Major Issue Essay
R C 2001
Religion in American High Schools
Religion’s effect on culture is apparent from the role of priests in early societies like Mesopotamia to the ongoing debate of what role religion should play in American Public schools. In 1947, the supreme court incorporated the Establishment Clause into the first Amendment prohibiting “any law ‘respecting an establishment of religion.’,” (la.cornell.edu). Then, on June 25th, 1962, the Engle vs. Vitale case arose questioning “Whether school-sponsored nondenominational prayer in public schools violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” (uscourts.gov). The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that voluntary prayer within public schools did indeed violate the establishment clause of the first amendment. Since then, there has been an ongoing debate regarding religions place in public schools. Religion has always played a role in the world and in recent years’ religious participation has shown growth on college campuses. In the article “What Is the Purpose of The American High School,” published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Steven Weber says the goal of the system is “to graduate all students ‘college and career ready.’.” (Edge.asdc.org) While religion’s role on college campuses continues to grow American high school’s inclusion of the subject does not. The inclusion of religion in the education of students attending public high schools will enhance student’s college readiness while also serving as a tool for students understanding of others.
Stephen Prothero is chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University along with being a published author in five continents. He wrote a piece published by CNN called “My Take: Why American public schools need religion courses.” In the piece Prothero uses loaded vocabulary throughout his writing and ends the article by making the claim that religious courses in high school are the solutions to “our national epidemic of religious illiteracy.” (religion.blogs.cnn.com). As of now, public school teachers are being restricted when it comes to teaching religion. On July 12th, 1995, a “Memorandum on Religious Expression in Public Schools” was released by William J. Clinton. In the memorandum, Clinton addresses the teaching of religion where it is stated, “Public schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about religion,” (presidency.ucsb.edu). The memorandum goes on to clear up that teaching “about religion,” includes ideas such as “The history of religion” and “religious influences on art, music, literature, and social studies.” This meaning that teachers can instruct concerning religion objectively when it fits into a subject already being taught. Pewforum.org conducted a survey at their research asking people “How much do you know about Muslim Religion,” the survey began in November of 2001 and continued through August of 2010 (Pewforum.org). Answer choices on the survey ranged from “don’t know” to “a great deal,” the highest percent of people that chose the answer choice “a great deal” was 9% leaving the other 91% of people in the range of “don’t know” to “some.” With that, as Cathy Lynn said in a piece for USA Today concerning the same survey, “Can you take a stance on foreign affairs if you don’t know that Indonesia, like Pakistan, is primarily Muslim?” (content.usatoday.com). As a country and world we need to be in the range of knowing “a great deal” so that the views and opinions we bring to the table are meaningful and knowledge based, getting to that point starts in the American high school.
The presence of religious influence on societal affairs is growing and as people it is our responsibility to be knowledgeable enough to form an opinion based on what we know so that we can vote in a way we stand for. One of the places where it is necessary to be well versed so that when a conversation arises one can contribute to it intellectually are college campuses. “From the moment students get to campus they are surrounded by differing views,” says Joe Lortie who served at Miami university as the campus chaplain for 13 years (students.com.miami.edu). From campus preachers to organizations like campus crusades to religious studies being in general education requirements religion is becoming more of an immediate factor in high school students lives. Earlier I mentioned that the American high school, as Steven Weber said, is meant to prepare students for college. Religions effects are abundant in college and if students are not religiously literate their lack of previous knowledge will reflect in conversation and class. Caitrin Blake wrote an article called “Defining Religious Literacy: Why Teaching About Religion Enhances Learning” where she brings up the Religious Literacy project started by the Harvard Divinity School. In the project, religious literacy is defined as “a basic understanding of the world’s dominant religions, including knowledge of the history, pivotal texts, practices and beliefs.” As she continues to write Blake uses examples to show how religion is connected to things such as history, literature, and other forms of art. Towards the end of the article Blake sites Stephen Prothero, whom I mentioned earlier, who began giving students in his upper-level American Christian course. The quiz was made up of questions about texts, beliefs, and holidays concerning some of the world’s most common religions. One student passed the quiz “only answering about 60 percent of the questions correctly.” The results of said quiz furthered the points of both Prothero and Blake as she finishes the topic by saying the students are “unable to accurately interpret political arguments and foreign policy.” From conversation with peers on campus to forming political and social views backed by fact and knowledge religious literacy is necessary so that our contribution is meaningful and based on a solid foundation.
When the topic of religion in public schools arises, people worry that teaching religion will influence student’s beliefs or cause some students to feel left out along with many other concerns. This brings up a variety of questions, one of the questions many people ask concerning religion being taught in public schools is “What skills will my child develop through these classes?” Recently Scotland began incorporating religious studies in lower schools and one of the questions people wanted the answer was to know what skills students would gain. The Scottish government answered the question for all parents saying; “In religious and moral education children will develop important life skills such as investigation, analysis and evaluation. They will develop their thinking skills as well as skills of reflection. This will help them to develop a fuller understanding of others, the world in which they live and their potential contribution to it.” (education.gov.scot.). Parents may be worried that the education of religion in these public schools may sway the beliefs of students but the purpose of religious education is not to form beliefs but as the Scottish government says is to “develop a fuller understanding.” What student would learn in these classes are skills that will be purposeful for the rest of their lives from the understanding of the beliefs of those around them to analysis skills not taught in math and science. By incorporating these new skills into student’s education process they will be better equipped to face the world and the people in it while also developing new skills to better prepare themselves for college and their future career.
The purpose of the public-school system and the American high school is to set students up so that they have all the skills and knowledge they need to be ready for college and succeed in their future. By bringing religious and moral education to the school system the American high school would enhance the readiness of its students, incorporate the knowledge students need to be understanding of the people surrounding them, and equipping them with what they need to know to form sound opinions on local and foreign affairs. The education of youth is what decides the future of our country and world and the American high school is the best resource for students to ready themselves for the future. Religious and moral education classes will do good for students by going beyond the effects of religion on art, culture, and society as a whole by diving into the major themes of religious groups and enhancing the understanding of our surroundings in a diverse world. While foreign and local affairs concerning religion grow and become more relevant to the lives of all it is necessary for people to know more than religious effects on art and culture so that they can understand the effect religion is having right now. Again, the American high school is meant to ready students for their future and their future is and will always be affected by religion. Incorporating religion into schools will make sure that students are ready and will also enhance their understanding of their surroundings. The American population is becoming more religiously illiterate as time goes by and as people it is our responsibility to contribute to society in a positive way. For students to be able to make that contribution they require religious literacy, the American high school can provide them with what they need to make that contribution by teaching these classes.
Blake, Caitrin. “Professional Resources.” Concordia Nebraska Online. Concordia University, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
Burns, Kelly. “Students Often Learn about Religions on Campus.” News Reporting and the Internet. University of Miami, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.
Carlson, Mr. David. “Establishment Clause.” LII / Legal Information Institute. Cornell University, 10 June 2009. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.
Clinton, William J. “Memorandum on Religious Expression in Public Schools – July 12, 1995.”The American Presidency Project. The American Presidency Project, n.d. Web. 02 May 2017.
“Facts and Case Summary – Engel v. Vitale.” United States Courts. U.S. Courts, n.d. Web. 01 May 2017.
Grossman, Cathy Lynn. “Why Care That Atheists Ace, Faithful Fail on ‘religious Knowledge’?”USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network, 28 Sept. 2010. Web. 01 May 2017.
Liu, Joseph. “Public Remains Conflicted Over Islam.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. Pew Research Center, 23 Aug. 2010. Web. 01 May 2017.
Prothero, Stephen. “My Take: Why American Public Schools Need Religion Courses.” CNN. Cable News Network, 28 Sept. 2010. Web. 01 May 2017.
Scotland Gov. “Keep up to Date.” Religious and Moral Education. Scotland Government, n.d. Web. 20 April 2017.
Weber, Steven. “What Is The Purpose Of The American High School?” ASCD EDge. ASCD EDge, 2012. Web. 02 May 2017.