If you didn’t get a chance, check out my video on Modesto, CA’s mandatory religious studies course. In this video I give an overview of what a mandatory high school class in religious studies might look like and offer a few reasons why we need curriculum like this.
Advocates for religious literacy frequently laud Modesto’s school district as a model for other schools to adopt, though most people have probably never heard of it. As I say in the video, this world religion course has met with reasonable success. Students over the past decade since it was implemented have exhibited a stronger appreciation for religious diversity and the First Amendment in general. As the US grows increasingly diverse and as religious tensions continue to bubble up every day, I believe this sort of class is more important than ever to help raise a generation of citizens who can live peacefully in a pluralistic democracy. However, I probably was a little bit TOO congratulatory in the video. One of my good friends and colleagues emailed me afterward to point out a few of the program’s shortcomings.
She told me that Modesto’s world religion course is rather “prescribed.” As in, it purposefully minimizes time for discussion in order to avoid controversy. Moreover, the textbook that they use, The Usborne Book of World Religions is apparently too shallow (she describes it as “surface level and basic), though, to be fair, I have not yet read it myself. This doesn’t mean the class is harmful. I’m sure it is still doing a net “good” for the Modesto community; however, it does show that there is huge potential for improving the class. I’d prefer a less scripted religious literacy course that could plumb the complexity of religion. Diane Moore, the director of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard, lays out a few examples of what this might look like in her book Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education. She advocates a way to studying religion that starts with a few fundamental assumptions: 1) Religions change over time. 2) Religions are internally diverse. 3) Religion is embedded in every aspect of culture. Religious studies curricula that only focus on memorization of facts miss these fundamental assumptions.
In my opinion, there is no debate over whether classes like these are important. The real debate comes down to: Should they be mandatory or electives? Leave your thoughts below!
First Amendment Center’s analysis: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/madison/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/FirstForum_ModestoWorldReligions.pdf
Diane Moore, Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education, 2007.
Joseph Laycock, “Back to School at the First Public School in the Country to Require a World Religions Course,” Religion Dispatches, 2015. http://religiondispatches.org/reading-writing-religion-back-to-school-at-the-first-public-school-in-the-country-to-require-a-world-religions-course/