Religion education fares better in new standards (submitted commentary)

Published in the Star Tribune on December 20, 2021 and written by Rev. Dr. Tom Duke, Lutheran pastor (retired) and former executive director of the St. Paul Area Council of Churches (now Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul), Tom also volunteers with the Minnesota Multifaith Network (MnMN). His participation in writing this piece was not done as a representative of MnMN.

Religion education fares better in new standards
But it can still improve, for every student deserves to be recognized.
By Tom Duke

As the year comes to an end, Minnesota students are preparing for a break from school — and many, though not all of them, will gather to celebrate Christmas holidays with their friends and family, as safely as they can amid the continued pandemic.

It is in this context that I find myself reflecting on the ongoing effort to refresh and improve how the state of Minnesota teaches social studies — including religion — to our public school students. As a pastor, I recognize how our Christian students rightly have not just time off for holiday observances, but also the benefit of knowing that their classmates from other traditions will learn about the Christian religion in school.

These fundamental values — that inclusion and recognition are important, and that students of other major religions should see their own faith traditions taught in an appropriate and accurate manner — are ones that we must extend to all the children of our state.

In mid-November, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) released the latest draft version of its social studies standards and benchmarks, calling for another round of public comment. This document outlines what our state’s public school children are expected to learn in history, geography, and other social studies subjects, including religion.

Earlier this fall, I joined more than 130 other Minnesota-based faith leaders in advocating for the inclusion of world religions by name in the updated draft. Their inclusion, we argued, would mean that all major faiths, rather than just those that teachers already know about, would be more likely to make it into classroom discussions and teaching materials.

While we are pleased to see the world religions added in this latest version, there is still progress to be made.

For instance, the latest iteration of the document lacks a benchmark that would ensure that all of the religions named in the standards are discussed in classrooms as aspects of modern identity, rather than just historical events. While it is critical for students to learn about the development and spread of various faith traditions in the past, it is equally important that they understand how individuals interact with religious identity in the here and now.

What’s more, Sikhism — the fifth-largest faith tradition in the world — was added to the middle school benchmarks. It is absent, however, from the relevant high school benchmark, and therefore likely to be skipped over when other world faiths are discussed in classes like world history.

I believe that it is critical for young Sikh Minnesotans to see their faith and history reflected in classrooms in the same way that Christians and other students do.

While these further improvements are surely necessary, the fact remains that the MDE is undertaking essential and well-intentioned work in their efforts to revise the standards and benchmarks. Despite the fact that this is a normal process, occurring once every 10 years as mandated by law, there has been a torrent of unfounded anger in Minnesota — and across the nation — in response to even the most basic, well-informed efforts to make our schools more inclusive.

The most extreme opposition to this kind of work has been truly disturbing, including threats against school board members and calls by state legislators to ban or even burn books.

To be sure, parents are absolutely right to care about what their children are learning and are entitled to their own opinions. But must everything in our society be so politically charged? Surely we can all agree that every student should feel seen and respected in the classroom. A richer, fuller education will lead to an appreciation for others and a decrease in bullying — an important priority given that, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, 1 in 4 students experienced bullying related to their race, national origin, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation as recently as the 2018 school year.

And finally, it stands to reason that children are better prepared for life in a diverse country by learning about different faiths, races and cultures. That, at its core, is what the effort to improve our state’s social studies instruction is really about.

All told, it is my sincere hope that the MDE finishes their good work with the inclusion of a benchmark to ensure religion is discussed in contemporary and historical contexts, as well as the addition of Sikhism alongside other faiths in the high school section. This final step in the right direction would be something that we could all celebrate together this time of year — regardless, of course, of our faith tradition.

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