Feature                                                       Pages 23-26


Electing Comparative Religion

Establishing a high school course on the world’s religions isn’t such a risky proposition, but it requires wide buy-in


It’s mid-November, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has just crossed the room to congratulate my world religions students one by one. The glow on each of their faces foreshadows the powerful impact this moment will have on our year together.

My world religions classes at a large, increasingly diverse suburban high school in Fairfax, County, Va., have the opportunity to participate in Face to Faith, a global videoconferencing program launched by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. On this day, the 60 students had a chance to speak with same-age students at a school in Dubai and the honor of doing so alongside Secretary Duncan, with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a guest moderator via teleconference. The students discovered similarities they didn’t expect between the United Arab Emirates and the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (left) joined students from Chantilly High School in Fairfax County, Va., during a Face to Faith video linkup with students in Dubai. 

The common threads of concern — class differences and pressure to succeed, poverty that perseveres in the face of rapid progress and growth, a sense of disorientation as the world changes quickly around them — are noteworthy given the diversity of culture, faith and nonfaith backgrounds in the classes. More noteworthy, though, are the ways in which these classes half a world apart and with no prior relationship then discuss ways their differences in religious beliefs, and backgrounds can become assets, rather than hindrances, in solving global concerns.

When world religions courses are created at all in public school districts, they often are designed to encourage cultural fluency and tolerance. It’s a teachable moment for the teacher to witness in an hour these far-flung students moving beyond tolerance to collaboration.

A Supportive Circle
How did we get to this place? Taking on a world religions program typically is viewed as a risky proposition for a school district, particularly in the face of community concerns over church-state divide. Even when a course or a teacher finds early success, sustaining a program can be a challenge. Sometimes teachers with strong potential find a lack of support and training, or the courses fail to gain strong footing among a school’s less controversial electives.

As I scan my classroom at the close of an experience that has left its mark on me as much as it has on my juniors and seniors, I think about the parents of these incredible students and the positive encouragement they have given our efforts to teach comparative religion in a public school. Community support is indeed no small piece of the puzzle.

But an equal if not larger piece is the supportive circle now assembled around me — my assistant principal for instruction, the school’s head principal and the coordinator of secondary social studies for our county. This program largely owes its success to the collaborative interest taken by administrators on many levels working with teachers over many years, not only to put a world religions elective in place, but, as Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center advises, to get it right.

A Recurring Theme
Getting it right begins with a district-level commitment to teaching about religions not only in an elective course or two, but within the entire social studies curriculum. In his book Does God Make a Difference? Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities, the late Warren Nord argues that an understanding of the world’s religions is a critical component of a liberal education, necessary to help students develop a sense of the entire worldview of the civilizations they encounter. So teaching about religion in a public school system, and doing it well, happens when the study of world religions is a recurring theme across many courses, beginning in world history courses but certainly not stopping there.

When studying about world religions is already as natural a part of the ongoing dialogue as is economics, civics or history, a separate world religions elective like mine has a much greater chance to thrive. Our school district has committed to this effort at the highest levels of administration. The result is that juniors and seniors come to my class already holding a basic framework of knowledge that has been building in their studies from elementary school.

To support such a systemwide approach, our county offers frequent world religions workshops, courses and other opportunities aimed at content development, as well as strategies for teaching about world religions within public school and First Amendment guidelines. Teacher leaders, scholars and sometimes members of faith traditions from the community have been a part of these training sessions.

By no means are we finished with this process, but as a teacher I feel fully supported by administrators at the school and district levels in my efforts to teach about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other world religions in my world history courses and in my world religions classes.

A Daunting Beginning
Our county leaders have extended themselves in their support by listening to teachers.

A Face to Faith initiative connected to Muslim students in Jakarta, Indonesia, to same-age peers in New Delhi, India. 

For more than 25 years, a course code has existed in Fairfax County, Va., for a world religions elective, and several of our high schools offered the class. Some teachers collaborated on content between schools, and others taught the course on their own without seeking support. What was true across the county was that the course was offered only in schools where a teacher, for whatever reason, had an interest and willingness to develop it, for the most part, on his or her own.

Then a teacher in our county who had the most experience and success with teaching world religions saw potential in this rare public school course offering and began conversations with a few world religions teachers, as well as the head of secondary social studies. His idea: Convene a few of us to write a formalized world religions program of studies. It was a daunting prospect, with almost no models nationally for such a course and little to go on in the way of resources. But, he argued, it was a needed step because this framework and high-level support would help draw new teachers to the course. And without new teachers to teach it, this rare elective would become the fiefdom of a few rather than a staple in our large county. What we had was too special, the potential too great, and shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the timing too critical, to let it falter.

To our surprise and delight, given budget constraints and the many demands of our large district, the answer from the central office was yes. And so, under our mentor teacher, a few teachers gathered for work sessions that lasted several summers and revisions that ran into the fall. We asked for content scholars to review our finished work and were granted that support. We were given the opportunity to hold a round table for world religions teachers at the district’s annual back-to-school workshops, so that a community network of teachers could be encouraged around this new program of studies.

We asked if we could present our work at the Virginia state teachers convention and received not only an affirmative response but also the school district’s head of social studies as a co-presenter. He made contacts on our behalf with the First Amendment Center, the National Council for the Social Studies and others. He was a major part of the curriculum development, providing resources and even asking us for a reading list of what we found most helpful in teaching the course. He sent us to various meetings and placed his trust in us to share our work. He took that work seriously, and when he retired, he passed the torch to the new social studies coordinator, who supported further curriculum work and teacher training as well as new efforts such as Face to Faith.

More than anything, the message sent was: This matters, it’s important, let’s get it right.


Additional Resources

Class Environment
Are we finished? Our school system is still learning, as Charles Haynes would put it, to take religion seriously. But as we move ahead, we are supported by leadership at school and district levels in our effort to both create meaningful content and to train teachers in the pedagogy of that content.

Inservice training is a good start, but as Haynes, Nord and others have suggested, to really get it right requires preservice education of every social studies and history teacher. To feel comfortable with teaching about religion in their classrooms, teachers in training would take a world religions course as undergraduates or graduate students. That’s a tall order given the expectation of social studies teachers to have content knowledge of history, political science, geography — and often psychology, economics and sociology. There’s a strong argument by Nord that religious worldviews helps inform all of these disciplines, so the case for requiring all teachers to take a world religions course as a part of their training is not so farfetched.

But even the best command of content knowledge will fall flat among secondary-level students without the right classroom environment, a community of learners. The class environment must be one of mutual respect and understanding, where the philosophy and theology of the world’s faith traditions are discussed in a safe space that allows all students to hold their own beliefs, values and questions while learning about beliefs that may well go against their own.

Teachers of comparative religion, whether or not they divulge their own perspective, must remain neutral moderators. As my mentor and fellow world religions teacher Jay Lamb would say, it’s an effort to understand how other religions see the world and why that perspective makes sense to them.

I’m often asked to discuss the pitfalls and challenges of teaching about religion in a public school. In truth, this question usually stumps me. While I’ve heard the stories of programs gone wrong, ours is one of relative success. We’re still writing our story, and it’s yet in need of refining. But thanks to the support of education leaders, so far it’s a great read.

Kathy Zinger, who taught world religions in Fairfax County, Va., for 15 years, is a social studies teacher in Holliston, Mass. E-mail: kathywild@hotmail.com


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