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New Guidelines for Teaching Religion in Schools

Have you ever met a person who studied religious studies in college or as a graduate student? They often find themselves in the position of explaining why, despite their degree, they are not preparing to be a pastor, or a rabbi, or another sort of religious leader. Rather, they studied religions from an academic perspective. 

In K-12 schools, there is similar unfamiliarity with the idea of studying religions from an academic point of view. As the regular flow of controversies over the Bible, the Quran, or yoga makes clear, things get dicey whenever religion or religion-adjacent subjects are brought up in public schools. And yet religion is connected to many academic subjects —think of history, art, and literature.

The National Council for the Social Studies recently introduced a new resource aimed at supporting and informing schools and teachers as they consider how to teach about religions. Earlier this month, the group added a section to its College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework on teaching about religion. 

The basic approach: Teachers should encourage students to learn about religions, not to accept a particular religion, the framework says. Students should have the chance to study a religion and should be exposed to diverse religious views but not have one imposed upon them. And religion itself should not be promoted or denigrated. 

The supplement includes some samples of questions in the discipline that might align with this approach. One take on the Great Recession:

"How did the Great Recession affect religious life in the United States and the world? How did religious beliefs and values shape a person's understanding of, and response to, the Great Recession? How does an individual's worldview affect the way in which economic conditions are experienced? In what ways did religious institutions and individuals respond to the effects of the Great Recession? To what extent did the Great Recession impact religious beliefs and practices? How did different religious communities interact with one another—and with non-religious communities—in responding to the Great Recession?"

The new resource is called, descriptively, a "Religious Studies Companion Document for the C3 Framework," and it came out of a conference for teachers that was held at Prospect High School in Mt. Prospect, Ill. The C3 framework has companions on teaching psychology, anthropology, and sociology. The framework was developed to guide states as they produced standards in history, but is not itself a set of standards. 

The teacher-led initiative was developed alongside experts from Harvard University and Rice University and supported by the American Academy of Religion and of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.

The timing "could not be more apt," said American Academy of Religion Director Jack Fitzmier in a statement. "The rise in religious misunderstanding accompanying global migration, world conflicts, and religious identity politics signifies the need for a renewed focus on the academic study of religion."

A different aspect of the relationship between religions and public schools has been in the news recently: The U.S. Supreme Court has issued several rulings in the past week related to whether government funds can be funneled to religious schools. Check out the School Law blog for more on those rulings.


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