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Approach to religious education in India differs sharply from U.S. (Video)

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
April 26, 2013 at midnight
Updated April 26, 2013 at 11:27 p.m.

A student dresses in traditional Indian garb for a special dance performance at St. Joseph's School's Annual Day in Trivandrum, India.

A student dresses in traditional Indian garb for a special dance performance at St. Joseph's School's Annual Day in Trivandrum, India.   Jennifer Lee Preyss for The Victoria Advocate

Editor's note: This is Part 3 of a four-part series on the spirituality in India.

Claire Hallett's fifth-grade Schorlemmer Elementary students pause from the lesson and fix their eyes in unison on a woman lingering in the doorway.

The woman's curious black head scarf, a Muslim hijab, reveals her dark, Bette Davis eyes, freckled cheeks and horizontal, toothy grin.

Obaida Hamoudah is accustomed to the staring.

Hamoudah's daughter, Rama, 11, asked her mother to speak to the class following a classroom discussion on Greg Mortenson's New York Times bestseller, "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time."

Religion discussions in public schools aren't always embraced for fear of lawsuits and parental complaints.

But Hamoudah is convinced it's one of the best places to start a dialogue about diversity, culture and world religions.

In Hamoudah's native Israel, and in Kuwait, where she received her secondary education at Catholic school, religion studies are an integral part of the curriculum. In Kerala, India, too, students are encouraged at every grade level to study religion, explore the supernatural and display their faith in public forum.

Hamoudah, a Cade Middle School substitute teacher, believes religion education and exposure to other cultures helps breakdown the fear of the unfamiliar.

Yet, in the United States, God talks are not welcome in public school. Many American parents cite the constitutional separation of church and state and say religious education should be handled in the home.

The daily curious stares provoked by Hamoudah's hijab may be a consequence of that separation.

Religion studies in India

Parvarthy Leena, 14, pulls back her long, thick black hair in a ponytail and puts on a baby blue King's School uniform.

Most schools in India, private and public, require matching school attire. Uniforms help level the scales, yet the distinct religious markings of Indian children do little to hide a student's religious identity.

Paru, as she's lovingly called, is of a family in Kollam, India, that can afford to finance an advanced private secular institution. Her studies are primarily focused on English, math and science, but religion is not far from the curriculum, or discussion in school.

Her father, K.G. Baiju, and mother, Leena, are attorneys. They own their own law firm. They're proponents of balanced and advanced education.

As Hindus, Baiju often guides his family on the practice and necessity of faith. When Parvarthy was born, Baiju gave her the name of a celebrated Hindu goddess.

Paru waits for the school bus on the front, marble stoop of her home. Homes in India are guarded by high walls, but she can hear the vehicle approaching when it's a few blocks down the street. Paru's best girlfriend, Sumaya, like many students at her school, is a Muslim. She doesn't wear the hijab, but many other Muslim girls do.

"No she doesn't have, but some smaller class girls do have, and are permitted to wear those," she said, not quite fluent in English.

Pavarthy also has Christian friends, who in India are distinctly recognized by their Western names and the presence of a surname. Most Hindus do not have a surname, making Christian students easily identifiable when they enroll in school.

But in Kerala, where religious pluralism is common, all are welcome, she said.

"In classrooms, in schools and offices, students and people are not at all discriminated based on religion," Pavarthy said. "Nobody ever cares on the base of religion and there is no such teasing on the difference of religion."

Beyond a general respect for other religions in Kerala, Baiju said, religion studies are, at least on some level, always a part of primary education.

Morality and ethics are taught in the curriculum, and Christian studies are made available for the Christian students, even in secular schools. Hindus can opt out of those courses, if they choose.

"In schooling days, students are trained to pay respect to all the religions and learn that the spirits of all religions are one and the same. . " Baiju said. "In my school and college days, I never think about the caste or religion of my friends, and still I don't know who belongs to which caste and religion."

His exposure to people of different faiths in school helped develop a strong understanding of religiously diverse community.

As a Hindu, he knows, for example, that Muslims pray five times each day, so he isn't alarmed when they attend an area mosque because he's been exposed to their customs.

Religion in American schools

Religion in U.S. public schools once included prayer, Bible reading and teachings of Creationism, all accepted by the constitutions of state and federal governments as legal and beneficial.

Teaching religion in public schools today, while some may argue would not be beneficial, is constitutional on both state and federal levels, if handled properly.

If public schools do not grant favorable treatment, or endorse religious activity or academic programs, school districts are free to implement religious studies as they choose, said Kevin Lewis, associate professor of theology and law at Biola University and founder and director of the Evangelical Legal Society in La Mirada, Calif.

However, many school principals these days are afraid of lawsuits, unaware of their rights and the rights of their students on matters of religion in school, Lewis said.

Academics, he said, are skeptical secularists, and may not value religion knowledge as part of the general curriculum.

"Generally, those in leadership in academia have a skeptical view of religion, so they don't view it as necessary education," Lewis said. "For them, they explain the world through an idea that we're a bunch of star dust particles crashing into each other, and morality and ethics can't be explained through that world view."

Academic pursuits today are bent toward math and sciences, he said.

"But what does science mean? It's a Latin word for knowledge, scientia," Lewis said. "People forget it was the Christians who built all the universities in the West. It's the Puritans who built Harvard, Yale and Princeton. These weren't people who feared knowledge. These were people who welcomed it and understood debate, philosophy and polemic. They believed Christianity is truth, and it's going to stand up to scrutiny."

As a professional researcher and religion teacher and lead counsel on many California cases concerning the exercise of First Amendment rights, Lewis maintains religion has a place in society and public school education.

Lewis said the religious climate of the American public school systems has shifted considerably since the 1940s and 1950s when courts first start challenging the constitutionality of religion in schools.

The separation of church and state argument is often misinterpreted as a federal mandate to eliminate God from government. But Lewis said the First Amendment was written to restrict the federal government from interfering with the states' constitutions about the exercise of religion.

"Conversely, most of the original state constitutions had provisions for the public teaching of Christianity . because morality is necessary for good government," he said.

As a Christian, Lewis said, studying religions of the world is not something to fear. It allows people of any faith to better understand what they believe.

"It absolutely makes me a stronger Christian. I study philosophy, theology and logic, and I'm convinced Christianity is exclusively true with respect to salvation. By knowing all the other religions, it just confirms all the more that the others don't measure up," he said.

As a theologian and attorney, he appreciates that religion studies have allowed him to better understand the world.

"You can't turn the timetables back to a pre-Scopes era when we taught Creationism in school, but to eliminate a lot of fear we have with other religions, you really need to implement some kind of genuine world religion curriculum in the schools," he said.

It doesn't belong

Sara Eaves Hernandez, of Victoria, has spent many years reconciling her ideas about religion. She went through the Mormon Church and several denominational branches of Protestantism before settling on Catholicism 10 years ago.

Her husband, an agnostic, and children, Sophie and Victoria Hernandez, who attend Victoria East High School, are open to religious exploration.

Hernandez said she believes God and faith studies should be part of a student's matriculation. But she knows in reality, religious studies public school would open the door for legal action and fighting among parents and students.

"I just think it would wind up causing a bunch of threats and fights. The ACLU would threaten to file law suits. I know it would happen," the stay-at-home mom, 39, said.

In an ideal world, Hernandez said, she would enjoy her children having some exposure to religious studies, but she would want them to learn only about Christianity. She wouldn't be comfortable with studies of Islam, or Hinduism, she said, and she would prefer the classes to be offered as electives, rather than mandatory staples of the curriculum.

"I really think God belongs in school; that's what wrong with the world today. Nobody has the fear of God anymore because they're not properly taught," she said.

Still, Hernandez believes U.S. parents and school administration will never approve religion studies in school.

"Parents would have a problem with it and pretty soon it's going to end up on national news ... It will never work, and that makes me sad."

Back in the classroom

Pausing from the afternoon lesson at Schorlemmer Elementary School, the fifth-grade teacher introduces the students to their classmate's mother.

"This is Rama's mother," the teacher says, eager to hear more about Islam and Obaida Hamoudah's journey to the United States from her native Jerusalem.

Having never seen a covered Muslim woman, the class has many questions, especially about her hijab.

"Why do you wear that?" they ask, unguarded.

As a substitute teacher, Hamoudah keeps an envelope of photos in her purse at all times. She brings them out to show when students approach her with questions about her scarf.

"Children are curious about it, and I like to show them pictures of me without it," she says. "They always have questions for us. And sometimes parents, too. I don't like to give my point of view about it without them knowing the other side and letting them see I'm just like them."

Rama doesn't wear the veil, unless attending prayer or special events at the Victoria Islamic Center.

"Let them be kids first. They have plenty of time; that's what I think," Hamoudah says, giggling.

Rama says she'll make the decision to cover when she's older. She enjoys being a Muslim and spending time with her Islamic Center friends, but she has a few years before she needs to think about it.

And as she matures into Islam, Rama also desires to learn more about other religions.

"I am not worried about my daughter learning about Christianity because I want her to know about it. I don't understand exactly what is Christianity. If I learned about it, it would help me, too," Hamoudah said.

One of the reasons Rama said she wants religion to be taught in school is because she desires others to know that not all Muslims are terrorists.

At 11 years old, Rama already interprets the religious bias in the news.

"I know what happened at the Boston Marathon was wrong, and no one should do that. But when they had the shootings at the schools and in the movie theater, no one says he's a Christian or not," she said. "I know what happened at the marathon was wrong, and our religion doesn't tell us to do that."

Hamoudah said formal religion education in schools would help countless other students in their understanding of extremist views of Islam and other heretical Christian extremist groups.

"I talked to her about the Boston Marathon and told her these Muslims are extremists. They don't take the Quran in the right way, and there are some people who influence them. It has a lot more to do with politics and taking the verses of the Quran out of context," Hamoudah said.

Hamouda's philosophy about religious studies is that it's beneficial for well-rounded education and helps create sustainable societies.

"It's not so that we get along. Kids get along. It's for us to appreciate each other, to know who we are."



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