NCSS offers new guidelines for religious studies in schools

Whether and how religion should be taught in public schools is one of those perennial hot buttons in America that seems to defy consensus. So when the National Council for the Social Studies this past June released new guidelines for teaching religion in schools, it raised questions.

The council’s goal, however, was not to simply “teach religion” but to increase religious literacy by having students study the social and political roles that various religions play in society.

Effective citizenship in diverse world

Nearly 315 religions and denominations exist in the U.S. alone, and NCSS has long held that they should be a key part of the social studies curriculum—as long as the instruction is constitutionally and academically sound.

“Knowledge about religions is not only a characteristic of an educated person but is necessary for effective and engaged citizenship in a diverse nation and world” the council notes in the guidelines. “Religious literacy dispels stereotypes, promotes cross-cultural understanding, and encourages respect for the rights of others to religious liberty.”

John Camardella, a social studies teacher at Prospect High School in a Chicago suburb, has taught world religion electives in public schools for the last dozen years, and notes a crucial distinction in the wording used.

“For example, if you say you ‘teach religion’ in a public school—that’s dangerous” Camardella told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s not descriptive enough. The key to this is we teach about religion in public schools.”

The NCSS guidelines are a supplement to its 2014 College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards.

The updated guidelines were developed to support states in creating standards that prepare young people for effective and successful participation in college, careers and civic life.

Tim Goral is senior editor.

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