We require American students to know algebra to graduate from high school. We require them to understand our political system of checks and balances. We even require most of them to dissect a frog to get a diploma.
We consider all of those things essential to being “educated” – to having the fundamental knowledge to engage competently and confidently in the broader world.
How can we not provide our high school students with an appreciative understanding of the most potent force in human history and contemporary society – the world’s religions and their various interactions?
Religious diversity is no longer just an ‘over there’ phenomenon. Bill Moyers relates a telling story about America’s changing religious landscape.
Two guys are sitting at a café in California. One says to the other, “Do you know anything about Eastern religions?”
His friend responds, “Sure. I knew some Methodists when I lived in Pennsylvania”.
Whatever we might think Eastern religion refers to these days, my bet is that it is something other than Methodists in Pennsylvania.
And while our doctrine of separation of church and state wisely prevents any one religion from being enshrined in our public institutions, it does not stop us from teaching about religion.
In fact, in its 1963 decision in the case of Abington v. Schempp, the United States Supreme Court declared that study about religions in the nation’s public schools was both legal and crucial. Justice Tom Clark, writing for the majority opinion, stated:
“[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religions or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”
The real question is not whether we should teach about religion and religious diversity, it is how. The methodology that my organization, the Interfaith Youth Core uses, is called shared values / service-learning.
Serving others is a value that all religions share. Tracing how this value plays out across religions – in their various scriptures, poetry, heroes, rituals, etc – provides a fascinating window into religion, because it helps students make the connection between the somewhat abstract aspects of a tradition and the concrete practices of a community.
Students can, for example, learn about the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, which says, “No one of you truly believes until he wants for his brother what he wants for himself,” and talk to a Muslim community about how their practice of charity helps achieve this goal.
There are similar concepts in all the world‘s religions, and in our increasingly religiously diverse America, there are many religious communities putting these teachings into practice. A careful study of the American religious landscape will reveal numerous initiatives that seek to apply the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (repair of the world), projects that practice the service ethic of Hindu sages such as Vivekananda and Gandhi, and efforts that give concrete shape to the Buddhist notion of compassion and the Christian call to justice.
In this way, students learn that there are indeed universal values shared across traditions, but that each religion has its own unique approach to these values.
Over the past several years, I have given dozens of talks to K-12 educators at every level – from kindergarten teachers to high school principals – and to faculty, staff and students at college campuses. In response to their questions, the Interfaith Youth Core has developed teacher training workshops on our interfaith shared values methodology and a campaign called the Days of Interfaith Youth Service which helps educational institutions apply this approach in a more active way.
We would be happy to work with you and your institution. Visit http://www.ifyc.org to find out more.