A balanced high school religious studies curriculum

I’m writing this for myself. All my blogging is basically journaling. If I wanted more interaction, I’d have to catch up with the times and shift to Tik Tok. But Tik Tok isn’t like journaling, so I won’t be doing that. Also, this is for me because there are few people with jobs like mine who work in schools like mine with departments like mine. So, why do I put it on a blog? Well, a way that blogging isn’t like journaling is the decision to make your thoughts public. I want to make these thoughts public just in case (A) someone out there has feedback to contribute or (B) one of the estimated seven people in the world who are in similar situations come across it and find inspiration—or whatever the opposite of inspiration is.

What’s my situation? Well, I teach at an Episcopal school. Episcopalianism isn’t a monolith but among Christian traditions in North America, it tends to be one of the most hospitable to academic freedom. I’m confident that there isn’t even one other school in the Greater San Antonio region that would give me the green light to teach what I do like I do. Also, I teach high schoolers, and as anyone reading this is aware, very few high school teachers get to say much about religion in their courses let alone teach multiple classes completely devoted to the discipline. While you can teach religion in a public school setting, for various reasons related to sensitivity around the Establishment and Free Exercises Clauses of the First Amendment, and trouble budgeting for someone qualified to teach these types of classes, few public schools are willing to offer anything like what I teach. If you teach religious studies in a high school, usually you have major “confessional” restraints. You need to stay in line with the Catholic or Evangelical doctrine of the schools that exist independent of the public school system for the central purpose of raising young people to adhere to the worldviews they are promoting. Episcopalian schools exist to shape young people from within the Christian tradition but most Episcopalian schools see fidelity to Christianity as compatible with higher levels of pluralism and academic freedom than their Catholic and Evangelical counterparts.

Many public high school teachers won’t be interested in what I’m saying because while they may be able to talk about Hinduism for a class period while teaching more specifically about India, they can’t spend a month on Hinduism. Many private school teachers won’t be interested in what I’m saying because they either disagree with my approach or have administrations that would never allow anything like it. This brings me back to the seven or so people out there who may be in similar situations! And this ends a prolegomenon to this blog post.

When I first began teaching high school religious studies, our courses were (A) “Old Testament”; (B) “New Testament”; (C) “World Religion”; (D) “God Debate: An Introduction to Philosophy”. I’ve worked to change some of the names to better align with how I teach and how I think religious studies should be taught at our school. “Old Testament” is now “Hebrew Scriptures” because we consider Jewish interpretations of the Tanakh as much as, if not more than, Christian interpretations of the Old Testament. “New Testament” is now “Christian Scriptures” because we don’t restrict the content to what’s canonical—for example, the Gospel of Thomas and Infancy Gospel of Thomas get a lot of attention—and most of the class is now spent on the Gospels with only a little time being given to the Epistles. “World Religion” has been abandoned in favor of “Religion in Global Context” because (1) our freshman-sophomore classes, Global Studies I and Global Studies II, led me to realign the focus to parallel those classes and (2) the “world religion” model tends to focus on overviews of some of the “big” religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, usually—at the expense of literally every other religion. Since my pedagogical philosophy is concerned more with teaching students how to think about “religion,” the concept, rather than trying to provide them an impossible overview of these “major” religions, it made sense to change the name. Finally, due to personnel changes, the “God Debate” class was dropped.

A few years ago, I added a class titled “Religion in the United States” that examines, amongst other things, the concept of “religion” as it has been interpreted and applied in this country. We talk about Supreme Court “definitions” of religion and rulings related to the First Amendment; the role of the IRS; Native American spirituality; religion when the United States was founded; race and religion; how religions that were “imported” (i.e. pre-existed the country’s birth, e.g. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism) have evolved in this context; and what expressions of religion have been created in and “exported” from this country (e.g. Scientology, Pentecostalism).

As I prepare for my seventh year, the catalog (not including classes like “Religion in San Antonio” that were designed specifically for the summer school context) will be:

  • The Hebrew Scriptures
  • The Christian Scriptures
  • Religion in Global Context
  • Religion in the United States

Now, what I’m about to suggest may be rejected by my superiors but I want to process it out loud here anyway. Generally, I’m comfortable with these offerings but I think some improvements can be made. For one, while Episcopalians are Protestant or Protestant-ish (the so-called “Middle Way”), they aren’t biblicist, usually. Many within the Anglican tradition, of which Episcopalianism is part, talk about a “three-legged stool” upon which the tradition sits: (1) the Bible; (2) the “great” tradition; and (3) reason. Some within the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition add (4) experience, which I see as a positive addition. (Pentecostals add experience too…though their meaning is slightly different at times!) For this reason, while most of my academic training has been in biblical studies, I think the catalog is flawed when half of the religious studies offerings are related to the Bible. This means that the Bible receives as much attention as every other religion combined—including Christianity, which isn’t limited to the Bible (even when traditions are biblicist ones). One alternative would be to shrink “The Hebrew Scriptures” and “The Christian Scriptures” into a single class and then add a course on church history or theology. There are contexts where this may work. Ours might be one of those contexts but I’m doubtful for a whole variety of reasons, beginning with my presumption that only a handful of students want to talk about the intricacies of the Trinity or care for a week on the Nicene-Arian controversies.

What then is the alternative I’m suggesting? In my uniquely Episcopalian context, with the pluralistic student body we educate, and considering the present context of the world into which they’ll be graduating, here are the four courses I think would provide the most balanced high school religious studies curriculum (if only four can be offered):

Why these four? First, they encourage critical thinking that’s introductory in nature and “meta”. By the latter, I mean I’ve noticed that most of my students are very engaged when we’re thinking about the subject we’re thinking about. In other words, I can teach them the content of the Bible but they’re more interested in the concept of the Bible. The content of the Bible becomes more relevant when they’re considering what the Bible “is” and what’s at stake when we interpret it. Second, this balances what they need to know as emerging citizens while also aligning with the decision to go to a private school with a religious affiliation. Third, and related to the second point, it’s an alternative to the aforementioned approach of Catholic and Evangelical schools—our school has a daily chapel where constructive spiritual formation occurs for a pluralistic student body through the paradigm of Episcopalian spirituality. How that works exactly is the concern of our chaplain. My concern is that spiritual formation will be as strongly equated with human formation as possible so that my atheistic and agnostic students can take a religious studies class and come away just as mature in their thinking and acting as my Christian or Muslim students. In other words, there shouldn’t be any confessional barriers to their learning and participation.

“Introduction to the Bible” would retain the Bible’s place within a school that reads from it in daily chapel while focusing more so on what the Bible “is” than the type of deep dive that may be better suited for seminarians who plan on preaching and teaching from it. It would connect to whatever literary studies are happening in our English classes and study of the ancient world that’s happening in our history classes.

This would bring philosophy back into the mix. When my colleague Fr. Nate Bostain left, our curriculum developed a gap that needs to be filled. Also, I’m increasingly interested in philosophy, sponsored our school’s philosophy club for years, and have incorporated philosophy into our biblical and religious studies classes, so this would be more natural than say a course on historical theology or church history.

The theory class, “Introduction to Religion,” would be “Religion in Global Context” with a simplified name. It would retain the “global” focus which aligns nicely with “Religion in the United States” which has more of a local focus and is more historical and social in nature with an emphasis on our civic lives. Also, as I plan on doing this year, it’ll place more emphasis on the 3 B’s model that encourages students to recognize that while “belief” is part of what makes something religious, religions don’t always center on belief—rituals, holy days, communities, etc. can be even more central to someone’s religious identity.

Finally, and most importantly, each of these classes can become stand-alone so that there’s no need for one to be a prerequisite for the other like “The Hebrew Scriptures” is for “The Christian Scriptures” and “Religion in Global Context” is for “Religion in the United States” in our current catalog. I’m sure that would make scheduling easier for our Registrar!

Now, this blog post may be a futile writing exercise, and it may be that my superiors will disagree, but I plan on making a pitch like this to them this year in preparation for the 23-24 academic year.

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