Linda K. Wertheimer, a journalist and a former Boston Globe education editor who now teaches journalism at Boston University, is urging public schools to teach about the world’s religions. Her new book Faith Ed., Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance (Beacon, Aug. 18) outlines an argument for developing a pedagogy about the increasingly diversified faiths in the U.S. in order to promote rights, responsibilities, and respect for one another.
PW caught up with Wertheimer to learn more about what inspired the book and how religion is treated in schools today.
Why is it important to raise children to be religiously literate?
Because religion intersects with almost everything in our world; it shows up in the newspapers every day and on television. America is getting more diverse religiously, we have tension in the Middle East, and things are happening all the time in different countries. If you don’t know even the basic difference between Sunni and Shiite, you’re going to see those words in the newspaper, and you should know what they mean. The other part is the idea that if we make children more religiously literate, we might also have a chance of reducing some of the bullying that happens, and increasing tolerance for one another.
How did your experience of growing up as one of the only Jewish students in your elementary school influence this book?
That is one of the main reasons I wrote this book. When I was in the fourth grade, a woman was teaching a Christianity class, but it was preaching. She was hired by churches and teaching in the classroom. She told stories about Jesus and the disciples, how to sing Jesus loves me songs. I told my parents, and my parents complained, but the school said they couldn’t do anything about it because the school board wanted that, so I was excused each week. It left an indelible impression--I walked out of the classroom and pairs of eyes would follow. Afterward interrogations began and I heard, “You’re going to go to hell.” That continued throughout high school, my house did get swastika’ed once. I thought it was anti-Semitism, but I realized once I was older, it's ignorance, that’s the motivating factor. Instead of preaching to us, if our teacher had educated us about different religions and taught us about each other, it might have been better for all of us.
It is a commonly held belief of the religious right that schools have been stripped of religiosity. Faith Ed. shows that is not the case; especially in traditionally religious areas. What did you uncover about the existing role of religion in public schools?
Schools have not been stripped of religiosity; in some ways the Supreme Court is actually more sympathetic to that cause. What is allowed in schools is during the school day, kids can pray, but teachers can’t lead it. After school, kids can have clubs, but where it gets tricky is adult advisors. As long as the kids are steering the ship; if kids are driving it, it’s okay, as long as a teacher is not proselytizing.
Faith Ed. points out several instances of where the topic of Islam has stirred controversy in schools. Should schools avoid teaching about Islam to avoid controversy, or does that make teaching it all the more important?
I think it makes it important to teach about Islam because in almost every controversy you see the Islamophobia and the lack of education about Islam. All of the teachers need the same message: that you can never say that all Muslims are terrorists, just like you can’t say all Jews are bankers. You can’t stereotype, look at where Muslims actually live, they come from all over and they are all different. In terms of the teaching, it’s not preaching, it's information on the world’s religions.