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Finding the Right Place for Religion In the Public School Curriculum

Author says it can and should be treated seriously in the classroom



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By Warren A. Nord

The University of

North Carolina Press, 481 pp., $49.95 ($19.95 paperback)

AT the heart of today's "culture wars" are profound disagreements over what role, if any, religion should have in America's classrooms.

No one disputes that we Americans are religious. We overwhelmingly believe in God, and we attend religious services in huge numbers. Yet the proverbial "visitor from Mars" who encountered a typical textbook or looked in on a public school classroom would never suspect this was so. If religion is mentioned at all, it is almost always in a historical or literary context.

The fairly recent divorce of religion from public school curriculum (recall that the Western world was once known as "Christendom") results in large part from the rise of a secular modernist worldview that dominates other ways of understanding the world.

Religion has also been barred from the schoolhouse door by a perceived dilemma. Because Americans profoundly disagree about what is religious truth, this reasoning goes, the only acceptable form of "neutrality" on the subject is to exclude religion from schools altogether.

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In "Religion and American Education," Warren A. Nord challenges that assumption. The University of North Carolina philosophy professor argues that the religious dilemma is a false one, that religion can and should be treated seriously in American classrooms. In fact, he says the notion of a "liberal education" is incomplete - actually illiberal - without knowledge of religion.

And what of Jefferson's "wall of separation" between church and state? Mr. Nord doesn't want to knock it down. But he doesn't see any problem with leaning over it and striking up a conversation. That means uncovering the hostility toward religion in schools today that masquerades as supposed "neutrality" and replacing it with a "robust neutrality." It means putting religion at the table and into the discussion.

Nord argues that religion merits its place in schools for more than the reasons usually given - that it has shaped humanity's history, for good and ill; and that it has held an important position in people's lives. What is needed is the study of religion as religion, he says.

"If students have no sense of the spiritual dimension of life, they are ignorant of much that has been and is central to the human condition," he says.

How can schools do this without advocating a particular religion, which is clearly unconstitutional? Readers may not agree with every recommendation Nord makes. But he clearly shows that persistent, innovative thinking can yield plausible options.

In the curriculum, for example, he advocates requiring at least one course in religion for all high school students (three courses would be closer to his ideal, but he's looking at a minimum standard). In an effort to offend no one (and increase sales), textbooks are hopelessly sanitized of any substantive religious content. They should be supplemented, he says, by course work that includes primary source materials, the actual writings of religious thinkers.

In addition, the religious aspect of subjects across the curriculum should be considered, he argues. Here he bravely wades into the issue of teaching creation science. Once again, he rejects as a false choice the dilemma of either teaching creation science as a fully equal alternative to evolution or, alternatively, ignoring or debunking it.

Students should be able to understand, at some depth, what creation science teaches, who believes it, and why. It's perfectly acceptable, he says, to note that creationism is a distinctly minority view within the scientific community. In essence, he says, teachers can teach the creationism-evolution controversy itself.

If teachers worry that in allowing many religious points of view to be learned and discussed, students might adopt dangerous ideas, they ought to be able to express their own opinions, clearly identified as such, in conjunction with maintaining proper respect for other ways of thinking.

Nord dismisses the current school-prayer controversy as not where the real action is. Organized school prayers that can meet constitutional tests barring preferential treatment for a particular religion will not address the lack of education in religion in any substantive way.

On another hot topic, too - school vouchers - Nord sees the future as hinging on what happens regarding religious education in public schools.

Assuming that vouchers are substantial enough to allow students from any economic background to attend private school - and assuming that some minimum standards would be required, including protection against racial or ethnic discrimination - vouchers offer the advantage of allowing parents to educate their children in an atmosphere that respects their own religious values.

"Either we take fairness and neutrality [toward religion] seriously" in public schools, Nord says, "or we must gracefully accept the argument for vouchers."

It is an indication of the scope and importance of this topic that, at 400-plus pages, "Religion and American Education" is only an overview. It should whet many readers' appetites for more. The extensive bibliography will help in that regard. Nord clearly wants to engage the interested general reader, not the specialist, and his conversational writing style helps him succeed. Thorough scholarship, with documentation footnoted, underlies his arguments.

Nord clearly aims to shake up any secular intellectuals who read this work. And he probably won't satisfy Christian fundamentalists, who, I suspect, want even more religion in schools. But this is just the "middle ground" for which Nord is aiming. It is a fertile field for reformers, one that needs this kind of plowing.