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Schools Tackle Lessons on Religion

Some world history texts for elementary grades now teach about different religious beliefs

SIXTH graders in Newark, N.J., will find an addition to the standard subjects of their world history books this year: God.Along with facts about Alexander the Great and the fall of Rome are lessons on the Ten Commandments, the parables of Jesus, the teachings of Confucius, and the tenets of Buddhism. Religion is back in the classroom. In a growing number of states, school board officials and curriculum advisers are calling for - and in some cases requiring - that history lessons, which typically begin in the fifth grade, include descriptions of major religions and religion's role in shaping history. Public schools in Newark, for example, have adopted history texts that discuss sacred Hindu law as well as the journeys of St. Paul. "It's an issue whose time has come," says Beverly Armento, professor of social studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta and co-author of Newark's books, published by the Houghton Mifflin Company. By omitting religion or "glossing over" it, "we've presented a distorted view" of history, she says. Strained euphemisms and odd historical gaps can be found in textbooks of the past, educators say. One Alabama book, for instance, defines the Pilgrims merely as "people who make long trips." Others avoid mentioning that the Pilgrims' celebration of Thanksgiving was to thank God, that religion played a key role in the abolition of slavery in America, or that Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister. "It alienates many citizens to think they're being deliberately written out of history. There's no reason why religious issues can't be talked about," says Charles Haynes, executive director of the First Liberty Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. The institute, made up of educational and religious groups, provides guidelines and resources on religious curriculum to schools. Many teachers and school officials took the Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s, which banned school prayer and devotional Bible-reading, to mean that all forms of religious study were illegal, Mr. Haynes says. While indoctrination is forbidden by the First Amendment, teaching about religion is not, the Court stated. Pressure from parents and teachers to address this issue has been building over the last five years, Haynes says. Several states, such as North Carolina, Utah, California, and Georgia, have endorsed plans to teach religion in public schools. Houghton Mifflin's initiative, not without its critics, is one publisher's attempt to ride the trend. Other publishers, such as Scholastic Inc. and Macmillan Publishing Co., have produced books that include religion as well. "It's part of the multicultural movement," Haynes adds. "The recognition of growing diversity requires that we change how we educate our citizens. If we're going to live together, we're going to have to learn about each other." While a consensus has formed among educators that religion is indeed a legitimate subject for elementary and middle-school grades, exactly how to teach religion is far from settled. Anxiety abounds over the potential for lawsuits and whether teachers know how to avoid indoctrinating students or favoring one religion over another. TEACHERS face "potential land mines," says Jackie Berman, education specialist of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the San Francisco Bay Area. Ms. Berman shares an example. One teacher, betraying her own bias, said that explaining the origin of religion to students is easy: Since human beings couldn't understand nature or natural occurrences, they devised religious beliefs that would explain them. "That would be extremely offensive to anyone who believes in Truth with a capital 'T, Berman says. Houghton Mifflin's textbooks - though adopted by the state departments of education in California, Oregon, Arkansas, and Indiana - have not been met with universal acceptance. Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and atheist factions have criticized them (as have ethnic groups). Berman says the books promote "replacement theology," the notion that Christianity, once established, superseded Judaism. Though the publisher has made changes to correct this - such has changing the title of a chapter about Jesus from "An Age of Transition" to "Religious Developments the problem still remains, she claims. Some Christians say the books go too far in emphasizing similarities between faiths, promoting the idea that all religions are basically alike. The sixth-grade book tells how the golden rule was proposed by Confucius in ancient China and Aristotle in ancient Greece, as well as by Jesus. Officials at Houghton Mifflin defend the material, citing the "strong scholarship" that has gone into the project. "We deliberately wanted to include a lot of multicultural material," says John Ridley, vice president and publisher of the school division, in an interview. "Once you take that position, then you invite people to say, 'there's not enough in there about me.' You have the finiteness of a book. From that point of view, we never thought we'd please everyone." Textbooks are only one part of education, Mr. Ridley says. "What must happen is teachers building their own sensitivity to the issues - how they conduct their class, and how they value the diversity within their classrooms...." Ann Henson teaches at Fort Clark Middle School in Gainesville, Fla. During most of her 22-year career, she says, "I thought you shouldn't teach [religion] because you'd offend someone. So rather than say anything, it was best to say nothing." In recent years, however, Ms. Henson's apprehension has given way to enthusiasm. She has attended teacher workshops sponsored by the First Liberty Institute, where teachers are trained to use primary sources in teaching religion and how to place religious studies in an appropriate academic and civic framework. Henson, a media specialist, says she came to realize "how closely tied religion is to everything that happens in the world." Her own school district of Wicomico County drew up guidelines this past spring for teaching about religion. "The teachers I work with have said, 'I don't know very much about Hinduism, and I'm afraid I'll say the wrong thing, Henson says. The solution is to consider "the facts within the historical context, ... using primary source documents, where you're looking at [religious history] from as many different viewpoints as possible." With proper preparation, teachers can avoid common pitfalls, says Haynes. One mistake, for instance, is to refer to the Hebrew Scriptures as the "Old Testament,not realizing that's a Christian way of talking about Hebrew Scripture," he says. Another error is calling Muslims "Muhammadans," which Muslims themselves do not do. Re-creating religious practices through role playing or singling out a student to explain his faith in front of his classmates should be avoided, Haynes says. To help prevent teachers from imposing their own beliefs, they can teach through attribution, using phrases like "Buddhists believe that...Christians believe that...." Teaching about religion in a nonjudgmental way "takes work," cautions Haynes. But if students and teachers know the "ground rules how the Constitution sets forth the principles of religious rights, responsibility, and respect - learning about religion provides an opportunity to appreciate America's diversity, he says.