November 20, 2017

Should Children Learn About Religion in Public School?

By Starfunker226 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
I have mixed feelings about this report of a Bristol, Connecticut, middle school canceling a Muslim speaker after the community freaked out. On one hand, I can see the merits of the school trying to teach students about world religions. Bringing in representatives of various religions seems like a good way to do that. On the other hand, I'm not sure that public schools ought to be exposing students to representatives of any religion as part of their curriculum. It isn't like representatives of various religions can be expected to be objective about their own religion, after all.

It is unfortunate but not surprising that the community freak out in this case appears to have involved social media outrage, which raised safety concerns. I have to agree with the statement from the Council on American Islamic Relations that canceling speakers in this manner rewards those who freaked out. And so, it probably would have been better for the school to have anticipated the outrage and either not issued the invitation at all or sought to involve the community in the planning phase.

The real question here is whether we as a society want our children to learn about world religions as part of their public education. Assuming that we do, we can figure out how best to accomplish this. I'm just not sure we have reached the point of having any meaningful consensus that we want this to be part of what our children learn in school.

As long as religion continues to have the sort of global influence it does, it seems to me that our children should be taught about it. I'm not sure I'd mess with it at the middle school level, but I'd probably support having a world religions course in high school. I'd be more likely to support it as an elective than as a required course though. I'd also want to make sure that it was taught in an objective fact-based manner and that it did not involve any proselytizing. That is, I think it would be valuable for children to learn what various religions teach and what adherents of various religions believe without promoting any of it.