, or traditional Hmong. The fact still is, however, that most teachers have never had even a basic introductory course on the world’s religions as a part of their professional preparation. It is in this connection that religion scholars can play an important role.
Religion Scholars as Public Intellectuals in Teacher Education and the Schools
Among the ways in which religion scholars can contribute to the responsible integration of the academic study of religion into the elementary and secondary schools are the following:
Why have religion scholars not been more willing to play a role as “public intellectuals” in teacher education and in the schools? Russell Jacoby’s well-known account of intellectual life in the “age of academe” provides part of the answer. According to Jacoby and other critics of over-specialization in contemporary intellectual life, academics have become accustomed to thinking, writing, and speaking about and for one another rather than for a broader audience of fellow citizens.
Of course, individual scholars are constrained by the institutions in which they work, and choices about what activities are deemed worthy of pursuit are not entirely up to them. A professor’s job, salary, and opportunities for advancement depend on the evaluation of specialists, and this inevitably affects the issues discussed and the language employed.12 As mentioned earlier, systems of tenure and promotion reward faculty who establish their own prestige through specialized publication directed toward and recognized by expert publics or elites, rather than through practical action in the community or influence on public opinion and social change.
There are indications, however, that the narrow and highly specialized definitions of scholarship brought about by the professionalization of academic intellectual life are changing. Ernest Boyer’s influential book, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, for example, has encouraged a rethinking of the relationship between research, teaching, and service, by calling for an enlargement of our understandings of what counts as scholarship.
Increasingly, institutions of higher education are coming to value not only the “scholarship of discovery,” — which comes closest to what is meant when academics speak of “research” — but also what Boyer calls the scholarship of “integration,” of “application,” and of “teaching.”13
Some recent developments indicate a growing recognition and acceptance among religion scholars of an enlarged conception of scholarship that includes activities related to teaching about religions in the schools. In addition to the publication for young readers of the Oxford series, Religion in American Life, these developments include increased attention to religion and schools issues on the part of the American Academy of Religion. In the past few years, the AAR has not only established a “Religion in the Schools” task force, it has also included several sessions related to religion in the schools on the programs of its annual meetings in Nashville and Denver. Most recently, the AAR has secured a grant from the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning to support the creation of teams of schoolteachers and religion scholars. These teams will develop new teaching modules for religion in the social studies curriculum of secondary schools. Such developments indicate an increasing awareness on the part of the profession that teacher education and K-12 related activities are worthy of attention by religion scholars. They may also signal a gradual shift in the criteria that are used in making decisions about tenure and promotion — especially at comprehensive universities, and perhaps eventually at research universities as well.
Apart from the obstacles created by the specialization of academic life and its accompanying conceptions of scholarship, other obstacles to the involvement of religion scholars in teacher education and in the schools include the longstanding barriers at many colleges and universities between faculty in the humanities and social sciences on the one hand, and faculty in departments and schools of education on the other. Sometimes these barriers are administrative or institutional in nature, as in cases where the general studies curriculum, the curricula for majors, and teaching credential programs are strictly segregated and administered independently from one another. In other instances, the barriers are of a more self-imposed nature, as when scholars in the humanities and social sciences complain about a lack of attention to content on the part of their colleagues in education departments, and education professors express doubt about the pedagogical sophistication of their colleagues in the humanities and social sciences. The exact character of these mutual suspicions varies so widely from university to university that it is hard to suggest a generic strategy for overcoming them. The campus politics of each particular setting must be taken into account.
Even so, there is some indication that the gulf between the various camps is beginning to be bridged. The National Network for Educational Renewal (NNER), for example, consists of seventeen settings in fifteen states where teams of university arts and sciences faculty, teacher educators, and school teachers and administrators collaborate in the effort to advance the Network’s agenda for the “simultaneous renewal” of public schools and the education of educators within the larger context of education in a democracy. The agenda for simultaneous renewal is based on the idea that the improvement of schools and the improvement of teacher education must go hand in hand and that traditional barriers between arts and sciences faculty, teacher educators, and schoolteachers must be broken down.14
Let me conclude by briefly reporting on a few of the K-12 related activities of my own department as a way of illustrating some of the ways that religion scholars might become involved with these issues. Over the past several years, my colleagues and I have worked with curriculum specialists in the public schools to organize and present workshops on Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as on such topics as religion and values in American history and society and the religions of the Hmong and other Southeast Asian immigrants. These presentations and workshops have usually been scheduled as part of daylong professional development conferences sponsored by local school districts in northern California, by the CSU, Chico Education Department, by the California History-Social Science Project, and by the California International Studies Project.15
Of particular interest are several recent initiatives sponsored by RISE (Resources for International Studies Education), the International Studies Project site for northern California. In 1998, members of the CSU (Chico) Religious Studies Department gave a full day presentation to twenty-five K-6 teachers from northeastern California who were participating in a year-long institute, Big Rivers. The directors of the institute had chosen this theme because it could be addressed from the multiple disciplinary perspectives of geography, economics, science, politics, sociology, anthropology, and religious studies. Each session of the institute integrated California history/social science standards-based content, problem based learning pedagogy, and such international studies concepts as “context-setting,” “multiple perspectives,” “managing conflict,” and “interconnectedness.”
One day of the institute was devoted to a discussion of “Religion, Rivers, and the Sacred.” I began the session with background on the First Amendment and the “what, why, and how” of teaching about religions in public school classrooms. My colleague, Dr. Sarah Pike, then shared her research on the Rio Grande as a site of conflict and interaction between Native American, Spanish, and Anglo religions and cultures, using a group discussion of Rudolfo Anaya’s novel, Bless Me, Ultima, as a point of departure. Dr. Sarah Caldwell concluded the session with a description of her visits to the Ganges in India, and an introduction to the religious mythology and symbolism surrounding that world-famous river.
RISE subsequently sponsored two year-long institutes devoted entirely to teaching about religions in the schools. The first institute was entitled, Learning to Live with Our Deepest Differences: A California Standards-Based Approach to Teaching About the World’s Religions. This series of Friday evening and Saturday sessions addressed the First Amendment and classic legal cases involving religion and public education. It also included sessions on the religions of India, the Olympics as a window to understanding ancient Greek religion, conflict and continuity in the histories of Judaism and Christianity, and field trips to a local mosque and Sikh temple. The second institute was entitled, Children of Abraham: Learning and Teaching about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It provided an opportunity for more in-depth attention to three of the traditions that figure prominently in the new California History-Social Science Content Standards. This past semester, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, my colleagues and I organized a three part series, Teaching About Religion, Politics, and Global Issues, attended by over one hundred teachers. The series included presentations on Islam, the historical roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and women in Islam.
In addition to their focus on content, these workshops must also respond to teachers’ practical questions about appropriate and effective techniques for teaching about religions. Is role-playing an appropriate way to teach about diverse religious practices? Should teachers allow or encourage students to share their religious beliefs, practices, and customs? Are teachers allowed to discuss their own religious beliefs and practices? While these sorts of pedagogical questions are not entirely different from those faced by religious studies professors in state universities, they arise in a particularly sensitive way in the public schools. For this reason, it is usually a good idea for religion scholars to work as part of a team with master teachers and curriculum specialists as they seek to address such questions together.16
In addition to this rather piecemeal approach — what amounts to remedial education for in-service teachers — a more long-term strategy is to integrate the academic study of religions into teacher preparation and credentialing programs. There are any number of institutional and political obstacles that will likely need to be overcome in order to bring about such a reform. Yet, here again, recent developments in California may indicate a move in this direction. Since 1998, all persons applying for a Social Science teaching credential have had to satisfy Standard Nine of the California Department of Education’s standards for Social Science Teacher Preparations. This standard requires each prospective social science teacher to demonstrate knowledge of the impact of religious ideals, beliefs, and values on human history and society. The course that I mentioned at the outset of this essay, Teaching About Religions in American Public Schools, was originally designed to help meet this requirement by preparing future teachers to approach the study of religion in an academically and constitutionally appropriate fashion.
More than any other single American institution, the public schools are places where people of all different faiths and those of no religious faith come together on a regular and sustained basis. Religion and public education is perhaps the most obvious and significant area in which the academic agendas and civic responsibilities of religion scholars intersect. By attending to the academic study of religion in elementary and secondary schools, there is enormous opportunity for religion scholars to contribute to the education of their fellow citizens outside the university. There is also opportunity to contribute to the consolidation of the standing of religious studies as an academic discipline both in the university and in American public life more generally.
1 Chana Schoenberger, “Getting to Know about You and Me”, in Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas, eds., Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education (Nashville: The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, 1998), 7.11-7.12.