As the year draws to a close, Minnesota students prepare for a school break – and many, but not all, will come together to celebrate Christmas vacation with friends and family, as safely as possible at the amid the continuing pandemic.
It is in this context that I find myself reflecting on the continuing efforts to refresh and improve the way the State of Minnesota teaches the social sciences – including religion – to our public school students. As a pastor, I recognize that our Christian students rightly have not only free time for the holidays, but also the benefit of knowing that their classmates from other traditions will learn the Christian religion in school.
These core values - that inclusion and recognition are important, and that students of other major religions should see their own religious traditions taught appropriately and precisely – are the ones we must extend to all children of our state.
In mid-November, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) released the latest draft of its social studies standards and benchmarks, calling for another round of public comment. This document describes what public school children in our state are expected to learn in history, geography, and other social studies subjects, including religion.
Earlier this fall, I joined over 130 other religious leaders based in Minnesota in advocating for the inclusion of world religions by name in the updated project. Their inclusion, we argued, would mean that all major faiths, rather than those teachers already know, would be more likely to be incorporated into classroom discussions and teaching materials.
While we are happy to see world religions added in this latest version, there is still room for improvement.
For example, the latest iteration of the document lacks a point of reference that would ensure that all religions named in the standards are discussed in classrooms as aspects of modern identity, rather than mere historical events. While it is essential that students learn about the development and spread of various religious traditions in the past, it is equally important that they understand how individuals interact with religious identity here and now.
Additionally, Sikhism – the fifth largest religious tradition in the world – has been added to college benchmarks. It is, however, absent from the relevant high school benchmark, and therefore likely to be overlooked when other world religions are discussed in lessons like world history.
I believe it is essential that Sikh youth in Minnesota see their faith and history reflected in classrooms in the same way Christians and other students do.
While these further improvements are certainly needed, the fact remains that the MDE is undertaking essential and well-intentioned work in its efforts to revise standards and benchmarks. Despite the fact that this is a normal process, occurring once every 10 years, as required by law, there has been a torrent of unfounded anger in Minnesota – and across the country – in response to the most basic and best-informed efforts to make our schools more inclusive.
Of course, parents are right to care about what their children learn and are entitled to their own opinions. But does everything in our society have to be so politically charged? We can certainly all agree that every student should feel seen and respected in the classroom. A richer and more comprehensive education will lead to an appreciation of others and a decrease in bullying – an important priority given that, according to one recent report According to the Government Accountability Office, 1 in 4 students have experienced bullying related to their race, national origin, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation as of the 2018 school year.
And finally, it stands to reason that children are better prepared for life in a diverse country by learning about different faiths, races and cultures. This is basically the goal of the effort to improve social science education in our state.
All in all, I sincerely hope that the MDE finishes its good job with the inclusion of a point of reference to ensure that religion is discussed in contemporary and historical contexts, as well as the addition of Sikhism to other faiths in the high school section. This final step in the right direction would be something we could all celebrate together at this time of year – regardless, of course, of our religious tradition.
The Rev. Dr. Tom Duke is a Lutheran pastor (retired) and the former executive director of the St. Paul District Council of Churches (now Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul).