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Inviting God into the Classroom
A case for religion in public schools

Professor Robert Nash, College of Education and Social Services, has never been one to shy away from controversial topics. In his thirty-five years as a scholar and educator, he has explored issues such as moral and character education, applied ethics, and religion in the classroom. Taking a break from a morning’s writing on his latest book, Nash sat down to talk with Vermont Quarterly’s Thomas Weaver. The focus of the conversation was Faith, Hype and Clarity, Nash’s work concerning the teaching of religion in American schools and colleges, a volume recognized as one of the American Educational Studies Association’s 1999 Critics’ Choice Selections.

A number of your books and articles in recent years have dealt with themes surrounding the teaching of religion in American schools. Why have you come to focus on this particular issue?

In a nutshell, we cannot be liberally educated unless we know the religious foundation of our history. America is very much rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic — our politics, our art, our music are all tied up with religion. The same is true on an international scale, of course. We can’t understand the history of the world without some understanding of how religion has played.

I think that it is possible to study religion in schools — not to proselytize it, not to indoctrinate it, not to push it on anyone. I think it is possible to hold religion at arm’s length and study it in the same way that we would ask students to study history or English or political science. It is one of the great tragedies in American education that something our society takes so seriously is given so little time in the schools and in the colleges.

Aren’t there legal issues that would make religion difficult to tackle in public schools?

The Supreme Court never said don’t study religion in the public schools; it said you can’t advance a particular religion in a public school. The courts recently went so far as to say it is even acceptable for teachers to have an opinion about religion and to express their own beliefs about religion as long as students are clear that this is only opinion, only the teacher’s belief, and it doesn’t follow that it has to be the students’ belief.

The intent of the First Amendment was not to protect the state from religion, the intent was to protect religion from the state. That’s key. The implication for schools and colleges is that it is acceptable to talk about religion, to discuss it and discuss it critically, as long as we give equal air time to all of the points of view that are represented in the classroom, and as long as we pay the proper respect to religion, spirituality, and religious institutions.

Public school teachers fear litigation, as well as administrative and parent disapproval if they raise religious or spiritual issues in the classroom. Many teachers are woefully deficient in their understandings of organized religion and religious difference. Many college professors are “religio-phobic.” Some just don’t know how to open up discussions about religion without fear of offending. And, truth to tell, many professors could care less about dealing with issues of religion or spirituality in an academic setting, preferring instead to leave such matters to the college chaplain or campus minister, or even to the counseling center. What gets lost in the formal curriculum is an important part of so many students’ backgrounds, so they never get any support for connecting their religious beliefs with their academic education.

I maintain that the real conversation about religion in higher education is not in the classrooms, but in student affairs — counseling offices, student activities programs, residence halls, centers for cultural pluralism, and campus ministry settings, etc.

How can we better deal with religion on these other parts of campus where the reluctance to address it doesn’t seem to be as strong?

That’s the focus of the book I’m working on now (Overcoming Fear: Opening the Dialogue on Religious Pluralism in the Academy). It grows from an essay I wrote last year for a national journal that our Higher Education Student Affairs students produce. The gist of that article was that it is time for those of us in the academy to talk openly about religion. There has never been such a response nationally to anything I’ve written in the past thirty-two years. Absolutely incredible. That shows me that I’m not alone in this thinking.

I predict that the real pluralism in the American university is fast becoming religious pluralism. In the name of multiculturalism, we’ve done great things. I value the movement very much, but the concepts are getting old, the ideas seem stale, and undergraduates and graduate students are turning off to them because they’ve heard them over and over and over again. Middle school to high school to undergraduate years. This is a shame.

We’re in the middle, I think, of one of the greatest religious revivals in the history of this country. One out of four American adults identify as evangelical Christians. Worldwide it is the fastest growing religion. There is also a revival of interest in mysticism and Eastern religion in this country that is unparalleled. There are a growing number of Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims in this country, and we’re at the point now where these people’s children are going to college.

So, we’ve got this tremendous mix of religious difference on college campuses around the country, yet we don’t give it ten percent of the attention that we give to racial and ethnic difference. Religious pluralism is where the explosion of conflict is going to happen. In fact, I would argue that one important way
to understand racial, ethnic, and class difference is to connect it to religious difference.

I think we need to find ways to create an all-campus conversation on this issue. I am working with Chris Leslie (of the Cooperative Campus Ministry at UVM), and we hope to establish a series of all-university colloquia next year that will encourage open conversations on topics related to religion and spirituality.

Last year, I had a graduate student write a wonderful seventy-page paper exploring the connection between his devout Catholic beliefs and his goals to be a leader in higher education. We decided to get more people involved in discussing the issues he raised, so he invited friends and acquaintances from around campus to read his paper and join us for a discussion. We set aside a Friday afternoon in April, which turned out to be the most beautiful day of the spring. The room was full, we had to turn people away at the door. The group — undergraduate, graduate students, student affairs staff — sat for almost three hours discussing leadership, and religion, and spirituality. That showed me that there is a real interest in this sort of discussion.

What sort of academic preparation would you suggest is essential for teachers who are going to address religion in the classroom?

There are some basics, of course. I would like to see the option developed of at least a minor in teacher education in religious studies. That would consist of eighteen to thirty credit hours in religion courses. For our master’s students in higher education student affairs administration, we require a course in cultural pluralism that is very popular and necessary. I would like to see a part of that course include religious pluralism or better still I would like to add another course devoted specifically to religious pluralism.

If you’re curious and you’re interested in this stuff, you can do a lot of reading on your own. You don’t have to be a published scholar to understand world religions or alternative American spiritualities. What you need is an ability to work with groups and deal with the conflict that is going to arise at the college level when people express different points of view. What’s most important is to know how to encourage a conversation that is going to evoke from people what it is they truly believe. This means, chiefly, that we need to create safe “dialogue spaces” throughout the campus where students will be willing to talk freely about the religious and spiritual content that means so much to them.

For instance, one of the problems that I have with organized religion is that there is always an “other” that at some time becomes the “enemy.” One of the questions that I ask about religion is why does there always have to be the other, especially in Christianity, a religion of love. Why is there so much hate in religions that purport to value love and compassion?

That kind of a question is something that I’ll often use to start a seminar conversation. This is sort of like throwing a bomb into the middle of the room. I’ve got to know how to deal with everything that is going to happen around that kind of question — defensiveness, anger, agreement. There’s going to be turbulence in the group.

What do you think are the most difficult political hurdles public school teachers will face as they try to integrate religion into the curriculum?

The teaching of religion in public schools is at the same stage where sex education was fifteen years ago. The same parents in the community who fifteen years ago were furious that teachers would talk about sex are now furious if they don’t. Sex education has become de rigueur.

Educators can help parents to understand what they’re teaching — that they’re helping students to understand religious difference, and that religious difference is a fact of life not just in this country but in the world.

You have to assume on the one hand that some parents are going to be turned off. You have to assume, on the other hand, that some parents are going to be very excited. Then you do the best you can. Perhaps you can even enlist their cooperation by inviting them to visit their children’s classrooms to discuss this material from their own points of view.

What teachers need, as much as the support of the parents, is the support of their colleagues. So, they really need to do a lot of talking about what it is that they’re going to do.

Your course syllabus includes a statement of your personal religious views when you teach courses that will touch on religious issues. Would you suggest that other teachers at all levels do the same?

I think a teacher’s decision whether to disclose his or her own personal beliefs at the outset depends on the grade level. With third or fourth graders, that would be dangerous. Teachers need to go slowly and build trust. Inevitably, some kid is going to ask what you believe. Given that opportunity, teachers will need to find an age appropriate way to respond.

At the high school level, it’s very important to be up front. At my level, I’m very honest with college students about where I am. You don’t want to overdo what your position is, but at some point you’ve got to be honest with them. They have to know the framework out of which you’re teaching this material.

Personally, I consider myself a student of religion, but I’m not a believer. The upside of that is that I’m able to bring an objectivity to the study of religion, a kind of pedagogical neutrality. Even though I’m not a believer, I’m not a reverent disbeliever. I’m open to every possibility. The downside is that some students see me as a “free rider,” a relativist, an intellecual who has the luxury of not making a commitment to any particular religion or spirituality.

My initial assumption when I meet with a student is “you may have something to say that you believe is going to change my life.” And vice versa. We’re truly open to each other.

I’m suggesting that if we’re going to take each other seriously, we have to challenge each other on the things that we don’t understand and we see as inconsistencies in belief systems. It stirs up the hornets’ nest, but we’re not afraid of the hornets coming out because in the end we’re going to be better for it. We’re going to know how to defend ourselves, how to explain ourselves. We’re going to understand each other better, and we won’t end up killing each other over our differences as they’re doing in Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland, or any other number of places around the world.

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