A Reflection on Teaching Cultural Diversity in the Elementary School Context: Is there a Place for the Study of Religion?

By Philip L. Tite

For several months earlier this year I had the privilege of being involved with a private elementary school here in Seattle (working with children from pre-school to fifth grade), initially as a volunteer librarian during the summer camp program and then, for a few months, as a teacher in the after school program. It was a wonderful experience that broadened my pedagogical horizons. My teaching experience up till then had been exclusively limited to adult education within the university context.

This particular school was unlike most private schools that I know of. Rather than being limited to an homogenous population of those who could afford private education, this school strives to incorporate diversity within its student body, educational philosophy, and instructional methods or focus. Diversity, as perceived at this school, is more than ethnic identification (let alone that troublesome category “race”). Rather, diversity extends to socio-economic differences (e.g., children whose parents are C.E.O.s sit alongside children whose families are on food stamps), gender construction/identification (e.g., transgendered individuals), sexual orientations (they have a large number of same-sex families), and family structures. Not only does this school embody diversity as a demographic reality, but in their teaching and conflict resolution practices, etc. they strive to inculcate honest expression, mutual respect, and problem solving. “Respect” is actually one of the most powerful words used at the school – respect for oneself, others, and one’s community (including our environment). This process empowers children with agency while learning to respect that same agency in others during their social interactions. I’ve seen this successfully used on the playground with children as young as 3 or 4 years of age.

Nurturing cultural awareness at such a young age is certainly something that we need more of – indeed, I once said to the Head of the school that this school models what should be going on in all schools. However, as a religious studies scholar and teacher, I observed a strange resistance to the topic of religion. During a faculty meeting, one of the program directors blatantly stated that “we don’t want crucifixes in the classroom” and, more pointedly, that the story of Jesus would be unacceptable as a book to read (e.g., when dealing with Christmas holiday traditions) – this comment followed a strong encouragement for engaging issues of cultural diversity in our activities. What struck me was that other “religious” things were not taboo. Folklore and myth (Native American, Hindu, Chinese, South American etc.), ancient mythology (Greek, Roman, Norse), and teaching about Ramadan or other religious holidays were fair game, but not what was perceived as “mainstream” religious traditions in North America.

This bias in teaching about religious traditions offers several insights in the treatment of religion in the pre-university educational context, and, arguably, within broader discussions of religion in North America.

First, it was implicit that “religion” was segregated from other aspects of society and culture. As is well recognized in scholarship, since the Enlightenment “religion” has been socially constructed as a private sphere of the internal, personal world of the believer that stands apart from other (perhaps equally segmented) spheres of one’s social life, especially those spheres that are deemed more “public” in scope. Thus, while “culture” is important to learn about, “religion” is not – as if religion (however defined) had nothing to do with human cultural constructions.

Second, when religion is dealt with, it seems to be acceptable only when viewed as “out there” rather than within “our own” social context. This is classic other-making through stereotyping or generalization. Creating the exotic “other” – and thus, implicitly, constructing the non-exotic “us” – renders religious practices, beliefs, experiences, or narratives as harmless, yet intriguing cultural tidbits that can be consumed by a passive viewer. Such a viewer is simply engaged in a type of religious tourism. When such tidbits are discursively located “here” rather than “there”, they cease to be cultural tidbits (e.g., harmless “myths”) and become politically charged systems, demanding an active moral engagement (advocacy either for or against such systems), that need to be handled with severe caution and trepidation (if at all). It becomes “religion”, and religion, unlike myth, is de facto a taboo topic. Such discursive demarcations certainly evoke ethnocentric social perceptions. Ironically, such ethnocentricism is evoked in protection of encouraging cultural diversity.

Third, views against dealing with religion at pre-university educational contexts are largely based on a particular understanding of a separation of church and state, especially in the United States where such debates are intensely fought. Specifically, to offer religious studies a place in curriculum is necessarily to promote that religion – and therefore religion is an unacceptable topic in such curriculum. This position is based on a misunderstanding of what constitutes religious studies (or what should constitute religious studies); a misunderstanding that, furthermore, reinforces the privatization of religion. The study of religious traditions – much like the study of history, politics, and anthropology – is part of the broader study of human culture through methods drawn from the social sciences and humanities. I don’t deny that there are those who teach religion from a confessional stance or with the goal of indoctrination, as if the field were a divine rather than human science. But as part of the study of human diversity, religious traditions (broadly understood and debated in the field) needs to be included.

I’ve written this blog largely due to my own discomfort in that meeting. I’m not an adherent to any religious tradition, but rather I see my work as a human science that is useful for training people to recognize and critically engage the range of human symbolic systems embedded within their ever shifting social interactions (not as caretakers of traditions, but as students of culture). While involved in this school – a school whose mission I still firmly agree with – I kept asking myself how my field of study (which I’ve been involved in as a student, teacher, and scholar for over 20 years now) could contribute to such a mission. I can’t imagine nurturing awareness to cultural diversity without engaging comparative religious analysis. However, religious studies as a subject is almost completely absent at the high school, middle school, and elementary levels.

Without trying to be too negative, I’ve highlighted some of the conceptual hurdles facing the incorporation of religious studies in pre-university education. But what resources are there for correcting this situation? In April 2010 the American Academy of Religion issued the Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States (produced by the AAR Religion the Schools Task Force, chaired by Diane L. Moore). This 40 page document is an excellent beginning point for encouraging teachers and administrators to incorporate religious studies into school curriculum (from historical, literary, tradition-based, and cultural studies approaches), as a non-confessional academic topic. The document also addressed constitutional concerns, as well as advice on teaching techniques or problems that could arise. However, much of what I read in the Guildelines (1) are targeted toward upper grade levels (which are far more analogous to the university context than the lower grades), and (2) voice many disciplinary concerns for those teaching religious studies in higher education (I wonder how much input there was from those who teach in the K-12 levels, especially from the lower grades; to my ear it sounded like scholars justifying their discipline rather than addressing the real needs and perceptions of those they are writing for).

My hope is that we will continue to strategize ways to incorporate “religion” (even though a contested category for sure, but then again so is “culture”) into discussions and treatments of cultural diversity. Broadening the epistemological field as to what constitutes “diversity” – as done by this particular elementary school – is a welcome and necessary step forward. Yet we need to continue to extend that to include diverse beliefs, experiences, practices, and narratives as embedded within and thus indistinguishable components of culture. As scholars of religion, we have the very difficult task of developing resources for such work. A necessary part of such a task is to shift out of our comfort zone – the realm of higher education – and, rather, to enter into dialogue with those who teach children in various educational contexts within a range of academic levels. Teachers working in such contexts will not (so we should remind ourselves) be setting up departments for the study of religion. Rather, they will be infusing such topics into learning activities that are more integrated. Entering such dialogue will necessitate our willingness to listen to rather than dictate to teachers in the lower levels. Only by means of collaboration can we meet the educational needs children, rather than enhancing our discipline’s value in public discourse. An enriched, culturally aware learning environment promises to emerge from such pedagogical collaboration.


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2 Responses to A Reflection on Teaching Cultural Diversity in the Elementary School Context: Is there a Place for the Study of Religion?

  1. Cris says:

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. Oddly enough, your position corresponds in some ways to that of arch-atheist Daniel Dennett who argues for pre-university comparative religious education. It seems to me that if you teach the post-Enlightenment category of “religion” at these levels it would be hard to avoid the 900 pound corollary issue, which is truth/falsity of religious beliefs. This may be where “respect” comes into play. But I can easily see pre-university students in such classes asking questions that make the instructor uncomfortable and which could easily be perceived as not respectful, even though such questions are not. This may be the real problem or unacknowledged issue.

    • Philip L. Tite says:

      Hi Cris, Thanks for the response. I wouldn’t put myself in the New Atheism camp, nor my suggestion for dealing with religious traditions at the pre-university level. I’m opposed to advocacy either for or against a particular religious worldview in that context, as I would be for promoting or degrading any cultural group when dealing with cultural diversity. Also, it doesn’t seem certain to me that we need to either teach post-Enlightment categories nor avoid tough questions. Tough questions arise in the classroom (of any level and in nearly any topic) and those are opportunities to learn. If we flipped out “religion” here for “dietary practices”, or “religion” for “family structures” or “orientations”, etc then we are dealing with the same challenges in cultural diversity. How we address those challenges, however, is where the discussion could start.

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