Social Studies Q&A

Teachers Often Unprepared, Unsupported in Teaching Religion, Harvard Expert Says

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — October 23, 2015 7 min read
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Is memorizing the Five Pillars of Islam an appropriate activity for middle schoolers learning about world religion? If a history class covers the development of a religion, should it also cover religious extremism?

There has been an outcry in several states this school year about how young people are taught about religion, and particularly about Islam. Dozens of headlines—and, in Tennessee, several state legislators—assert that students are being “indoctrinated” in the religion. Others say it’s inappropriate to teach about Islam, even to young students, without teaching about extremist groups like ISIS that commit atrocities in the name of religion.

The political controversy often swirls around standards and worksheets. But what about the teachers who are in the classroom, talking and teaching students about religion?

Diane Moore, the director of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard University, says that well-prepared teachers who have a background in religious studies can help diffuse some of the misunderstandings about the study of religion that are fueling controversies.

But, she says, most teachers are unprepared and unsupported as they enter into this fraught and politicized territory.

There is no association for K-12 public school teachers of religion that’s equivalent to the groups for math, history, or literacy teachers. That’s why the American Academy of Religion released its own guidelines for teaching about religion in public schools. The guidelines make a case for teaching about religion in schools as a way to increase the public’s “religious literacy,” lay out some historical and legal context, and offer a framework for how teachers can approach religion in their classrooms.

Education Week spoke with Moore about teaching about religion in public schools and about how teachers, policymakers, and parents can think about current issues in Tennessee and Georgia. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

I reached out to you because of news from Tennessee and Georgia about parents who say their students are being indoctrinated in Islamic religious beliefs in their history classes.

Controversies around how Islam is taught are not a new phenomenon. It’s getting exacerbated as the discourse around a host of things, religion being one of them, is getting more contentious. It makes sense to me that people are concerned about what’s going on in schools.

One thing I know that does happen pretty regularly is that there are organized protests orchestrated by people who are wanting to challenge the legitimacy of any positive representation of Islam in schools. So they’ll target teachers or schools and highlight practices that seem perfectly acceptable. They’ll highlight them and raise concerns about them in the public sphere. It’s in some ways a misrepresentation by politically motivated interests.

Then good people get caught up in anxiety that could be mitigated in part by giving teachers support about how to teach about religion and information about the difference between devotional practices versus the study of devotional traditions. Without that information people get anxious and fearful, and you end up fueling this kind of prejudice.

What should policymakers and teachers be thinking about as they respond to these concerns?

We put [the AAR] guidelines together to help avoid exactly what’s going on in Tennessee. It does matter how you teach about religion. ... There’s an important difference, that’s being recognized, between teaching about religion from a devotional perspective and teaching it from an academic, religious studies perspective. The latter is legally mandated and appropriate, and has been the way we’ve taught religion for a very long time. Unfortunately, when you isolate religion and only teach it from the perspective of its devotional practices instead of how religion interacts with other parts of society, even if it’s taught correctly it can be perceived as endorsing a religious belief.

We put teachers in a terrible position of having to teach a controversial subject without support themselves. That’s a significant problem, given that teachers don’t have any training.

What’s an example of how teaching about devotional practice can go wrong?

One example might be that teachers might invite students to enact a ritual expression or to practice prayers to give them an experience. Of course, that’s inappropriate, both from the perspective of the academic study of religion and because it diminishes the importance of the ritual or prayer.

But because of a profound lack of understanding, often devotional practices and the study of religion are conflated.

Are there any places that are doing a good job of preparing teachers to talk about these issues?

We offer through Harvard a certificate in religious studies and education that educators can pursue online. I would love to learn if there are others. But many schools of education are not themselves moving forward with this in any meaningful way. There are lots of reasons, including that, in this current climate, schools of education are often not giving credibility to teacher education programs themselves. They’re more focused on research and policy.

In Georgia, some parents were raising concerns that Islamic practices were being taught and weren’t being connected to modern-day politics and groups like ISIS.

The problem is, whenever we portray religion as all positive or all negative we’re not representing the full role of religion in human expression. It’s not a positive or negative force in and of itself. It can be used to promote, in any religious tradition, both heinous acts of cruelty and the most amazing aspirational capacities humans can present.

When religion is represented as just a devotional practice in schools, it isolates religion [from history and culture]. And those representations are almost always uniformly positive. All the religions are taught that way.

You’ve got a chart in almost every textbook. It’ll have five religious traditions, maybe six, with the leader, texts, beliefs, and practices. It represents the notion of static, devotional, ahistorical religion...They’ll all be represented that way. But then you’re going to learn about something like the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism, and then in the next morning you’ll hear about religious violence in Myanmar. And then how do I make sense of the Four Noble Truths?

I would love to help people understand it’s not either positive or negative and give them tools to understand.

So what should teachers have in mind when they’re teaching about religions?

You can be very explicit about the fundamental tenets of a religious, academic studies approach to teaching about religion.

You can make a distinction between the devotional expression of religious belief and the study of diverse religious expressions. If it’s not made, you’ll conflate them and there’ll be all kinds of problems.

Religions are internally diverse, not static entities. We tend to teach as though they’re static, when they’re not.

Religions are not ahistorical. They’re living traditions and they manifest in different ways. That’s a critical dimension that we wish was emphasized in schools, a recognition that religions are embedded in all aspects of human experience. They’re not isolated.

I’m imagining that it could be hard for teachers with their own strong religious practice and without a lot of education in religious studies to figure out how to do this well.

It’s like any other discipline. But history teachers have degrees in history, English teachers have degrees in English. The issue with religion is it cuts across all those disciplines, but very few teachers have exposure to the religious studies way of thinking about religion. So the assumption is often that practitioners are experts at religion.

Practitioners or even religious leaders aren’t necessarily versed in religious studies. A Roman Catholic isn’t going to be schooled in various sects of Protestantism.

That’s not to discredit the power of devotional expression. It’s to say, people who are trained as devotional leaders are not trained in the study of religion. It’s a different kind of study.

Are there any other trends or things happening in the religious education field or education in general that you’ve been concerned about?

There’s nothing neutral about education. What boring work education would be if it were neutral.

I always wish we would be able to have not only a more-informed understanding of religion, as we’ve been talking about, but also have a different kind of discourse to talk about, what are the values that underlie people’s interest in wanting to promote one kind of educational reform over another?

Education becomes the venue through which we can either engage in destructive public conversations about who we are, or we can invite a different kind of discourse.

What we do in schools really matters. It’s at the heart of what a society represents in terms of its values. But now, we end up having false debates. For instance, the one we’re talking about: Should we teach in schools that Islam creates terrorism? We’re not even talking about a factual understanding of religion generally. We’re assuming a factual assertion that’s not even true. We’re caught in so many ways in this sort of challenge.

This post was updated to clarify that Harvard offers a certificate, not a degree, in religious studies and education.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.