Religion in schools: Gym class, then biblical studies?

A place for religious literacy?

The recent turmoil in financial markets may have surprised some Americans with how risky their investments were leveraged. Another surprise may have been that negotiations needed to be delayed two days as key congressional leaders were observing Rosh Hashanah. Were you asking, “What’s Rosh Hashanah?”

Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish new year and heralds the 10 days of repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Why do I as a Muslim know this? I had the privilege of growing up and going to public school in suburban New York City, where these days were public school holidays. Naturally, one would ask friends and teachers about the significance of these religious holidays. Teachers taught religious history, not religious indoctrination.

Our country and our region are getting more diverse, both ethnically and religiously. As this shift occurs, it is incumbent on our public schools to teach the basics of religions of the world to ensure well-rounded students. This makes sense, given the interplay of religion in current events. It also makes sense as our economy goes global.

Social customs often have a religious background. Some of our local students may pursue civil engineering and help build skyscrapers in Dubai. It would be helpful for them to know not to bring holiday ham or wine to their Muslim friends in Dubai. Future IT consultants traveling back and forth to Bangalore, India, would do well to know some basics about Hinduism and Islam for smooth interactions with their Tata Consulting colleagues. Closer to home, how many of us knew much about Rosh Hashanah prior to the bailout discussion?

Stephen Prothero’s book “Religious Literacy” outlines our rich religious heritage in America and how we used to teach the basics of religion in public school and why we should return to that. There is a difference between teaching basic fundamentals and proselytizing.

In Milwaukee, we also have the advantage of a rich interfaith tradition. That could help school districts in planning curriculum that prepares high school students with knowledge of the world – while still being sensitive to the First Amendment but capitalizing on the knowledge base of our interfaith community. As a community, we need to agree that a certain skill set of religion basics is needed to be a global citizen and that this process is inculcating knowledge, not merging church and state.

Think of what I am saying. I am a Muslim parent who wants his children to learn about Christianity in public school. I want my children to know about the significance of Christmas, Easter and Lent. I want them to have some understanding of biblical references in English literature. Why? It will make them better Americans.

We are too afraid to discuss religion in public schools as we misinterpret separation of church and state. Public schools cannot teach one religion, but they can teach about religion. As our economy goes global and our society gets more diverse, we should ask our school boards to read Prothero’s book and come up with an action plan.

This will help students better understand their friends, neighbors and the world around them. In addition, with education about Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and other religious traditions, schoolmates will better understand one another.

Do I worry my children will be confused? Possibly, if we start too young. But if we wait to do it at the high school level, there can be mature discussions in school with follow-up discussions around the dinner table. I see little downside to families talking about values they hold dear and how they compare to those of other belief systems.

Better to learn facts in school than imagery from the film “Religulous.”

(Photo courtesy of Patrick Q via flickr under a Creative Commons license).

Mushir Hassan is a primary care internal medicine physician and community activist in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This piece was previously published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.


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