Education or Indoctrination?

03/18/2016 11:49 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2017

Our founding fathers set out a difficult, practically impossible task: freedom of religion, majority rule, yet protection of minorities. We as a nation have been struggling for over 250 years to find the balance between these three conflicting ideals.

In Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance, Linda K. Wertheimer in very readable and fast moving prose tells the story of attempts by American public schools to teach about religion. Some attempts were met with protests and threats others with gratefulness for the opportunity to broaden the experience of students growing up in a nation where multiple religions live side by side. No matter what part of the country these incidents took place in, it was always a contentious road.

Wertheimer gives multiple examples of school systems navigating the tricky balance between education and indoctrination. She highlights the difference between teaching about religion and teaching religion and raises the question of whether it is possible to be truly tolerant of others if you know nothing about their customs, beliefs, and ceremonies.

The first step in any successful course about theological beliefs is educating the parents about the intent of the course. Leaving religion out of the curriculum leaves a huge gap in understanding both history and culture. When parents understand this, they are more open to their children learning about religions. Without this education, parents are quick to assume their children are being brainwashed or destabilized in their own religious beliefs.

Many school systems, particularly those with a multicultural student body, introduce these courses into the curriculum in order to mitigate bullying and social tensions. In other words, in order to protect the minority. The majority community often views this as an infringement on their rights. When the courses are explained to the community first, and taught with careful guidelines, students benefit.

Students both in our country and abroad will be confronted with people from various religious backgrounds in their daily lives. Wertheimer explores how we can prepare our students to work side by side, or virtually, with those of other religions. She gives the examples of a nursing student who was grateful to have learned about the belief systems of people she would be treating and the soldier who was stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq who found he could better relate to the citizens there.

This courageous book tackles a highly controversial subject. Wertheimer is to be congratulated for asking tough questions. These include: What is the appropriate age to teach children about theological differences? Should students be taken on field trips to religious sanctuaries? Should religious leaders be allowed to speak in public schools? Is political correctness stymieing real conversation? And, what is the obligation of the public schools to prepare our students for a multicultural future?

Many of these questions don't have obvious answers, but the moment to tackle them is now. These issues will only become more salient as our nation becomes more diversified than ever. I recommend this book to both educators, parents and older students who want to meet the very difficult expectations of our founding fathers.