Overcoming flash points of religious, ethnic studies

Overcoming flash points of religious, ethnic studies

(Md.) As school boards throughout the country come face to face with parents upset about lessons students receive on Islam, a national curriculum authority has issued guidance is calling on districts to include instruction on religion as part of the social studies curriculum regardless of the local circumstances.

The National Council for the Social Studies has released supplemental guidance to its 2014 College, Career, and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards, that aim to help educators increase religious literacy by having students study the social and political roles that various religions play in society.

Authors of the guidance note that studying the basics of major religions through the lens of geographic inquiry will help students understand and appreciate their own place in the world, and foster curiosity about the diversity of environments and cultures around the globe.

“The idea behind the study of religion is that you’re studying in an academically and constitutionally appropriate way the notion of how a system of beliefs and shared values shape how a culture develops–in no way is it meant to be indoctrinating in a particular religion or saying that one has value over another,” said Lawrence Paska, executive director of the NCSS. “But this can be a sensitive issue. As a former middle school teacher I know it can be hard to talk about belief systems and feel prepared for the question and answer phase that so many kids have.”

The decision to incorporate lessons about religion–specifically Islam–as part of world history or social studies has led to a handful of high profile debates among parents and school boards on what is appropriate.

Earlier this year in New Jersey, two parents brought up their concerns to their school board about how Islam was being taught in their children’s schools as part of a world cultures and geography class, particularly during the section on the Middle East and North Africa region,. School leaders emphasized that the school was following the state standards on teaching religion, which also includes lessons on Christianity, Hinduism and Judaism.

Local school boards in Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee all fielded complaints last year. In Tennessee, the state board of education drafted new state social studies standards omitting a section on Islam after lawmakers passed a bill allowing districts to decide for themselves how to incorporate religious studies. The bill was authored to address outrage in Maury County that seventh graders were asked to identify the Five Pillars of Islam. The sections that discuss instruction on Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions were left unchanged in the state’s social studies standards draft.

Despite any controversy that may arise, however, Paska said that because the origins, traditions and the histories of a religion play such a significant role on the culture of a given country or region, it is important that students have a grasp on what it is that is influencing people.

“The academic study of religion is seen as a discipline within the social studies because when we’re trying to prepare students to understand the history of the world or how cultures grow, develop and interconnect over time, part of that is an understanding of the belief systems and values of those various cultures,” Paska explained. “It’s about teaching what the belief system is, how it was originated, where it spread over time, and how it may impact leaders and citizens today.”

The guidance, which focuses on social studies frameworks for high school, doesn’t say specifically what lessons students should receive, but outlines what knowledge they should have by the end of grade 12. For instance, authors wrote that through social science education, students should know upon graduating how to use geospatial and related technologies to create maps to display and explain the spatial patterns of cultural and environmental characteristics.

In regard to religion, high school seniors should be able to analyze relationships and interactions within and between human and physical systems to explain reciprocal influences that occur among them; evaluate how political and economic decisions throughout time have influenced cultural and environmental characteristics of various places and regions; and also evaluate the impact of human settlement activities on the environmental and cultural characteristics of specific places and regions, among other skills.

Paska did note that it is important that teachers feel capable in their abilities to teach the basic ideals of each religion, as well as the traditions and the history, without including opinion or avoiding the subject altogether.

“If teachers don’t feel comfortable teaching a certain belief system without inserting opinion or without having to address the opinions that kids may bring to a class already, they may choose not to teach it altogether, but this guidance clarifies religious studies as a discipline within social studies that has a great deal of connection across disciplines,” Paska said. “We think this guidance is a helpful start, and we would also recommend that teachers work together to ask each other questions if they aren’t sure how to teach a particular topic or if they aren’t sure how to answer a question from a student–they can rely on each other and share information and practices, and they can get better together about how they approach the academic study of religion.”