The Return Of The Fourth R

Blank faces--34 of them--stare at Allan Nolan LaRock when he mentions the Ark of the Covenant to his sixth-grade class. "What's he talking about?" one boy finally whispers. Teacher LaRock then tries a different tack. "How many of you have seen 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'?" he asks. Thirty-four faces register immediate interest. Seizing on the movie as a point of reference, LaRock goes on to tell his class at the San Juan Unified School District, 100 miles northeast of San Francisco, about the other Ark-the one containing the tablets given to Moses.

It's been more than 40 years since teaching about the fourth R--religion--was part of public education in the United States. In that time, two generations of public-school students have come to intellectual maturity with vincible ignorance about the world's religions--including, often enough, their own. Teachers, too, have lost the knack of teaching religious history and textbook publishers have grown so allergic to the dread R subject that some high-school texts fail to mention that the Pilgrims were religious dissenters. "For years, religion was the last taboo in the classroom," says LaRock. Now, California, Oregon, Arkansas, Indiana and West Virginia are bringing the study of religion back into public education as units in the social-studies curriculum. The aim is noble enough: to promote religious tolerance, reduce prejudice-and impart some valuable information. But educators have other motivations as well. Teaching about religions "raises issues of truth and individual responsibility," says California Schools Superintendent Bill Honig. "For some kids, this may be the first time and place these issues are raised."

In an era of heightened sensitivity to minority groups and values, however, the challenge for educators and publishers alike is to find a way to teach about specific religious traditions without promoting or unfairly criticizing any one of them. This fall, for example, pupils in California's sixth and seventh grades will study about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism from twin textbooks published by Houghton Mifflin Co. to the state's specifications. In the sections devoted to religion, the richly illustrated volumes rely chiefly on excerpts from the Bible and other primary documents so that students understand that assertions about Moses and Jesus, for example, are drawn from sources written by and for communities of faith. The conflicts between Jews and early Christians are handled with admirable sensitivity.

Even so, a few Jewish critics worry about the inclusion of the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan, which tells how a member of a rival people, the Samaritans, came to the aid of a stricken Jewish traveler after a Jewish priest and a Levite had passed him by. "These are potential minefields," says Jackie Berman, education specialist for the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco. "We fear that anti-Semitic attitudes brought into the school will be reinforced."

Some Muslims think that Islam has been given short shrift in the texts. Shabbir Mansuri, director of the Council of Islamic Education, objects that his faith is not given equal credit with Judaism and Christianity for producing "the ethical traditions of Western civilization." In particular, he cites the inclusion of the story of Sinbad the Sailor to illustrate the Islamic faith. "That may be a popular story in the West," he observes, "but it is not an important text for Muslims."

Surprisingly, Christian fundamentalists have not raised similar objections to the books' treatment of Christianity. In the past, fundamentalists have argued that Christianity should not be taught as a religion like the others. But in California they have accepted the principle of equal space for all. "The school's role is to make religion important and good and vital," says the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Coalition for Traditional Values. "Ours is to evangelize."

Of all minorities, only the atheists feel totally left out. California atheists and secular humanists plan to engage scholars to write supplementary instruction materials on the role in history played by skepticism, unbelief and rationalism. Teaching about religion, insists John Massen of Atheists United in San Francisco, "puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the atheist child. It reinforces the idea that every child should adopt one of the major religions."

Teachers who experimented with the texts last year found, as LaRock puts it, that "most of my students are religiously and ethically illiterate." When Jan Grodeon asked her seventh-grade class at a Los Gatos middle school who led the Israelites out of Egypt, no one knew the answer. Nor, after being introduced to the history of the Reformation, could they name a single Protestant church. Charles Haynes, executive director of The First Liberty Institute, a coalition of educators and religious leaders based in Fairfax, Va., has produced a teacher's guide for Houghton Mifflin on how to conduct classroom discussions about religion. "Religious illiteracy is dangerous, "Haynes believes, "not because it's bad for religion but because it promotes cultural illiteracy and poor citizenship."

Kids being kids, teachers are sometimes asked to answer basic theological questions. "If God is good," an 11-year-old asked LaRock during a class on the story of Moses, "then why did he bring about all the plagues?" Another turned defiant, demanding to know whether LaRock really believed that God parted the Red Sea. Such questions are typical for Sunday-school classes, of course, but in public classrooms, they can pose serious pedagogical problems for the teacher. A proper response, Haynes advises, is to rely on attribution; that is, teachers should explain that this is how the Hebrew Bible shows the way God acted in defense of the Israelites.

"The teaching of the history of religion is a new frontier," LaRock has discovered, and his students find it important in part because their parents show a special concern. "My mom always wants me to bring home papers in history this year," reports one of his students. "She doesn't care that much for math or any of the other subjects." Indeed, perhaps parents are learning something too. But for 12 year-old Matt Halverson, the fundamental lesson is clear. "In Sunday school they teach me about real religion," he says. "Here, they teach about choice in believing." He deserves an A for discernment.

The First Amendment bars the establishment of an official religion. The U.S. Supreme Court has barred religious practices--not academic lectures--from public classrooms.

The New York State Board of Regents adopted a prayer that schoolchildren could recite in class. One sentence long, it asked for "God's blessings." A group of parents challenged the practice. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court held that it is "no part of the business of government to compose official prayers."

Kentucky required a copy of the Ten Commandments to be posted in every public classroom. The Supreme Court overturned the law, holding that its "purpose" was to promote religion and not merely remain neutral.

Twenty-five states permitted or required teachers to start classes with a moment of silence. The Supreme Court held that the Alabama law, however, was a subterfuge to reintroduce prayer in public schools; states must neither encourage nor discourage religion.

The Equal Access Act of 1984 forbids public secondary schools from discriminating against student groups for their "religious, political, [or] philosophical" views. In 1986 the Supreme Court held that law meant that students could start prayer clubs that met on school premises.

During the next Supreme Court term, the justices will hear a challenge to the practice in some districts of having a minister deliver a prayer at school graduation ceremonies. Clearly it amounts to an official sanction of religion, yet congressional sessions and presidential inaugurations begin with prayers, too.