Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Tale of Two Textbooks

Stephen Lazarus


May 29, 2006

A nation's school textbooks speak volumes about its culture. A review by the human rights organization Freedom House found that textbooks used in Saudi Arabia routinely teach an ideology of hatred and violence against non-Muslims (Washington Post, 5/21). Eighth graders learn, for example: "Some of the people of the Sabbath [Jews] were punished by being turned into apes and swine." Twelfth graders: Jihad in the path of God. . .is the summit of Islam."

Americans recoil at such reports but one could ask, what, if anything, American schools do to educate students about religions, cultures, and conflicts? Many independent schools work hard at doing this, understanding the integrality of religion to everyday life. Many government-supported schools, however, have steered away from dealing with religion altogether. For the past few decades, conventional wisdom has held that religion is controversial and divisive and does not belong in public schools alongside reading, writing and arithmetic, which are presumed to be "non-religious."

However, as Clinton administration luminary and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright notes in her new book, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, it is essential to convey accurate knowledge about Islam today, and the importance of religion in the lives of most people in the world, in order to prepare students for responsible citizenship. Otherwise American students are likely to conform to the stereotype that they are narrowly parochial and ethnocentric—a dangerous trait in a post-9/11 world.

Too often government-run schools try to function as religion-free zones, indoctrinating students with the belief that religion is not relevant to public life—an ideology that appears to be the opposite of Saudi doctrine, but which is just as dogmatic. Yet, an unusual effort in the Modesto, California public schools merits a closer look.

Six years ago, Modesto's schools introduced a required course on world religions and religious freedom for all ninth-grade students. Modesto's population of 190,000 is home to a diverse range of immigrants and religious communities—Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and atheists. Two social scientists, Patrick Roberts and Emile Lester, interviewed more than 400 students to assess the impact of the course. Last week, USA Today reported the results.

Students who began the course with a strong commitment to a particular religious tradition were also likely to finish the course still believing in the truth of their own faith compared to others. After the course, students were more likely to defend the religious freedom of people from different religious backgrounds and to support their right to practice their particular faiths. They advocated extending important political and First Amendment freedoms to those with whom they disagree religiously. Students appeared far more knowledgeable and informed about the significance of religion in the world today, and they could apply this knowledge in everyday situations with their peers.

The Modesto model breaks new ground and exposes the foolishness of the conventional wisdom. Pushing religious identity and beliefs underground actually creates more problems than it solves. This new approach shows that American education does not have to be oblivious to the obvious, something that religiously distinctive schools already know. Religion has never disappeared from the world's stage or from the public square close to home. Researchers have reached conclusions that should make us question some of the deeply held assumptions that have guided American public policies for generations. Summarizing their findings, Roberts and Lester write: "Limiting deeply held beliefs to the private sphere breeds suspicion and tension. True religious liberty prevails not only when people are comfortable expressing their beliefs, but also when they learn to discuss religious differences with respect."

—Stephen Lazarus, Director of The Civitas Programs
Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”