A look inside 2 distinct high school religion classes
Wednesday, December 12, 2018
For the first part of this series, please click here.
The two teachers interviewed for this article both mentioned wisdom as a quality they envisioned or witnessed their high school students moving towards as they engage in the study of religion. Interestingly, their teaching approaches and subject matter are strikingly different.
One teaches at a public high school and the other at a private institution that encompasses primary through high school. Nonetheless, both use the study of religion in ways that have the potential to impact how these young people interact in the world.
Philosophy of religion leads students to self-reflection
“In general, people are very reluctant to explore their religious assumptions about the nature of being and the relationship between those assumptions and their behavior,” says South Carolina teacher Erik Kimrey.
Through the “Philosophy of Religion” elective that he developed eight years ago at the private school where he teaches and coaches football, Kimrey creates a forum where his 11th- and 12th-grade students can begin identify and articulate their own assumptions as they explore subjects that include free will, arguments for and against God’s existence, and the problem of evil.
When looking at their own religious upbringing, Kimrey has noticed that many high school students are less comfortable with religious labels and less likely to call themselves solely a “Christian” or “atheist.”
“More and more I’ve noticed students saying they aren’t sure or spiritual but not religious, or that they grew up in one faith but open to others,” he explains. “At the same time they seem to be weary of materialism as a worldview that can provide them the underlying narrative that is meaningful and gives them aim.”
Some students have shared that the class has helped them see that regardless of religion people have to grapple with being, meaning and purpose. Although the methods of engaging these questions vary from religion to religion, they’ve begun to appreciate that it is a common existential battle.
Students move toward wisdom by learning to examine their lives
A typical school year curriculum comprises how to define a worldview; a touch of the Greeks; western philosophical history; ideology and its presence in music and media; theism; deism; atheism. Current religious and philosophical figures are also studied along with Nietzsche’s parable of the madman.
Not bound by constitutional restrictions that teachers in public schools need to adhere to, Kimrey has freedom to share some of his own presuppositions around religion — which he does to demonstrating to his students that everyone has them.
“A great religious studies class should equip students to identify and understand their axiomatic beliefs — which all people have and assume religiously — and diagnose the parasitical ideologies that can manifest,” he says.
“If students can understand the process of examining their life in the Socratic sense, and can be encouraged to undertake that struggle, their lives will be enriched with wisdom at a very early age,” adds Kimrey.
Filling a gap in high school education
John Camardella, social studies and religion teacher at a public high school in the Chicago suburbs, is concerned about equipping students with the tools they need to become confident informed citizens in our diverse world. Driven to fill what he saw as gap in the social studies education his high school students were receiving, he returned to school for two master’s degrees and spent three years developing the world religions curriculum for the 12th-grade elective that he began offering in 2009.
In terms of curriculum, approximately three weeks is spent on each of the main world religions, which are covered in a geographical order with Abrahamian religions grouped together. It begins with the history of religion in America and an introduction to the separation act.
“I often joke with people that within the first week of class I teach my students how to get me fired,” shares Camardella on an episode of the Classical Ideas Podcast with host Greg Soden. “We have a really fun day where we dive into the 16 words of the Establishment Clause, one of the greatest misconceptions people in the country have.”
Studying religion through the lens of culture
After five years of presenting each religion through the traditions-based approach focusing on doctrines, ethics, rituals, myths, and symbols or “DERMS,” as done in most high school comparative religion classes, Camardella again felt that students stood to gain more through their study of religion.
“Only being given binary information such as 'this is Christian and this isn’'” doesn’t encourage student exploration into the myriads of things people do to express their religion, “explained Camardella. “So I found that although I tried not to, I was reinforcing religious assumptions.”
About a year and a half ago, he took what he calls “a deep dive” into his curriculum and adapted it using Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project (RLP). The program, developed by Diane L. Moore who became his mentor, provides resources that allow teachers to facilitate the study of religion through the lens of culture to elicit the understanding that religions are internally diverse, religions evolve and change, and religions are embedded in culture.
Instead of memorizing facts, students explore global issues such as climate change and minority status as understood by people within a given religious group and conduct individual research based on their interests.
Equipping students to recognize that authentic expression of religion isn’t exclusive is one key objective of the RLP approach, to be covered further in the subsequent article of this series.
“We don’t want that they assume that the devotional practice of one person’s or group reflects the religion. For example, not all people honor Buddha in the same way. I never want students to think that religions are monolithic,” emphasizes Carmardella.
“Now I see my students grow in confidence and humility — they’re humble enough to know what they don’t know, which I think is the beginning of wisdom.”
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