Suggested Approaches to Teaching Religion in Schools During the Holidays

December 26, 2000

Source: The Christian Science Monitor

On December 26, 2000, The Christian Science Monitor reported on public schools' history of abstaining from religious material during the holidays. Since the mid-1980s, however, public schools have finally begun to focus on "the key role of religion in American life." Scholar Charles Haynes notes, "For the first time, we have a widely shared consensus that teaching about religion is important and constitutional." He claims, however, that we are still ignoring "how we will live with these religious differences." The following are examples of how some scholars and chaplains are negotiating these differences.

George Marsden, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame, urges those who teach religion to identify their own religious views, "so that one is not posing as a neutral observer - because no one is neutral on those types of questions." He also believes in the importance of civility: "You have to respect others' views," he says, "recognizing that you can't oblige everyone to agree with you." He suggests that teachers share how their religious perspectives shape other viewpoints they hold.

James Fraser, Professor of History and Education Dean of the School of Education at Northeastern University, dislikes public schools' attempts to "secularize or ignore" the holidays. He believes it is possible to "impart a sense of the beauty of the various traditions celebrated at the end of the year" without favoring one religion over the others.

David Hollinger, a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, does not think religion is a legitimate basis for intellectual debate: "The main line of academic culture since the enlightenment has been to diminish religious authority," he points out. "We now go on the basis of scientific evidence."

Jewelnel Davis, University Chaplain of Columbia University, asserts that the way "we have to" celebrate the holidays is to "seek out points of similarity" among different faiths. To her the holidays are "a time when we can be more intentional and deliberate about acknowledging our differences and celebrating the diversity among us."

Jill Kirschner, the director of Jewish student life at Long Island University, sees the holidays as an opportunity to teach students about their own religious traditions because it is a time when they become more interested in it, and in "seeking out a feeling of solidarity" with other members of their religion.

Lewis Barker, a psychology professor at Auburn University, has some misgivings about integrating religion into the curriculum. "People can integrate faith and learning till the cows come home," he says. "But I'm against it being institutional policy" because then it comes at the cost of a pluralistic academic setting open to secular intellectual exploration.