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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

How Young is Too Young? Teaching About Religion in Public Schools

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The question of whether religion should play a role in the curriculum of public schools is a topic fraught with disagreement. Some Americans think the First Amendment means that religion has no place in public schools. Others have stressed the need to educate children about diverse faith traditions as a critical component of creating a society that understands and respects those diverse beliefs.

In a November 10 talk at Boston College, education journalist and author Linda K. Wertheimer supported comparative religious education in public schools that exposes students to conceptual ideas about religion. She said that a critical question is when that education should begin. Co-sponsored by the Lynch School of Education, Wertheimer’s talk, “How Young Is Too Young? Teaching About Religion in Public Schools,” was centered on the major themes of her newly released book, Faith Ed.: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance.

Wertheimer’s research into the intersection of religious education and public schools began in 2011 when she authored a cover story for Boston Globe Magazine chronicling the controversy surrounding a Wellesley, Massachusetts middle school’s trip to a Boston mosque. Citing models of three school districts teaching about world religions, she argued in her talk that the sooner students are educated about religions the better. Even kindergarteners can be introduced thoughtfully and responsibly to world religions through children’s books. According to Wertheimer, teaching about religions in the classroom will lead to a more educated and tolerant population.

In teaching about religions, it is crucial for the fine line between teaching and preaching to be managed, in keeping with the US Constitution, something Wertheimer thinks teachers can do with proper support from their districts. She argued for an educational system in which teachers receive robust training about how to introduce religious ideas into the classroom and on managing questions or comments from students about the material.

Drawing on her own experience as a journalist, Wertheimer said the media has an obligation to report about comparative religious education fairly and comprehensively. Doing so, she thinks, would help avoid controversy that often surrounds news stories about religions in public schools.