Imagine, you are 15 years old again. You are sitting in your World History class, and your teacher pulls up a powerpoint for the current unit. Suddenly, on their colorful slides, they click to a page with the name of your religion at the top. Within three bullet points, and a clipart image of a tiny man on a prayer mat, your teacher describes your entire faith.
As I reflect on my secular and religious educations, I am aware of how separate the two have always been. In the moments where an opportunity for cross-over presented itself, like the world history units, I was always examining my religion through the eyes of an outsider, like it was something exotic or primitive. On the rare occasions that my secular education encountered artwork by a Muslim, or a book where a character belonged to the Jewish Faith, my teachers would present on the faith, though it always felt like an abbreviated version of a Wikipedia page.
Alternatively, when the topic was Christianity, there was an obvious double standard. There was always the presumption that people ought to know and recognize biblical motifs and allegories. Whether it be in art classes, learning about Masaccio and Leonardo (who were devout Christians), or AP English class, reading the Scarlet Letter or The Grapes of Wrath (many books in the English canon seem to be wrought with Biblical metaphors or allegories), it seemed as though there was always an influence of Christian ideology within my curriculum. I could study diligently and do my required readings, and yet, there was always something I did not know because it was never taught to me, but that I was nevertheless expected to know.
At the same time that I found my secular education wanting, I grew fond of my religious education, which was starkly different. Learning about my faith in Sunday school, I found guidance and answers to life’s ambiguities. And after my senior year of high school, I took a gap year to study Islam in depth at a seminary in Chicago. Many of the students in this seminary would go on to be scholars within the religion after 7-12 years of vigorous Islamic education. And there were a number of talented adolescent students who completed their high school studies alongside their religious education. This fascinated me, as up until then I had only experienced secular education as one’s primary focus, with religious education always independent, off to the side.
At this seminary, my classmates and teachers operated under a shared assumption that we were not experts in any religion. So when we broached a topic of faith, whether or not it was our own, we would engage in a thoughtful discussion and try to learn more about that religion. We learned from other religious scholars and spent hours and days in each discussion. It was in my religious education that I found a sense of community my secular education lacked. Suddenly, I was around people my own age who prayed the same way I did and fasted like me. This community flooded me with a sense of comfort; no longer was I an anxious outsider, or afraid of being judged by those who looked at me strangely for my faith.
I believe that secular education and Academia can adopt my seminary’s attitude towards religion. Of course, it is not always possible to consult religious scholars and spend days learning about a topic when teachers are already subjected to so many demands. However, when the topic of religion does come up, we must acknowledge that diverse students means diversity of faiths.
Have you ever had an experience with a teacher who expected you to know something about a faith that isn’t your own?
For Christian students, have you ever read a book during an English class that you could connect to at a higher level than some of your classmates due to its connection with your faith?