LJWorld.com weblogs Fourth Grade in a Foreign Country
Thanks, but no thanks - religion in the schools
I’ve been pondering religion and turkeys these days. Turkeys, because Thursday is Thanksgiving and we are hosting an international Thanksgiving celebration. Turkeys, because I can’t fit an American-sized turkey into a European-sized oven. Religion, because on Wednesdays my daughter’s teacher teaches religion. Religion, because I am an American and attitudes towards religion here in Germany baffle me, much like the ovens.
The turkey situation is fairly straightforward; I will adapt and likely overcook two very small chickens instead. Adapting my American attitudes towards religion in the schools is not so straightforward. Maybe we “adapted” by enrolling our child in religion class (see post from 9/23), but I would find maintaining this ruse difficult if we became long-term residents. How is it that education in our Heidelberg public school revolves around Christianity? What do those who adhere to Jewish or Islamic faiths think about the overarching theme? Would atheists and agnostics appreciate time spent studying other subjects?
Casually conversing with friends, I learn that religious instruction in public schools is traditional and the issue merits mostly shrugs. Such an attitude apparently stems from the historical partnership between Church and State to provide education and social services. The German government arranges the infrastructure for collecting taxes and then redistributes the monies to recognized religious organizations –mostly Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish -according to the percentage of the population registered with each group. The religious bodies in turn pay for the administration of the taxing system and expend the monies to build and maintain churches, synagogues, hospitals, and nursing homes, and to train religion teachers. If you register as a member of a recognized religious group you must pay the tax. You can opt out of course, but if so you also opt out of services and rites provided by the religious establishment.
Attempting to address my American bewilderment, a learned acquaintance suggested that it is better to teach tolerance and morality within a non-discriminatory, academic framework such as that provided by Church-State cooperation. As for the case of Islam, better a State approved curriculum than a radical one say the politicians quoted in papers. Another comment comes from someone who has relocated to the U.S. and expresses surprise at having to “pay for her child to learn about God” (i.e., private school). The fundamental assumption here is the existence of God. All atheists and agnostics step out into the hall please.
Let’s, for a moment, go with the premise that a religion class might teach students about a formative force in human history and that such a class might break-down prejudicial assumptions and promote greater tolerance among individuals of different faiths. Imagine proposing such a class to the Kanas State Board of Education (imagine!). What group or groups would design the curriculum? What faiths would we include? Would fundamentalist Christians allow discussion of Judaism or Islam, or vice versa? What if we structured classes like the Germans –a class for Protestants, one for Catholics, one for Jews, one for Muslims? Need I mention Seventh-day Adventists, Christian Scientists, and Hindus to name just a few other faiths? Even if a school district happened to establish a “Protestant” class, could you see a group of Evangelicals and Episcopalians agreeing on what to teach? I related this scenario to a small, diverse group but they seemed to shake their collective heads at a peculiarity of American society.
Of course a “no big deal” attitude is easier to maintain in a homogenous society, and incongruously in a more secular nation, but Germany is experiencing diversity growing pains and finding an increasing Muslim population challenging. Here again though, this has not prompted questioning of religion in public schools, but rather an attempt to incorporate a new class for the newcomers. Some schools in certain parts of Germany now allow a choice between Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Islamic religion class -for all other cases you’ll have to petition and my guess is the flying-spaghetti monster is out of the question. It’s all very simple you see, the Basic Law of Germany specifically limits religious instruction to religion class, prohibits any discussion of religion outside of this class, and specifically reserves one the right to opt out of religion class. So there is no need for my consternation; if one wants more religious education, there are private schools; if one wants no religion, there are private schools. By law you cannot be forced to take religion class and if you do sign up, you cannot be discriminated against for your personal beliefs (fundamentally Christian perspective aside).
It remains problematic for me to imagine religious teachings in U.S. public schools precisely because the U.S. is a more religious nation than Germany and a more diverse nation. Although I can admire much about German society and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to experience a fundamentally different point of view, I continue to appreciate my home country’s attempts to protect diversity of opinion and its comparative commitment to secular education. Of course diversity is complicated and diversity is hard. America always has and will continue to wrestle with diversity, ever inching forward, and for this I am thankful. Now, if I could just get the oven settings right so I don’t make a mess of the pie.