One large knowledge vacuum that exists in the United States is in the area of religion. It seems that American children are brought up thinking that everyone is like them. While this may be somewhat natural, this ethnocentrism should be intervened upon by the education system. Religion—its history, its cultural significance, its varied nature—should be taught in US public schools.
By not having religion taught alongside history, the latter seems to not make much sense. Why did so many Germans leave their country in the 18th and 19th Centuries? Sadly, most young people in the Upper Midwest do not know where their immigrant ancestors came from. “Aren’t we just Americans?” they think. The immigration started because of wars based in part because of the Protestant versus Catholic divide between Northern and Southern Germany. In fact, most mass immigrations have this kind of cause.
Today, one challenge facing America is our insularity—i.e. Americans’ inability to understand foreign cultures. One of the saddest examples of this is with Islam, a religion with a billion members worldwide, yet our perception of Islam seems based on the media-reported promise of “72 virgins in heaven” for terrorists and the assumption that nearly all Muslims support terrorism.
Surely, there will be difficulty in teaching religion and religious history in American schools. First, the motivations of the instructor must be devoid of the proverbial “axe to grind.” Can we trust people to teach monotheism as a concept and not the absolute truth, even if said teacher believes in monotheism as an absolute truth? What about how Jesus Christ “rose from the dead,” or that he performed miracles? Surely, these kinds of debates are how we got to where “religion can’t be discussed in school,” as I remember thinking in high school. I don’t know where I heard it, and I don’t think it was a teacher, but I was convinced that the law was just that: no religious discussion in public school. That’s why there was that foolish debate of “should we teach the Golden Rule?” Why, of course it should be taught; it’s the basis for ethics!
The alternative to teaching religion in school is the status quo, where churchgoing children learn how other religions or Christian denominations are “not true” or the non-religious stay non-knowledgeable about world religions, thus hampering their cultural understanding of the world’s diversity.
Another challenge for this idea is the recent de-emphasis on all content outside of reading, writing and mathematics in light of the No Child Left Behind law. Just adding a haphazard religion unit to a history course will never seem like enough, but the alternative is voluntary ignorance that serves no one. Further, wouldn’t the discussion of such a taboo subject interest even the most uninterested student?
The fear may be that if a child knows about Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, or another religion, they will switch from the “right” one to the “wrong” one. This kind of fear is not constructive at all. The Founding Fathers were quite clear in not establishing a state religion—a radical change given their historical context. They were visionary enough to see that religious pluralism could benefit culture, and this part of the American Experiment has worked in that we are free to choose our religion. But would the Founding Fathers have defended a “right” to ignorance? No—in fact, they would work actively against it, and so should we.