a journal of analysis and comment
advancing public understanding of religion and education
Volume 32 Number 1
The Study of Religion in American Schools
I was very pleased to be invited to participate in this panel and to be introduced to Robert Jackson’s fine work. There is a rich body of research literature on religion and education outside of the U.S. context that is quite relevant for us, and I am grateful to Professor Jackson both for his own work as well as for engaging the work of other international colleagues in such a compelling and thought provoking way. We in the U.S. have much to gain from collaborating with international scholars, and I offer the following remarks in the hope that this dialogue will continue and expand.
On the whole, I find Professor Jackson’s approach to the study of religion1 in the schools to be extremely compelling. I share his belief that religion should be taught in public schools from a non-sectarian perspective2 with the dual purpose of 1) promoting religious literacy3 (i.e. knowledge about religion itself and about specific faith traditions) and 2) providing opportunities for students to deepen their own critical thinking skills in relation to fundamental questions of meaning.4 I also share his belief that the study of religion in schools is a necessary and underdeveloped component of critical multiculturalism and citizenship education.5 I am especially impressed with his understanding of the importance of pedagogy as a central component in the debates about religion and education. Though the content of what we teach is clearly important and in need of ongoing critical reflection and scrutiny, how content is taught is equally relevant to outcome and is often neglected in public policy debates. More specifically, I am deeply grateful for Professor Jackson’s foundational assumption that students of all ages have the capacity to be active agents of their own intellectual and moral development.6 His clear defense of a learner-centered pedagogy is refreshing in our own long season of the standardization of education here in the U.S.
The majority of Jackson’s text is a spirited defense of the following three intersecting approaches to education about religion that are all learner-centered: religious literacy, interpretive and dialogical. Jackson offers the following general summary of the inherent values these approaches represent:
The religious literacy, interpretive and dialogical approaches to religious education are not neutral. They acknowledge the inevitable influence of plurality upon young people, and help them to engage with it. They do not set out to promote or to erode particular beliefs, including those of children in school, but they do acknowledge that pupils should be given the opportunity to study and reflect upon different religious and philosophical viewpoints in a structured way and to apply skills of interpretation and criticism methodically. They acknowledge the right of individuals to hold different religious or secular beliefs and that some pupils will bring to the classroom particular affiliations of their families and communities. The stance on pluralism shared by these approaches at the epistemological level, acknowledges that issues concerning the truth of particular religious claims cannot be resolved publicly. Politically, they affirm the individual’s democratic right to freedom of religion or belief and they actively promote tolerance of religious and ideological difference within the law. Ethically, they attempt to ensure that the practices and claims of religions are considered with sensitivity, accuracy, intellectual rigour and fairness.
I share Professor Jackson’s optimism about the important role that the study of religion can and should play in public education and find myself in general agreement with the methods he articulates to advance the values represented above. My remarks here are offered from that shared perspective with the intention of further developing the methodological tools required to ensure that the study of religion will promote and not undermine these important goals. First, I will discuss what I see as some of the challenges associated with the particular approach to learner-centered pedagogy that Professor Jackson promotes. In a second, but related point, I will argue that curricular decisions related to the study of religion should fall within the province of teachers and religious studies scholars rather than religious leaders, politicians and/or parents. Finally, I will address the challenge that the non-sectarian study of religion in the schools poses to exclusivist groups from both faith and non-faith perspectives.
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