Religion in the High School American History Classroom

Paul Putz

Prior to becoming a graduate student at Baylor, I was a high school teacher living the high life on the Nebraska taxpayers' dime. I still remember teaching a lesson on late-19th century U.S. imperialism during my first year. At some point in the lecture, I wrote the letters WASP on the board and duly began going through each letter. I knew I'd have some explaining to do on the Anglo-Saxon part, but otherwise I expected to be able to brush quickly through my explanation and move on.

To my surprise, it was the Protestant part of WASP that caused more confusion than any other. I hadn't prepared myself beforehand to explain something that I thought was so basic, and I'm sure that my attempts to describe Protestantism brought little clarity. I vaguely remember drawing a timeline on the board at some point and launching into a mini Christian history lecture, replete with mentions of the Great Schism, the Reformation, and a listing of the various churches that would be considered Protestant.

When it was all done, I remember one student raising his hand. It was a welcome sight, since I had seen nothing but blank stares for the entirety of my impromptu presentation. But then he opened his mouth. "Mr. Putz, I don't think we are allowed to talk about religion in school," he said.

That final scene, and scenes very much like it, happened each of the four years that I taught high school social studies. It's only anecdotal evidence, sure, but in my experience many high school students lacked even a basic understanding of religion, its role in U.S. history, and the legality of discussing religion in a social studies class in the first place. Despite the fact that it is perfectly legal to teach about religion, the topic is imbued with such controversy and sensitivity that many textbooks, curriculum frameworks, and teachers (although not these Kentucky teachers) tend to avoid the subject or only give it a cursory nod. I am by no means the first to recognize this. Plenty of others, such as Stephen Prothero, have pointed out our need for more religious education in public school. But what interests me here is not to "amen" Prothero's suggestion that we establish religion classes in our schools. Instead, in keeping with the nature of this blog, I would like to briefly examine how religion in addressed within American History curriculum frameworks in high schools across the country.

The word cloud above was generated with wordle, a very basic textual analysis tool that is popular in high school teaching circles (yes it is embarrassing to use wordle when Lincoln Mullen is doing what Lincoln Mullen does). To create the cloud, I simply copy/pasted the text of the American history state curriculum standards from all 50 states and clicked "Go." Just in case you don't know how wordle works: the more times a word is included in the copy/pasted text, the larger it will appear in the word cloud. Because I used such a large body of text (approximately 100,000 words), any words that appears in the word cloud were frequently used (for example, "African," which is not one of the larger words, was used around 140 times). I should also mention that I copy/pasted not only the state standards, but also any accompanying content-related guidelines or frameworks included online by the state department of education.

There are a number of things that stand out on a cursory glance. First is the inclusion of many non-content words that are part of educational social studies jargon (analyze, impact, describe, role, effects, understand, etc). Second, when you start looking for the words that specifically address historical content, "war," "economic," "social," and "political" stand out above all others while "people," "events," "government," and "development" (among others) occupy the next tier. This is essentially how most American history content is organized, at least as it is expressed in state standards: there are a few broad themes (social, political, economic, occasionally cultural), each which includes developments related to specific events, people, and groups, all of which are to be studied in the context of different eras (like the Great Depression, the Civil War, World War II, Civil Rights Movement, Reconstruction, and so on).

You'll notice when you dig a little deeper that the word "religious" did make the cut of oft-repeated words, and it would have been slightly more prominent if it was combined with mentions of the word "religion." It may not be in the starting lineup, but at least the concept of religion is on the team and it does have a space, however small, within American History curriculum. Of course, this very broad textual analysis is not nearly adequate to fully understand the inclusion of religion within American history curriculum. Religion can be implied within a standard even if the standard does not actually mention the word "religion." And simply including the word religion in a state standard tells us nothing about how religion is supposed to be covered. Furthermore, the state standards are not necessarily accurate representations of what is taught in the classroom. Some state standards are mere suggestions, and the power of what content to teach is actually controlled by local school districts. Other state standards are terribly vague, allowing for a wide range of teacher latitude in how to interpret them. You could certainly fit religion in under a standard like "understand the impact of social reform movements through U.S. history." Even so, state standards are one important piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding what is taught in high school classrooms. They at least help us recognize the broad contours of what high school students are expected to learn.

From Arkansas, a standard that begs the question: Who the hell is William Glidden?
Jon Butler once described religion in American History textbooks as something resembling a jack-in-the-box. Religion is presented as a factor that just "pops up" from time to time, and then disappears. In high school textbooks, according to Butler, religion pops up with the Pilgrims and the First Amendment and then disappears until a brief appearance with the Scopes trial in the 1920s and again with the Moral Majority in the 1980s.

I found Butler's analysis to be mostly true of the state standards. Religion was usually featured in early American history (sometimes even Native American religion was included), and occasionally it received mention in antebellum America (usually with the Second Great Awakening or with reform movements like abolition and temperance). But in the presentation of post-Civil War history religion rarely made the cut, aside from the Social Gospel, the Scopes trial, and the Jewish experience during the Holocaust (which is not usually presented with religion in mind). Another problem with many state standards was the lack of precision. Too often, religion was relegated to a single, vague statement, something like Iowa's standard that students should "understand the significant religious, philosophical, and social movements and their impacts on society and social reform."

The chart above offers a look at the specific religious words that were most often featured in state standards. Surprisingly, the word Protestant was never mentioned. Not surprisingly, neither was atheism, secular, irreligion, and the like. Another problem was that terms like "Mormon" or "Catholic" were usually only presented in terms of how they related to the (unstated) Protestant majority. Thus, students are supposed to learn about "anti-Catholicism," but not about Catholics on their own terms.

Despite the obvious problems, it should be noted that the task of featuring religion in a comprehensive way in a high school American History class is even more difficult than figuring out how to identify turning points in American church history. After all, the high school class is supposed to include all aspects of American History. No matter how the curriculum is designed, it will leave out important aspects of religious history. Still, designers of high school curriculum have not everything about religion to include, but something, and preferably something that presents religion as an ever-present element of American history from pre-colonial to the present.

California (see screenshot below) was the most impressive state in this regard, and not just because they were the only state to actually mention Billy Sunday and Dwight Moody:

Compare California's treatment of religion to that of Washington, and you can see the vast gulf that can exist from state to state. This was the only mention of religion in Washington's U.S. history standards:

Although no other state could match California's robust and comprehensive inclusion of religion throughout the entire arc of U.S. history, religion was prevalent in the standards of states like North Carolina, New York, and...well, before I tell you the name, here's a couple hints.

1) It was the only state to expect teachers to specifically link religion with the growth of the ideal of representative government in colonial America, all while downplaying the influence of Enlightenment political ideas (one other state, Mississippi, did have a standard connecting the Great Awakening with "revolutionary sentiment")

2) It also had the only state standard that explicitly articulated the idea of American exceptionalism:

3) Its standards were the "most fact-based and patriotic in the entire United States." Let the reader make of this what he or she will.

In 2003, well before Texas's social studies standards drew rapt attention from all quarters, a three-day conference sponsored by the First Amendment Center and the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life was held (you can read the official report of the conference here). The conference, titled "Teaching About Religion in Public Schools: Where we go from here?" featured a number of luminaries in the scholarly world, including Jon Butler, who began his remarks with the following:
Americans have shied away from a discussion of religion in the abstract and from conversations about religion in particular. This is a part of our national heritage––the failure to discuss religion, the idea that religion is such a private phenomenon that it cannot be discussed in the classroom, that it’s inappropriate to discuss it in a high school assembly, that it’s inappropriate to discuss American religious traditions in an American history class, beyond the Puritans. This failure to deal intellectually and collectively, as well as individually, with the problem of religion is the major reason we are here at this kind of conference...We’re poorly prepared to comprehend a world that is aflame in faith.
We are now ten years from the conference, which served as a symbol of the consensus that public schools must teach about religion. Meanwhile, within the academic world the study of religion in American history is as popular as ever. But will that popularity have implications for the high school classroom? The process of diffusing knowledge from the ivory tower is fraught with snags, set-backs, and dead-ends, not the least of which is figuring out how to make scholarship accessible and understandable to students who have little prior knowledge of religion. It is going to take some time before teachers are adequately trained (resources like this are a start), appropriate textbooks are published, and more robust state curriculum standards are implemented. And even then, the combustive and politically charged nature of religion in the public square means that any changes in how history is presented will face scrutiny, suspicion, and opposition.

Other contributors to this blog have recently highlighted some of the ways (from helping heal historical wounds to addressing how media covers religion) that scholars can become more involved in the broader public realm. Despite the potential for frustration, it seems to me that the high school classroom is another area in which religious studies scholars and historians of religion -- following the lead of Diana Eck, Jon Butler, and others -- can play an important public role.


Tom Van Dyke said…
Excellent work, Paul. And who the hell WAS William Glidden? A google mostly turns up this essay!

IMO, the Texas Schoolbook Massacre needs much deeper study.

I rather like the idea of Tocqueville in the schools. As for one of your main themes, "Protestantism" is indeed at or near the heart of American Exceptionalism, its revolt against the Old Order as much against popes and bishops as against kings.
Kyle Wagner said…
Given the Social Gospel context, I can only imagine they meant Washington Gladden. How bizarre.
Paul Putz said…
Kyle, I thought so as well. My hunch was that it was some sort of amalgamation of Washington Gladden with Joseph Glidden.