Public Schools Should Treat Religion More Seriously, Book Argues

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By largely ignoring religion throughout the curriculum, public schools are denying students a full liberal education and trivializing the nation's religious heritage and diversity, two scholars argue in a new book.

"There is a conventional wisdom that students can learn everything they need to know without learning about religion," said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Charles C. Haynes

Mr. Haynes wrote Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum with Warren A. Nord, the director of the humanities and human-values program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Warren A. Nord

"Our conclusion is that schools, curriculum, and standards all nurture a secular mentality in which religion is irrelevant in the search for truth," said Mr. Nord, who appeared with Mr. Haynes at a Sept. 15 session at the Freedom Forum here to unveil the book. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development is the co-publisher of the book with the Freedom Forum, a foundation that focuses on civil liberties issues.


The book says most public school teachers are well-meaning toward the subject of religion but don't always understand how it can be addressed without running afoul of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against any government establishment of religion.

For More Information:

Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum is available for $18.95 from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1703 N. Beauregard St., Alexandria, VA 22311-1714. Call (800) 933-2723 or (703) 578-9600.

The authors argue that despite frequent battles over religious expression in public schools, there is a "new consensus" among all sides of the so-called culture wars that the study of religion is important if students are to become well educated about history and culture.

Mr. Haynes and Mr. Nord further argue that the current treatment of religion in schools, textbooks, and academic standards amounts to hostility toward religion.

"Public schools have disenfranchised those with religious views," Mr. Nord said.

The book details how religion can be addressed throughout the curriculum, from the elementary grades through secondary school subjects such as history, civics, language arts, and science.

The authors also review most of the voluntary national subject-area standards that have been issued in recent years. A few, such as the history standards, are "generous to religion," they say, even if textbooks and classroom teaching have been slow to embrace those guidelines.

But other standards documents give short shrift to the influence of religion, the authors argue.

For example, they say, the national standards for English contain no discussion of religious texts and just three passing references to religion.

The authors make three central arguments for incorporating religion throughout the curriculum. First, "public schools must be built on common ground," and thus the curriculum must teach about religious as well as secular ways of thinking and living.

Second, schools must be religiously neutral, and their current treatment of religion results in unfairness. "Educators no longer think it fair or neutral to ignore black history or women's literature," the book says. "It should be just as obvious that religious voices must be included in the curriculum."

Finally, students cannot be "liberally educated" if they don't understand religion, the authors say.

How Realistic?

The Freedom Forum, funded by a permanent endowment from publisher Frank Gannett, invited several representatives of educational, civil liberties, and conservative Christian groups to read and respond to the book at the session here.

Elliot M. Mincberg, the legal director of the liberal group People for the American Way, based in Washington, praised the book but said incorporating religion into the curriculum "must be a local decision. It's not for ivory tower types and not for the courts" to require it.

Perry Glanzer, an education policy analyst with Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Christian organization, asked the authors how realistic they think the book's vision is.

Mr. Nord replied: "It's not going to happen tomorrow. But 20 years ago, there was very little interest in multicultural education. A revolution has taken place in that area."

Steven K. Green, the chief lawyer for the Washington-based group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, questioned the underlying premise of the book "that religious people have a problem with the secular framework of public education."

"I see very little conflict with that secular framework," he said.

Vol. 18, Issue 4, Page 5

Published in Print: September 30, 1998, as Public Schools Should Treat Religion More Seriously, Book Argues
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