State Social Studies Standards (Commentary)

This commentary was published in the Star Tribune on August 12, 2021 and co-written by Randeep S. Arora, director of communications and outreach for the Sikh Society of Minnesota, Judy Cook, board president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, Tom Duke, retired Lutheran pastor and former executive director of the St. Paul Area Council of Churches, Anantanand Rambachan, professor of religion at St. Olaf College and a Minnesota Hindu community leader, and Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. Note: Tom Duke and Anantanand Rambachan are also volunteers with the Minnesota Multifaith Network (MnMN); their participation in co-writing this piece was not done as representatives of MnMN, although MnMN’s work of building collaborative multifaith relationships helps make cooperation like this possible.

Don’t separate religion from state social studies standards
For all our sakes, the diversity of faiths in Minnesota must not be neglected.
By RANDEEP S. ARORA, JUDY COOK, TOM DUKE, ANANTANAND RAMBACHAN and ASAD ZAMAN

At the end of July, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) published the second draft of its K-12 academic standards for social studies. Now, in the midst of a public comment period before the final draft is released, Minnesotans from all walks of life are reviewing what our public schoolchildren will learn in classes like history, government and geography.

Despite the increased political controversy around this process, we applaud the department’s effort to ensure that the new standards and benchmarks reflect a more thoughtful approach to our state’s history and diverse society.

However, there was a serious omission in the latest draft: By eliminating the writing committee’s examples, which are meant to assist teachers with classroom instruction, the MDE also removed almost all mention of specific world religions. In doing so, it has seriously disadvantaged students whose identities reside at the intersection of religion, race and ethnicity.

As leaders in the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities in Minnesota, we believe that including an expansive list of faith traditions in the new social studies standards is critical to helping our state’s young people become better thinkers and better citizens.

First, an important clarification: Teaching about religion in classrooms is not about proselytizing. The academic study of religion is consistent with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and is part of a well-rounded liberal arts education. Learning about different faiths and how they are practiced is a critical part of preparing our children to navigate life as citizens of a country founded with an emphasis on religious freedom and pluralism.

Aside from being academically necessary, teaching about a diverse range of religions is important to ensuring that Minnesota’s students from minority faith groups feel safe and included in their classrooms.

Young members of these faith groups, of which there are significant populations in our state, experience increased bullying on the basis of their faith; survey after survey has found that young Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs have experienced bullying in reference to their religion, especially those who maintain visible articles of faith, like head coverings or unshorn hair.

Increasing students’ understanding of different faiths is one important tool for combating this kind of bullying, which may arise from ignorance or fear and grow into prejudice, bigotry or hate later in life. In this respect, we believe that education about religious diversity is critical to making Minnesota’s children not just better students but better citizens.

Removing the examples will not, of course, lead teachers to forget the subject of religion entirely.

Without a comprehensive list of world faiths to use, however, educators are more likely to default to teaching only those traditions they are most familiar with. This cycle — in which marginalized or littleunderstood religions receive less or no time in the classroom — has a negative effect not just on students who are adherents to those faiths but on the education of all of our children.

Moreover, the current structure of the standards could well lead to teaching about religion only in negative ways: Christianity as a defense of slavery in America, Judaism in the context of the Holocaust, and Muslims or Sikhs as the victims of post-9/11 hate crimes. We firmly believe that faith traditions should be examined by students not just in the context of these important issues, but also on the basis of their merits and contributions to culture and society.

Ultimately, the MDE and the standards writing committee are to be commended for pushing forward with efforts to make classroom instruction more equitable and inclusive. To further this goal, however, many topics deserve a thorough and critical examination in the classroom — and world religions must make the cut. Anything less is a missed opportunity.

Randeep S. Arora is director of communications and outreach for the Sikh Society of Minnesota. Judy Cook is board president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Tom Duke is a retired Lutheran pastor and former executive director of the St. Paul Area Council of Churches. Anantanand Rambachan is professor of religion at St. Olaf College and a Minnesota Hindu community leader. Asad Zaman is executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota.

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A member of MnMN’s board of directors, Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker, sent a letter to the editor – published in the Star Tribune on August 14, 2021.

“I read ‘Don’t separate religion from state social studies standards’ with great interest. While advocating for increased religious literacy in Minnesota, its authors also represented pluralism at its best. Their collaborative message helps demonstrate why multifaith relationships are so powerful. Although not an advocacy organization, the Minnesota Multifaith Network (MnMN) builds relationships across faith traditions, laying the groundwork for cooperative efforts like this important commentary.”

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