Education Commentary

Commentary: Lear: Schools Must Teach About Religion

December 13, 1989 6 min read

In a speech to the American Academy of Religion, the television producer Norman Lear, a founder of the civil-liberties group People for the American Way, encouraged schools last month to teach more about religion as part of their efforts to “play a better role in instilling the values that unite us as a nation":

[Schools] must teach about the role religion has played in our history. And they must inspire students to nurture that inner world where humans, from the very beginning of the species, have shared the same sense of awe and wonder as they groped for meaning. All this without preaching a sectarian creed or degenerating into a moral nihilism. ...

If it is unacceptable for the schools to adopt a narrow sectarianism, so also is it unacceptable for them to embrace an absolute secularism. Yes, we must promote cultural literacy and mathematical literacy and good old-fashioned literacy. But education also demands ethical literacy--and that requires a full discussion of the moral and spiritual values which tend to bind a culture together.

As a civil libertarian and a firm believer in the separation of church and state, I reject the views of those on the religious right who want to turn the public schools into sectarian academies--teaching creationist theology as scientific fact, rewriting textbooks to conform with a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, making legal provisions for starting each school day with prayer and meditation of a sort, which violates the rights of those whose faith, they feel, is not represented or those who see themselves as nonreligious.

But I also part with those who are so fastidious in maintaining the separation of church and state that they would purge any reference to God or religion from the public schools. Among secularists, the aversion toward discussing moral values--let alone religion--can reach absurd extremes.

You may have heard about the guidance counselor in New Jersey who refused to tell his high-school class whether they would be morally obligated to return a wallet with $1,000 in cash to its rightful owner. That guidance counselor reportedly said he didn’t want to impose his values on his students, thus abdicating his responsibility as an educator, as an adult, and as a human being endowed with the ability to make moral distinctions.

To manage the everyday demands of their work, many teachers adopt strategies for conserving time and energy, writes David J. Flinders, assistant professor of education at the University of Oregon, in a monograph based on case studies of six high-school English teachers.

In the following excerpts from Voices From the Classroom, published by the eric Clearinghouse on Educational Management at the University of Oregon, Mr. Flinders describes the need for and possible consequences of such practices:

Consider, for example, [the teacher] Peter Karlin’s point system for grading student assignments. Peter is faced with a potentially arduous and time-consuming task--evaluating anywhere between 30 and 150 student poems or essays. By prespecifying the criteria he will use (mechanics, tone, appeal to audience, and so forth) and assigning each criterion a point value, Peter is able to standardize this task and ultimately reduce the process of assigning a grade down to a matter of simple addition.

It should be clear that no “system” is able to transform Peter’s work into a purely mechanical process. However, such routines do help shield him from the demands of continually having to think through every decision he makes.

Developing standard routines that simplify one’s work is clearly common to most, if not all, occupations. Yet certain types of classroom routines--such as point systems, multiple-choice tests, and worksheets--may be problematic insofar as they lead to what [the researcher] Elliot Eisner has called “structured fragmentation.”

This oxymoron refers to the common practice of breaking curricula down into isolated bits and pieces so that they may be efficiently “processed.” The coherence of the classroom curriculum then comes to depend on procedures and rules rather than substance.

Eisner’s concern is that structured fragmentation makes it difficult for students to secure substantive meaning from their school experience. Their schooling becomes simply a game of passing tests, following rules, and accumulating credits toward graduation.

But how does structured fragmentation affect teaching? If survival demands that they simply “cover” or “process”’ curriculum efficiently, ... teachers are less likely to become intellectually engaged with the subject matter they teach. Indeed, I often found such engagement conspicuously absent in the day-to-day professional lives of the teachers I observed.

The advent of the classroom calculator has diminished the importance of arithmetic in mathematics curricula, two experts write in the November/December issue of Technology Review. And growing diversity in what math is used for, they say, is making other topics more essential.

In the following excerpts, Kenneth M. Hoffman, executive director of the Mathematical Sciences Education Board, and Lynn Arthur Steen, chairman of the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, show geometry as an area offering “excellent opportunities for developing significant mathematical ideas from the earliest school years all the way through college.”

For example, suppose youngsters spent as much time learning about volume and area--by pouring liquids from one container to another--as they now devote to inessential arithmetic skills. They could learn by experience that a cylinder holds enough water to fill three cones with the same base and height as the cylinder, and that three spheres hold just enough water to fill two cylinders with the same radius as the spheres and the same height as the spheres’ diameter.

Archimedes recognized these relationships to be among the most profound truths he discovered. Yet even young children can be helped to perceive such fundamental facts of size and volume that govern the three-dimensional world in which they live.

Children could also use blocks and tiles to learn about the scaling of dimension--that doubling the dimensions of a square results in an area four times as great, while doubling a cube produces a volume eight times larger. From these experiences, they can learn that dimension reflects the doubling exponent. ...

For older children, it is then just a short step to learn about elementary forms of fractals. By drawing these by hand or on a computer, students will see that the fractals’ doubling exponent is not a power of two. Deterministic chaos--a fractal behavior--is a common source of apparent disorder in nature that is one of the most significant scientific discoveries of our age. It is an idea accessible to older children who build on a proper foundation of geometrical exploration. ...

As these examples show, geometry can serve the developmental role now carried solely by arithmetic: to move children from informal notions to formal mathematics.

Robert R. Douglass, vice chairman of the Chase Manhattan Corporation, suggested in a speech last month to the Mississippi Power Educational Symposium that businesses, in their efforts to promote educational improvement, should tie financial support to performance standards:

One of our early efforts was as part of a group of banks which committed to hire a substantial number of students from inner-city schools to become tellers upon high-school graduation. What we found, however, was that the schools were unable to produce applicants with the basic reading and counting skills the jobs required. So our commitment and support alone weren’t very helpful.

That experience led us to a conclusion expressed most succinctly by [former U.S. Secretary of Education William J.] Bennett, who has said: “More generosity should come with strings attached.” And the string we’ve attached is accountability--accountability for goals that are agreed upon going into the programs we support.

Taken all in all, it’s a dramatic shift in roles for us: We started as interested bystanders, moved to supporting the schools financially--but without examining the approach--and today, acting as a partner, we make sure the resources are there--and used--to design, support, and evaluate the effective approaches to improve education.

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 1989 edition of Education Week as Commentary: Lear: Schools Must Teach About Religion