When it comes to religion, public schools are places where teachers and other employees can’t proselytize, or try to convert someone from one set of religious beliefs to another, but that doesn’t mean students don’t study religious history in public schools; of course they do. In fact, not a small number of students in public high schools actually attended private elementary and middle schools, and many of those middle schools were affiliated with a church or other religious organization.
Excellent student reports from one school in Illinois and one in Maryland this past week explore this issue in great detail.
At Evanston Township High School in Chicago’s near-north suburbs, about a hundred students come to the school every year from private, mostly religious, middle schools.
Life is different in religious schools. In Catholic schools, for instance, students often start the day with a mass, including a sermon by a priest or deacon. In public schools, the day often starts with the Pledge of Allegiance. In addition, Catholic schools offer a few classes that specifically focus on religion, rather than just including religion in the study of, say, world history, which would be more the public school way.
Some students who attend a Catholic middle school and a public high school actually think the public school way of incorporating religion is better for their faith.
“I felt like when I was attending a religious school I didn’t get the real world experience that you get at public schools,” The Evanstonian quoted one freshman as saying. “While having religious classes was interesting, I feel more open to new ideas at public school,” said another, according to the student newspaper.
In fact, the Catholic school experience can have the effect of turning people away. Going to a Catholic middle school “actually made me believe less in God,” writer Charlie Levisay quoted one sophomore as saying, “because I learned about the strict morals, beliefs, and policies of being Catholic. I was ready to get out of that environment.”
Others tend to carry their religious beliefs with them at the public high schools, which have a diverse mix of students and religious beliefs.
In Ijamsville, Maryland, for example, the student newspaper at Urbana High School talked with a Muslim student, a Catholic student, a Baptist student, and a Jewish student to get multiple perspectives about students’ religious beliefs.
Writer Alice Ramos spelled out the similarities and differences between the different Abrahamic faiths, showing how students at that public school understand diversity much better than the patriarchs of these great religions.
“I wouldn’t change [Islam] so much as I would change the situation in Saudi Arabia and the way the government controls the way people follow it. They don’t practice it right because you’re not supposed to impose the religion on anyone,” The Hawkeye quoted one student as saying.
In other words, we shouldn’t proselytize anywhere, he thinks, not just in the public schools.
“I think it’s because as humans we’re always offended and always want to be right,” the Baptist student said. “So when people tell others they’re wrong, which can inevitably happen when you try to tell them about your religion, they get upset. You have to be humble when you talk because if you’re proud, people won’t respect your opinions. I think just putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and trying to see how they’re feeling would help.”
For some students, religion holds a value that extends far beyond the call to proselytize or evangelize.
“A big part of the religion is inner reflection on how to be a better person and discover what the religion means to you personally,” the student newspaper quoted a Jewish student, who considers herself more a Reconstructionist, as saying.