Nan Austin

Modesto’s world religions course gets fresh ink

Sherry McIntyre introduces the world religions portion of Modesto City Schools’ required world religions course at Johansen High in 2014.
Sherry McIntyre introduces the world religions portion of Modesto City Schools’ required world religions course at Johansen High in 2014. Modesto Bee file

Linda K. Wertheimer’s book featuring Modesto City School’s mandatory world religions course just came out in paperback.

Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance,” originally published in August 2015 and available in paperback Aug. 23, devotes a chapter to the Modesto course in place since September 2000 and believed to be the only such high school course required for graduation. Yet in light of current events, shouldn’t everybody know this stuff?

Modesto’s course followed anti-bullying guidance developed in response to gay bashing so serious that only “a heart of stone” could fail to be moved, as then-Superintendent Jim Enochs put it. Critics, however, felt teaching tolerance of gays went against Christian values.

The ensuing discussion led to a large committee of faith leaders and education leaders developing a course to teach about religions – “teach, not preach,” as Wertheimer puts it.

“Modesto is a very diverse community and I'm pleased that Modesto City Schools was one of the first school districts in America to require a World Religions Course 16 years ago. As a result, our students are much better prepared to work, interact and understand those from different religions and cultures,” said Modesto City trustee Cindy Marks, who was on the board when the course was created.

“I am grateful that our students take a class that gives them the opportunity to explore, discuss and learn what people believe,” said trustee Sue Zwahlen, whose children took the course. “With this knowledge they are better prepared to treat others with kindness and respect for their beliefs,” she said.

Community involvement in the creation of Modesto’s course may be its saving grace, setting it on a separate plane from classes put to the flames via social media in the book’s first chapters.

Wertheimer cites the case of a field trip controversy at Wellesley Middle School in Massachusetts. Wellesley is a public middle school that teaches five foreign languages, offers 15 music and drama courses and requires sixth-graders to study the world’s religions as part of social studies.

“By the time each unit (on Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism) is complete, students should understand how each religion came about, the essential beliefs, traditions and where it is practiced in the world today. Geography, research, reading, writing and presentation skills are infused within the classroom teaching and assignments,” reads the course outline.

In 2010, however, a parent signed up to chaperone and clandestinely filmed the field trip of about 200 students to a local mosque. During the trip, five boys in the back mimicked the kneeling of male worshipers. Months later a video went viral claiming the school was converting students to Islam.

Despite the backlash, the school continued the field trips. “There is nothing like being inside a mosque, inside a temple. These experiences are powerful for kids. They are going to remember them long after they forget Mohammed was born in 570 AD,” then-Principal Joshua Frank told the Boston Globe in 2015.

In a second example cited in “Faith Ed,” a longtime high school teacher in Lumberton, Texas, bought or made costumes of different religions the teens could try on as part of learning about world cultures.

“In her way, she was peeling back what she called the pine curtain – in reference to that part of Texas – and expose the kids to the world. That what she was trying to do,” Wertheimer said during a 2015 Education Writers Association Radio podcast.

After years of using these costumes as teaching props, the inevitable day came when students photographed each other in Muslim garb and posted the pictures on social media. “Burkagate” ensued, ending a 39-year teaching career. The teacher burned the clothing.

“She had been accused of trying to convert people to Islam, and she was actually Jewish,” Wertheimer said.

It is against this backdrop, that Wertheimer holds up Modesto as an example of schools working to spread the anti-hate: knowledge. The rigid neutrality of the course, however, she describes as a drawback.

But that was the point, said Johansen High instructor Sherry McIntyre, who has taught the course since its inception. Modesto’s course, which covers Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Confucianism, drew on expertise from the First Amendment Center and Anti-Defamation League on teaching touchy subjects without controversy. To be scrupulously unbiased, it uses the Usborne Encyclopedia of World Religions as its textbook.

“I’ve heard nothing negative whatsoever. I truly believe our community has embraced this course and respects what we are trying – successfully – to do. At Back to School night I had numerous parents thank me for the class,” McIntyre said via email Monday.

McIntyre’s mantra she repeats to students starting with the first lecture: “We’re not talking about agreement (with religious ideas). We’re talking about honoring the right.”

“I would say the biggest benefit of taking world religion in high school is it clears a lot of the gray area of what defines a religion,” said Downey High grad Aaron Zwahlen, son of Sue Zwahlen, via email.

“A lot of people, especially young people, believe everything they see on Facebook or hear from friends about different religion. Especially religions that are not common: Islam, Mormon and even Judaism.

“I learned that everyone has their core beliefs, and most of them are to treat others how you would want to be treated and to be the best person you can be. There may be different gods or prophets that people believe in but the core is all the same,” he wrote.

Wertheimer, a former education editor for the Boston Globe, wraps her own story of religious intolerance into the story. Growing up in the only Jewish family in a small Ohio town left its mark. She speaks with outrage to this day of the widespread assumption of Christianity as the only real religion. For example, weekly Bible study lessons were part of her public school day.

In modern-day Boston, youngsters at one school played “Jail the Jews” and swastikas were painted on the walls, prompting her to look at how schools approached religious differences, Wertheimer said in an EWA conference workshop last year.

A New York Times review of the book challenges Wertheimer’s objectivity, saying she glossed over more controversial aspects of the beleaguered schools’ teachings.

In any case, we have all seen enough examples of woefully un-Christian social media behavior to recognize teaching about religion as a minefield. But to avoid discussing other religions is to avoid discussing the why and the where behind so much of what has happened throughout time. Their vision of God was the passion soldiers rallied to serve, the reason for the explorer’s quest, the legitimacy behind the crown.

One historian’s comment has stuck with me. Asked how religion influenced governance in the Middle Ages, he seemed perplexed by the question. Religion was government until the modern age, he finally said.

“At the high school level, if kids are taking world history, it should be sort-of a ‘duh’ that they’re going to learn about the world’s religions. I mean, they actually have been forever. People just don’t realize it. It is part of state standards in almost every state in our country that as part of world history kids learn at least about the three major world religions,” Wertheimer says in the podcast.

Count California state standards among them. In sixth grade, kids here are supposed to learn about Judaism as the first monotheistic religion and understand how religion figured in life of Mesopotamia and Egypt. In seventh grade, students discuss how Protestants left the Catholic Church. Sophomores explore ideology and religion in colonialism. Juniors track the role of religion in the American colonies and seniors debate the religious freedom guarantee in the Bill of Rights and how religious principles helped shape our laws and institutions.

If they study all that thoroughly, graduating seniors will no longer think of the Pilgrims just as gracious hosts in tall hats. Freedom of religion for them meant freedom to make strict religious practices the law of the new land.

As Smithsonian Magazine describes in a 2010 article about religious tolerance through our history: “The real story of religion in America’s past is an often awkward, frequently embarrassing and occasionally bloody tale that most civics books and high-school texts either paper over or shunt to the side.”

With election year rhetoric about a ban on Muslim immigrants, those early European settlers are surely smiling down on us. But by 2050, A Pew Research Center study predicts there will be nearly as many Muslims on this Earth as Christians.

It matters that America’s next generation of leaders better understand this shrinking world and have the wherewithal to cut through the political spin and spittle.

World religions

Christian: 2.2 billion, about 40 percent various Protestant branches, the rest Catholic and smaller groups of orthodox and Assyrian

Islam: 1.6 billion, about 12 percent Shia and 88 percent Sunni

Unaffiliated: 1.1 billion

Hinduism: 1 billion

Chinese traditional: 294 million

Buddhism: 376 million

African traditional: 100 million

Sikhism: 23 million

Judaism: 14 million

Source: Wikipedia, Pew Research Center