Law & Courts

Calif. District Gains From World-Religions Class

By Sean Cavanagh — May 16, 2006 4 min read
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The city of Modesto, Calif., has the complex religious character of many American communities. The influence of evangelical Christianity is strong, as a new report describes, but over time, Modesto has also become home to a burgeoning population of people of other faiths, including Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs.

Six years ago, the Modesto school system sought to foster understanding among students of those different faiths through an unusual step: a mandatory course on world religions.

“Learning About World Religions in Public Schools” is available from the First Amendment Center.

That approach seems to be working. The study, released last week, concludes that students taking that 9th grade class gained a stronger factual understanding of world religions and a greater respect for the idea of religious tolerance in American society.

The report offers a rare glimpse at how teaching about religion in public schools affects learning, said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, which advocates the rights of free speech and religious expression and published the study. The report also reveals the challenges the 34,000-student district faced in attempting to cover religion objectively, at a time when discussing faith in public schools, long a source of controversy, has once again exposed political and religious divides in states and school districts nationwide.

“It’s really courageous to tackle this in a ‘culture wars’ environment,” Mr. Haynes said during a May 8 forum at his center’s office here, where the study’s authors and Modesto school officials discussed the findings. The district’s experience, he said, tells other public schools that “if you tackle this, [here’s] what it might look like.”

Shifting Attitudes

Mr. Haynes believes Modesto is the country’s first public school district to mandate a world-religions course. Many others have elective religion classes, covering either world religions or the Christian tradition, he said.

Modesto’s decision to offer the world-religions course originated in the late 1990s, during a heated public debate about alleged harassment of gay students in the school system. That led community officials and educators into a broader discussion of how to encourage students to be tolerant of different points of view, including religious beliefs, which in turn led to the creation of the semester-long course in 2000.

Building Knowledge and Tolerance

Student knowledge about and attitudes toward different religions changed after they took a world-religions course.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Building Knowledge and Tolerance

SOURCE: “Learning About World Religions in Public Schools”

The study was conducted by Emile Lester, an assistant professor of government at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., and Patrick S. Roberts, a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. They surveyed 400 Modesto students before they took the course, then afterward, during the 2004-2005 school year, on both their factual knowledge and opinions.

In a six-question test of students’ knowledge of world religions, scores rose from 37 percent before taking the class to 66 percent afterward.

Many students’ opinions of the similarities among different faiths also seemed to shift. The proportion of Modesto students who said they believe that all religions share “the same basic moral values” rose from 46 percent initially to 63 percent after they had taken the course.

The study found Modesto students were “alarmingly intolerant” of overall free-speech rights before taking the course. But those views changed after studying about world religions, with more students saying they supported the rights of the religious group they “least liked” to conduct public protests, teach in public schools, and run for public office.

“The biggest challenge is to dispel a lot of the myths that they get about world faiths, from the media and other places,” said Jennie Sweeney, the district’s social studies coordinator. “We want them to understand these faiths from the point of view of different practitioners, and understand the ideals these faiths are based upon.”

How Warm and Fuzzy?

In trying to avoid bias in the classes, the Modesto district adopted relatively strict teaching guidelines, the 68-page report notes. Teachers were expected, for example, to follow a prearranged sequence for covering different faiths. They were also required to take 30 hours of professional development in religious studies before leading the class.

In addition, the teachers were told generally to avoid controversial subjects, as well as comments implying that any faith was superior to another. School officials were also reluctant to allow guest speakers into the classes for similar reasons, Ms. Sweeney said. “You can’t always control what the speakers are [going] to say,” she explained.

But those safeguards occasionally caused problems, the authors of the study found. They cited an inclination toward “warm and fuzzy” discussions of religion, in which teachers’ fears of causing offense led them to skirt discussions of religions’ harmful influences on society.

“Teachers do not discuss, for instance, the historical use of religion to punish heresy, to justify war, or to suppress scientific inquiry,” the authors conclude.

Many Modesto teachers also found the 6th grade textbook used for the course—chosen partly for its balanced treatment of different faiths—unchallenging and unsatisfactory, and supplemented it with other materials, the authors note.

Teachers often sought to present highly charged religious topics in a broader context, the Modesto officials said. When discussions turned to radical Islam, school officials recalled, teachers often talked about it as part of a larger presentation of extremism in many faiths.

“We had no blueprint,” Yvonne Taylor, a teacher at Johansen High School in the district, recalled at the panel discussion. “We were really starting from square one.” Nonetheless, Ms. Taylor said, teaching the course ended up being “the best thing I’ve done in 33 years of teaching.”

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