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Looking for God in the Classroom

By Houston M. Burnside, Sr.

Houston Burnside cupTime: The 1950s.

Place: Horace Mann School, Canton, Ohio

The bell rang. Thirty eighth-graders filed into their second-floor homeroom. I was waiting to kick off their day of learning. Most were all smiles. A few were droopy-eyed. One or two career 8th graders with sullen expressions passed me by without a glance.

When all were in their seats I rose from my desk, King James Bible in hand. “Everybody please stand. Ben, would you like to come up and read the Bible passage for us today? I’ve chosen one from the Old Testament.”

“O.K.” answered Ben, the only Jewish student in our class. Ben read.

“Thanks, Ben. Good job.”

After the reading I announced, “Now I’ll say a short prayer. ‘God, bless us today and help us have a good day at school, A-men.”

After we pledged allegiance to the flag the class was seated and the day began.

All of my teacher colleagues went through the same routine on a daily basis. It was the law. Some performed this ritual with enthusiasm; most were rather blasé about the requirement. Students, for the most part, remained glassy-eyed. It was just something that had to be done before we got to go on with the important stuff.

One can only imagine how non-Christians (even Catholic Christians) felt about this legal requirement. They were all “outsiders.”

Finally, educators and law-makers began to take some of our spoken and written traditions about the separation of Church and State and the First Amendment of our Constitution seriously. In 1962, our Supreme Court restricted the use of mandatory prayer in public school classrooms (Engel v. Vitale). In 1963, the Court struck down mandatory Bible reading (Abington School District v. Schempp).

Now, at least theoretically, there are no “outsiders” in our public school classrooms. From a legal point of view, all students are to be respected on an equal basis, regardless of their cultural and religious or non-religious backgrounds. Our public school curriculum was to reinforce this notion.

But, oh, my, did the sparks begin to fly. Loud voices cried, “They’re taking God out of our public schools!”

Over and over we heard, “This is a Christian nation!” (Of course, they meant a Protestant Christian nation.) With difficulty, some could include Catholics, some even Jews. It was more difficult to include Jehovah’s Witnesses. They didn’t want to salute the flag. They, of course, weren’t REAL Christians. Buddhists, Hindus and Atheists were suspect. Muslims, of course, were and are the biggest threat to our “American way of life.”

School administrators and curriculum developers began to panic. Religion was systematically removed or put aside. Some, of course, hung on to clergy-led prayers, as long as they could, at PTA meetings and graduation ceremonies.

Then, in about the middle 1970’s, Social Science scholars began to make noises about the lack of a clear understanding of national and cultural traditions without some knowledge of religion. How could students fully understand historical, political or cultural aspects of a country like Mexico without understanding the influences of the Roman Catholic Church? How could students really know the Far East without learning something about Buddhism? Their knowledge of the Middle East would be only partial if they learned nothing about Islam.

Gradually, religion crept back into the curriculum. But this time, it was academic, not religious in the sense that one is encouraged to become a believer. Instead of teaching religion, educators in the 21st Century are now called on to teach about religion with an objective, non-sectarian approach.

For example the California History-Social Science standards call for introducing third-graders to religious beliefs and practices of local Indian nations as well as early Spanish explorers who came to conquer a new world. This is carried on in the fourth-grade where teachers are to emphasize the roles of such persons as Father Junipero Serra in early California history.

In later grades, California educators are required to broaden our children’s education to include religions of the world.

So God is back in school.

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