GSE Professor Advocates for Religious Education in Public Schools

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GSE Professor Advocates for Religious Education in Public Schools

Benjamin Justice, GSE professor and education historian believes that religious diversity still drives educational policy across the United States, from charter and voucher programs directing public money into church organizations, to attacks on science and history in the curriculum. He recently co-authored Have a Little Faith: Religion, Democracy, and the American Public School with Colin MacLeod, professor of philosophy at the University of Victoria.

“For Americans to have more faith in democracy, they need to put more faith – religious faith – in the curriculum of public schools,” states Justice.  “Now more than ever, we see the imperative for that shared sense of reality that public education provides. We know that without the ability to connect education to their experiences or prior knowledge, people cannot relate to the subject matter. For many Americans, those experiences and knowledge include religion.”

Justice contends that religion is an important expression of one’s sense of self and thus, it is necessary in learning. According to him, we live in a religious society and so religion is all around us. He cites the fact that in the recent election, 80% of white evangelicals supported President Trump – understanding why is important for all Americans.

In France, by contrast, there is a long-standing belief that religion is oppressive and therefore people must express themselves carefully in public. Justice believes that this represents a failed policy, as children in religious garb at school are consistently bullied due to a lack of understanding. In other public spaces, such as beaches, women who choose to dress modestly, according to their faith, are harassed by police.  “In these cases it is the government, not the religion, that is oppressive,” says Justice.

Justice advocates for four different ways that religion should be incorporated into public schools:

  • Schools should teach more religious content. Every child should understand different religions, beliefs and what this means for a democratic society.
  • Public education should be for common, democratic purposes, and not determined only by consumer choice.
  • Public schools should be controlled by public bodies, such as school boards and state government agencies, which are transparent and accountable, thus ensuring protections for minorities while also ensuring democratic purposes that benefit all of us.
  • Schools should be inclusive and provide a safe, welcoming space for children of different backgrounds.

He cautions however, that some forms of religious expression infringe on the rights of others such as wearing a t-shirt that states “Islam is the Devil.” This is alienating for Muslim children and every child in school needs to feel safe. Thus, free speech in schools should be a limited right as it is in contention with other rights.

“In schools, we should be able to discuss what we have in common as well as express what makes us different. Behaviors that are hostile to democratic values and threaten others, though, should be relegated to private spaces,” says Justice. “I hope that this book will help policymakers understand and articulate why we can’t have religious groups participate in the management of public schools. Another goal of the book is to help parents and teachers articulate why it is important to bring religion into schools – but in a smart way that doesn’t infringe on our democratic values. And finally, my vision with this book is to empower students so that they have the freedom to express themselves and resist intolerance.”