On Teaching Religion in High School

Over the past few decades, education has become increasingly specialized. With an influx of pre-professional programs at the collegiate level and the recent frailty of the job market, high school applicants are more consistently turning down liberal arts educations in favor of more "job-ready" degrees.

As the earliest forms of higher education in this country, liberal arts colleges pride themselves on giving students a holistic education, with interdisciplinary studies at its core. The growing rift between students seeking a balanced and diverse education and those seeking a pre-professional degree is no news flash, and for many students in the 21st century, high school is the only educational experience where they are rewarded for the breadth of their studies.

Now I ponder this, while fully aware that not every profession requires an education with its own foundational core curriculum. As an aspiring writer, in high school I tended to overlook the importance of mathematics and the sciences, while some of my peers in AP Biology generally thought little of their social studies courses. But the religion courses seemed to benefit everyone. Whether one came from a secular home or from a family practicing Quakerism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, or other, the religious curriculum made a difference.

Religion is global, something that defines the lives and behavior of youth and adults alike across the country and the world. Our country as a whole is extremely ignorant of world religions and even of the Bible, the most powerful and influential text in Western society, and one that over a third of our country reads as divine law. Albert Einstein once said, "The sole function of education was to open the way to thinking and knowing, and the school, as the outstanding organ for the people’s education, must serve that end exclusively." If that is the case, why is religion banned from public schools?

Westtown School, a Quaker K-12 day and boarding program of which I am a recent graduate, is one of many U.S. schools founded on the idea of religious education. Here, religion classes are not just present, but required for each student to graduate. Students from all over the world with different religions and backgrounds (less than 20 percent of students are Quakers) come together into one classroom to learn about world religions (Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism), the New Testament, and Quakerism, as well as having the opportunity for advanced study in courses such as "Religion and Social Change" and "Contemplative Experience." Elective courses, such as "Liberation Theology," "Business and Ethics," and "The Gospel of Thomas" are offered as well.

"I think religious education is important because a school like Westtown can encourage more reflection on the spiritual dimension of life," said Head of School John Baird. "In my public school experience there were none of the ‘what kind of person do you want to be?’ questions, and that’s what religious education is all about. Education influences the kind of person that we become, and without religion it is harder to encourage the spiritual perspective on life. In a society that is increasingly secular and materialistic, encouraging moral development and teaching the spiritual dimension of life is very important. Quaker education encourages social consciousness, with an orientation towards service or action that is consistent with your beliefs."

The biggest promoters of religious education at Westtown actually are the students. Westtown has students from all over the world (13 percent of its 400 high school students come from more than 14 different countries), as well as students who come from public schools, private schools, and other religiously affiliated schools, who praise the effect the religious aspect of Westtown’s education has had on them.

"Westtown and public school are completely different worlds," said Tori Baggot ’09. "In public school, religion was a touchy subject, and the school, was practically void of religion. Now at Westtown, religion is the theme of the school. You’re really allowed to develop and express yourself here, while you are limited in development in public school."

"Quakerism has made me more patient and understanding," said Liz Bailey ’08. "I’ve really developed an appreciation for moments of silence. You won’t get that anywhere else. I’ve really grown through having the question asked, ‘Why does it matter?’"

The teachers at Westtown express admiration for this development that occurs in students through the course of their time at Westtown. And while Westtown has many unique qualities, the predominant factor that students list for the cause of the growth is the presence of religion.

"I’ve had a number of students come to me after a class and say, ‘This is the most fascinating course that I have ever taken,’" said religion teacher Kevin Eppler. "That is a testimony to the importance of what I do. The reason that I teach is that the students are at that age when they begin to ask questions about religion, and I’m both excited and interested in helping them answer those questions. Pushing the students to think differently about religion is critically important."

The controversy that makes it impossible to require religion courses at other schools is the historic "Separation of church and state" debate, as well as parents who believe that their children are being manipulated to think a certain way, or conformed to a school’s beliefs. Westtown takes a lot of pride in requiring their religion courses, knowing that is not their mission. "In teaching religion it is important not to impose a set of dogmatic beliefs, but to create an opportunity for students to learn the spiritual dimension of life," said John Baird.

"The required religion courses benefit a lot," said Liz Bailey "They really allow us to grow and expand our horizons. The really important thing for me is that it’s not just about religion, it’s about personal growth, and learning to think in different ways."

"The availability of religion as a formal academic subject is critically important," said director of studies Karen Gallagher. "Religious education is inside everything we do—how we live, and act. The experience is transformative in helping to build a new perspective. Reaching beyond one’s own comfort zone or boundaries is a lot of what it’s all about."

Kevin Eppler also said that if he needed to communicate the effectiveness of the religion department at Westtown, he would let his students do the talking.

The students are the ones who carry out what they’ve learned into the world after they leave Westtown. High school is the time students educate themselves for their lives ahead. If religion isn’t taught in high school, where do we expect it to be learned?

Jeff Baird

Jeff Baird, a member of Westtown (Pa.) Meeting, is a sophomore at Connecticut College, where he writes for the student newspaper The College Voice.