a journal of analysis and comment
advancing public understanding of religion and education
Vol. 34 No. 3
Learning to Teach about Religion in Public Schools:
Perspectives and Experiences of Student Teachers in the Program
for Religion and Secondary Education at Harvard Divinity School
Michael P. Evans
Upon my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there the more did I perceive the great political consequences resulting from this state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
In the United States, religion informs cultural discourse over a wide range of topics, including the current war in Iraq, euthanasia, health care, gay marriage, capital punishment, and abortion. With the subject of religion playing such a crucial role in American civic life, it may seem surprising that the topic does not have a more central place in the curriculum of our public schools. However, teaching about religion has traditionally been a contentious issue and rather than risk inciting controversy many schools simply avoid the topic.1 Teachers and administrators are hesitant to address religious topics that emerge naturally in the curriculum and uncertain about how they should respond to the religious questions that are posed by their students.2 Using a qualitative approach, this article examines the experiences of six student teachers learning to teach about religion in the Program for Religion and Secondary Education (PRSE) at Harvard Divinity School (HDS). Guided by a multicultural education framework, the author identifies the challenges experienced by novice teachers learning to address religion in the classroom and highlights the resources perceived as being most effective in supporting this endeavor.
The U.S. is the most religiously diverse country in the world and its citizens are among the most active in terms of religious participation. Current population trends indicate that religious diversity in the U.S. will continue to grow as immigrants arrive from an increasing number of countries.3 With such abundant religious diversity, it is clear why the role of religion in public education might be a source of tension in schools, yet judicial precedents exist pertaining to what can and cannot be taught in the classroom. Many of these precedents support teaching about religion and even assert that it is an essential part of the curriculum. In the words of Justice Tom Clark:
It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.4
The prevailing judicial sentiment is that public schools can and should teach about religions, but they may not indoctrinate students or promote specific beliefs. These rulings have brought about the gradual inclusion of religion in several states’ curriculum standards; however, what religious content is taught in schools and how it is taught is still an active source of debate, especially for members of religious minority groups and the Christian Right.5
Despite continuing tensions about the role of religion in public education, the inclusion of religion in the curriculum is largely endorsed by most major religious and educational organizations.6 In 1995, the federal government, recognizing the importance of clarifying the role of religion in public schools, created a set of guidelines that were sent to every superintendent in the United States. The guidelines drew their inspiration from a document entitled “Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law,” which was produced through the collaboration of thirty-five religious groups. The federal guidelines affirmed previous judicial findings and highlighted central issues like the right of students to express their religious beliefs in homework assignments, the schools’ right to excuse students from lessons that they find religiously objectionable, the school’s right to teach civic values, and a re-emphasis of the state’s obligation to maintain an official stance of neutrality. In an accompanying letter, written by Secretary of Education Richard Riley, principals and administrators were encouraged “to take the additional step of making sure that teachers, so often on the front line of any dispute regarding religious expression, are fully informed about the guidelines.”7
While teachers are on the “front lines” in many of these controversies, learning to teach about religion is still largely ignored in teacher preparation programs. As a result, many teachers are confused by the topic as both an area of study and as a multicultural issue. The number of recent court cases regarding religion and schools indicate that religion’s appropriate place is not readily apparent to teachers, schools, or the communities that they serve.8 In a recent study of 342 social studies teachers conducted by Gerard Zam and Gregory Stone, the overwhelming majority of teachers surveyed (99%) agreed that, “the majority of Americans favor teaching about religion in public schools,” yet these same teachers were unaware that “the majority of Americans hold religious convictions” or that it was “acceptable to use primary religious source material in the classroom.” Furthermore, the teachers expressed resistance to the suggestion that public schools should be responsible to provide religious education and preferred that teaching about religion should be left to families. Perhaps the most disturbing results from the survey were that only 13% of the respondents agreed that they had been “adequately trained in this area” and 94% indicated that they “would not include teaching about religion as a topic if they wrote a syllabus for a social studies methods/curriculum course.”9
Resistance to the topic of religion among teachers is not limited to academic content. In a qualitative study conducted by Binaya Subedi, the work of approximately 50 early childhood preservice teachers, enrolled in courses on “equity and diversity” and “critical teaching practices in the area of social studies,” was collected and analyzed. In addition, 9 of the students who expressed interest in discussing religion were interviewed two to three times. Subedi found that his students had little exposure to non-Western religions and expressed little interest in learning more about other faith traditions. Many of the students “resisted recognizing how learners’ sense of religious identity could have a positive effect in everyday lives. The students often felt that organized religions regulated people’s lives.”10 During field experiences, the preservice teachers were very reluctant to critically reflect on the ways in which their schools handled religious issues and manifested dominant religious viewpoints. Despite encouragement, they were also hesitant to tackle religious topics in the curricula that they developed for their coursework.11
If public schools are going to teach about religion, it is clear that teacher educators need to reevaluate how this topic is addressed in programs of study.12 Attempting to understand the challenges that teacher candidates may face in the classroom will be central to improving teacher knowledge in this area. This study seeks to contribute to this effort by examining the experiences of preservice teachers in the PRSE at HDS. By exploring the experiences of student teachers who are actively engaged with the topic of religion we can gain insight about what they find most challenging in communicating this information to their students, how addressing religious topics was received by their peers, and what resources helped them overcome any emerging obstacles.