THE BLOG
02/25/2014 01:27 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2014

The Potential Challenges of Temple Visits as Teaching Tools

Over the past few weeks, I've had the honor of speaking to parent groups and educators at conferences in different parts of the country.

After my talks, several teachers have approached me to say that they give their kids a sense of Hinduism by taking them to a local temple, and in some cases, field trips to both Hindu temples and Sikh Gurdwaras. One teacher even admitted that she would prefer a temple visit in lieu of classroom instruction because of her lack of understanding about Hinduism. While the cultural immersion is admirable and can be valuable in helping students -- and teachers -- see religions in practice, it's also often just the tip of the iceberg and can pose several challenges for public schools.

For starters, a field trip to a Hindu temple can be helpful in illuminating the way Hindus worship, especially since many textbooks continue to depict Hinduism as a religion confined strictly to the Indian subcontinent. In the United States, the diversity of Hinduism is reflected in the plethora of temples representing numerous worship traditions as well as cultural beliefs. Temples in many parts of the country now serve immigrants -- and their children -- from India, the Caribbean, South Africa, and Malaysia, as well as people who weren't born into Hinduism, but have become Hindus.

The diversity of temples is both a blessing and a potential obstacle, because cultural customs often become conflated with religious values, and even the most well-meaning of temple tour guides can often present a perspective limited to just one sect or worship tradition. For schoolteachers, taking students to an ISKCON temple (Krishna devotees) would present one view of Hinduism, while going to a Shiva temple might present another. It would be in some ways akin to the challenges posed by taking school children to a Catholic Church or Presbyterian house of worship and representing either as the epitome of Christianity.

Another problem with temple tours is that they don't always fit neatly with a curriculum about Hinduism. A temple visit can thoroughly articulate ways that Hindus worship, but might not explain Hindu beliefs of dharma, karma, moksha and the four paths to the Divine. A temple representative might be able to explain these concepts to students, but not in the way that teachers might find helpful to classroom instruction. Sometimes, parents of Hindu American children, frustrated by inaccurate depictions of Hinduism in textbooks and other instructional materials, organize the visits in a way where students are exposed to more of a Sunday School atmosphere than a public school one, which is a big no-no for advocates of keeping church and state separate (including the Hindu American Foundation).

Temple visits as the primary source for learning about Hinduism present additional Constitutional and community concerns. The ability of public schools to take students to religious institutions has been challenged in court with claims that it violates separation of church and state. While these assertions might have validity, the increase of parent protests in these cases seems to reflect fears among some that religions such as Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism might have an undue influence on their children. In fact, some of the teachers I've spoken with say that their biggest challenge is convincing parents that teaching about other religious traditions outside of Christianity (and sometimes Judaism) is not preaching in the classrooms. Temple visits, particularly in areas that are still adjusting to diversity, can become a source of tension between schools and community members.

Community concerns, however, are likely to vary depending on demographics. A visit to the Ganesha temple in Flushing, N.Y., is unlikely to cause much of a stir because of New York City's diversity. Moreover, the push by a diverse coalition of secular and faith-based groups to recognize Diwali - which Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs observe - as a New York public school holiday demonstrates the progress made to integrate diverse views. The same sort of recognition of Hinduism - or any minority faith tradition, for that matter - is unlikely to happen anytime in places such as Murfreesboro, Tennessee, however.

With that being said, schools that are able to nuance the separation of church and state do have a tremendous opportunity to use temple visits to supplement what students are learning about Hinduism. Any religious or cultural practice becomes more tangible to students when they are able to experience it in person instead of just reading about it. Doing so not only increases a student's cultural fluency, but makes them better prepared for the global society that we have rapidly become.