REA 2013 conference: Walter Feinberg

Walter Feinberg spoke at the third plenary session of the 2013 Religious Education Association (REA) annual conference. Feinberg is interested in education for democratic citizenship, and has recently done research on the teaching of religion in public schools with Richard Layton. Feinberg and Layton have a new book out, For the Civic Good: The Liberal Case for Teaching Religion in the Public Schools, and Feinberg’s talk was based in part on this book.

Feinberg began by pointing out that it is constitutional to teach about religion in U.S. public schools. He cited Abington v. Schempp, a 1963 Supreme Court ruling which declared devotional reading from the Bible to be unconstitutional; but in its ruling the Court also stated: “One’s education is not complete without the study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”

Feinberg said that he advocates teaching about religion in the public schools because it is “preparation for the development of a civic public.” A “civic public” is “a group of strangers in communication with one another about a shared destiny.” Another way of putting this is that learning about religion, including other people’s religious traditions, is good preparation for citizenship. This is the only reason Feinberg accepts, and he rejected other reasons for teaching religion in the public schools, e.g., he rejected Stephen Prothero’s religious literacy argument, asking what makes religious literacy more special than musical illiteracy or economic illiteracy.

Emphasizing the need for excellent teachers if you’re going to teach about religion in the public schools, Feinberg added: “You have to watch out for charismatic, really bad teachers, they’re the worst kind.” Good teachers respect the individual beliefs of the students; and they are inclusive (i.e., they would never refer to the Hebrew Bible as the “Old Testament,” which is a Christian label that Jews don’t accept). A third minimum pedagogic requirement is that teachers “should not discourage reasonable student inquiry,” and ideally would encourage it.

He mentioned two specific kinds of courses he likes to see in the public schools. He likes courses that teach the Bible as literature, where the Bible is read as “one of our canonical texts.” He also likes courses about world religions, courses which can “make the strange familiar, and by so doing, make the familiar strange.”

And a good goal for public school courses about religion is to help students “learn to hold more than one interpretation in their head at a time, be aware of other interpretations.” Feinberg does not want to change students’ beliefs, but he does want them to learn to acknowledge their perspective may be different from other people’s perspectives. He gave the example of a Christian fundamentalist student who would learn that they should not say, “If you don’t believe in Christ, you’ll go to hell,” and instead learn to be able to say, “Based on my faith, the way you get in to heaven is to accept Christ.”

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