Study About Religions in the Social Studies Curriculum

A Position Statement of National Council for the Social Studies

Prepared by the Religion in the Schools Committee and Approved by the NCSS Board of Directors, 1984.
Revised by the Curriculum Committee and Approved by the NCSS Board of Directors, 1998.

National Council for the Social Studies, in its Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, declares that:

Human beings create, learn, and adapt culture. Culture helps us to understand ourselves as both individuals and members of various groups. Human cultures exhibit both similarities and differences. We all, for example, have systems of beliefs, knowledge, values, and traditions. Each system is also unique. In a democratic and multicultural society, students need to understand multiple perspectives that derive from different cultural vantage points. This understanding will allow them to relate to people in our nation and throughout the world.... 1

Institutions such as schools, churches, families, government agencies, and the courts all play an integral part in our lives. These and other institutions exert enormous influence over us, yet institutions are no more than organizational embodiments to further the core values of those who comprise them. Thus it is important that students know how institutions are formed, what controls and influences them, how they control and influence individuals and culture, and how institutions can be maintained or changed. The study of individuals, groups and institutions, drawing upon sociology, anthropology, and other disciplines, prepares students to ask and answer questions such as: What is the role of institutions in this and other societies?... 2

Omitting study about religions gives students the impression that religions have not been, and are not now, part of the human experience. Religions have influenced the behavior of both individuals and nations, and have inspired some of the world's most beautiful art, architecture, literature, and music. History, our own nation’s religions pluralism, and contemporary world events are testimony that religion has been and continues to be an important culture influence. The NCSS Curriculum Standards for Social Studies state that “Students in social studies programs must study the development of social phenomena and concepts over time; must have a sense of place and interrelationships...; must understand institutions and processes that define our democratic republic...”3 The study about religions, then, has “a rightful place in the public school curriculum because of the pervasive nature of religious beliefs, practices, institutions, and sensitivities.”4

Knowledge about religions is not only a characteristic of an educated person but is absolutely necessary for understanding and living in a world of diversity. Knowledge of religious differences and the role of religion in the contemporary world can help promote understanding and alleviate prejudice. Since the purpose of the social studies is to provide students with a knowledge of the world that has been, the world that is, and the world of the future, studying about religions should be an essential part of the social studies curriculum. Study about religions may be dealt with in special courses and units or wherever and whenever knowledge of the religious dimension of human history and culture is needed for a balanced and comprehensive understanding.

In its 1963 decision in the case of Abington v. Schempp, the United States Supreme Court declared that study about religions in the nation?s public schools is both legal and desirable. Justice Tom Clark, writing for the majority opinion, stated:

In addition, it might well be said that one?s education is not complete without a study of comparative religions or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historical qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, where presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the first Amendment.

Justice William Brennan in a concurring opinion wrote:

The holding of the Court today plainly does not foreclose teaching about the Holy Scriptures or about the differences between religious sects in classes in literature or history. Indeed, whether or not the Bible is involved, it would be impossible to teach meaningfully many subjects in the social sciences or the humanities without some mention of religion.

If the public schools are to provide students with a comprehensive education in the social studies, academic study about religions should be part of the curriculum.

  1. National Council for the Social Studies. _Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies_. (Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1994), p. 21
  2. Ibid., p. 25.
  3. 3. Ibid., p. 4.
  4. William E. Collie and Lee H. Smith, ?Teaching About Religion in the Schools: The Continuing Challenge,? _Social Education_, 45:1 (January 1981): p. 16.

Guidelines

  1. Study about religions should strive for awareness and understanding of the diversity of religions, religious experiences, religious expressions, and the reasons for particular expressions of religious beliefs within a society or culture.
  2. Study about religions should stress the influence of religions on history, culture, the arts, and contemporary issues.
  3. Study about religions should be conducted by qualified and certified teachers selected for their academic knowledge, their sensitivity and empathy for differing religious points of view, and their understanding of the Supreme Court?s decisions pertaining to religious practices and study about religions in the public schools.
  4. Study about religions should permit and encourage a comprehensive and balanced examination of the entire spectrum of ideas and attitudes pertaining to religion as a component of human culture.
  5. Study about religions should investigate a broad range, both geographic and chronological, of religious beliefs and practices.
  6. Study about religions should examine the religious dimension of human existence in its broader cultural context, including its relation to economic, political, and social institutions, as well as its relation to the arts, language, and literature.
  7. Study about religions should deal with the world?s religions from the same perspective (i.e., beginnings, historical development, sacred writings, beliefs, practices, and impact on history, culture, contemporary issues, and the arts.)
  8. Study about religions should be objective.
  9. Study about religions should be academic in nature, stressing student awareness and understanding, not acceptance and/or conformity.
  10. Study about religions should emphasize the necessity and importance of tolerance, respect, and mutual understanding in a nation and world of diversity.
  11. Study about religions should be descriptive, non-confessional, and conducted in an environment free of advocacy.
  12. Study about religions should seek to develop and utilize the various skills, attitudes, and abilities that are essential to history and the social studies (i.e. locating, classifying, and interpreting data; keen observation; critical reading, listening and thinking; questioning; and effective communication).
  13. Study about religions should be academically responsible and pedagogically sound, utilizing accepted methods and materials of the social sciences, history, and literature.
  14. Study about religions should involve a range of materials that provide a balanced and fair treatment of the subject, and distinguish between confessional and historical fact.

(C)1998 National Council for the Social Studies

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