What’s the latest controversy about public education in your area?
In my state of Tennessee, the topic is “teaching about Islam” to middle school students.
Some parents (and outside instigators) are concerned that the state educational curriculum includes teaching about the history and beliefs of Islam at certain grade levels.
“Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the intent of the curriculum is to provide a deep understanding of how world religions have affected world history,” according to a report in The Tennessean.
Of course, there are points in the curriculum where information about Christianity is provided.
“While it appears that some seventh-grade teachers are covering Islam longer than Christianity, it’s important to note, that the last chapter of the sixth-grade textbook covers the rise of Christianity extensively. That chapter is repeated at the beginning of the seventh-grade textbook,” noted Elizabeth Fiveash, director of legislative affairs for the Tennessee Department of Education.
The point is not to indoctrinate students or to convert them to the Christian faith, but to help them understand the various ways in which the church and Christian faith have impacted culture and the world we live in today.
So I imagine students learn about the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire, the economic structure supported by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, the opposition of the church to scientific inquiry, the Crusades, the Reformation, the role of Christian missionaries in the conquest of the New World, and the charitable work done by Christian institutions such as hospitals, universities and orphanages.
In a similar way, students need to learn how other faiths have contributed to the modern world in both positive and negative ways.
Why do they need this background? Why wouldn’t they be better off being ignorant of this information?
First, if they are going to be able to interact with people of other cultures, this is vital.
When I go to any gathering at one of my grandchildren’s schools, I see people of various races and nationalities.
They may be Anglo, Hispanic, African-American or Asian. They bring with them their own heritage and culture.
Yes, we are all Americans, but our nation has been influenced by a number of cultures.
Only the Native Americans were here first, and we pretty well have ignored what they have to offer. Everything else is imported.
Our children need to know their histories in order to live in community.
Second, if they are to be involved in a global economy, this is important.
Even in the state of Tennessee, we have companies and industries that are based in Germany, Japan, Sweden and many other nations. We are tied to what happens in the global economy.
Whether we like it or not, we are playing on a global stage and our children must become global citizens who can function effectively in many cultures.
Third, if they are going to able to interpret and apply their faith, this is essential.
From the first century, Christianity has faced the challenge of presenting its faith claims in cultures that were very different from the Jewish setting in which it was birthed.
Gifted interpreters have found ways to enter into dialogue with other cultures and faith traditions, discovering ways to present the Christian faith so that it will receive a fair hearing.
This presupposes a willingness to have some understanding of what others hold dear.
We live in a complex world born of centuries of inquiry, exploration, discovery and exploitation. Every nation and culture has elements that cause both pride and shame.
Our children need to know these things. They need to learn that we once practiced and accepted slavery, that communism was attempted and failed, and that national socialism almost destroyed the world and was defeated.
They also need to know the role that faith played in this history. If we fail to give them this background, we do them a disservice.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is associate professor of ministry praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Barnabas File, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ircel.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.