As a professor of education, I’m known for changing the conversation to what’s on my students’ minds.
So, even though there’s little I’d want to discuss less than guns, I wrapped up my final week of class recently by shifting the conversation once again amid a deadly shooting at a California synagogue and a second shooting at a large university in North Carolina. (Unfortunately, another fatal shooting, in a Colorado school, occurred soon after.)
We should not need to talk about the reality so many of us face — armed guards at our sites of worship, difficult conversations with our children about what to do if spaces we’ve assumed are safe become sites of terror. We should not need to talk about it because we already should have enacted sweeping policy change, much like what happened in New Zealand after the massacre in Christchurch. But, here in America, people love their guns and are slow to condemn white supremacy and its attendant terrorism.
The power of education, with its emphasis on dialogue and respect for a range of ideas, has a unique capacity to bring people closer to common understandings. And, yet, we seem to be slipping further from civility and safety in America.
Though making significant change would mean legislative action in Washington, D.C., rather than teaching choices in individual classrooms around the country, classroom conversations are one vital way to start small.
That’s why instead of pedagogy, we talked about the constant cycle of violence at religious sites and educational institutions in the United States. We talked about the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, the murders at a historic black church in South Carolina in 2015, the mosque fires in California, and the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway in the past six months.
In all of these acts of terror, there are perpetrators who see the world as being divided into “us” and “them.” To be inside the “us,” there need to be others left out, marginalized and vilified. In so many instances of mass violence, the targets are people of color, Muslims and Jews. We are pushed to the outside by those who are “in” — in the most recent episodes, white, Christian men who feel disadvantaged by a changing society.
What if, though, we taught children to break down these barriers between us and them, in and out, “normal” and “weird”?
It starts small — an understanding that we all have things in common. With young children, these things might have nothing to do with religion but instead might be about loving ice cream, soccer or video games. As children get older, they can find similarities in movies, books or music they like.
Ultimately, teachers can help students get to the point where they see similarities, rather than differences, among religious beliefs, too. I’ve yet to encounter a religion that does not value kindness, tolerance and respect.
Some religions are monotheistic, others polytheistic; some have dietary restrictions, others don’t. Religious groups have different holy books and sites of worship. Not a single religion advocates murder or terror. But, in the end, religion is about belief, about faith. And we’d all be better off with a little more faith and a lot less division.
I asked my pre-service teachers how they envision talking about religion in their future classrooms, and they fell back on what they knew: talking about winter holidays in December. This, though, centers Christian holidays and places other religious celebrations in contrast to what is most mainstream in America. It also highlights what is different among religious celebrations rather than what is similar across religious beliefs.
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There is a clear separation between public schools and religion in America, but this is not meant to keep all conversations about religious pluralism outside of the classroom. Instead, teachers, students and community members need to see religion as something that binds us all together rather than something that tears us apart.
In fact, there has been an overwhelming interfaith response to attacks on religious institutions: Jews, Muslims and Christians have rallied around the communities affected, bringing the love of their own religions to what is a human problem. We need to teach about religions just as we teach about culture — boldly, and with sensitivity.
In America, the most common religious affiliation is Christian, with “unaffiliated” a distant second. Atheist and agnostic affiliations are more common than Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist combined.
A common ground between the majority Christian and the minority religions can be found in shared values. The Christian “do unto others as you would have done unto you” translates across faith groups and religious texts. It might be understood as the “ethics of reciprocity,” and appears in different ways across religions in the United States and globally. It’s easy to see common ground — an erosion of “us” and “them” — if we look.
Teaching values like kindness, and understanding, and non-violence — all grounded in religious traditions — surely falls within the scope of schools. Fixing this problem, the epidemic of gun violence that rocks America relentlessly, should be owned by our government. Until it is, we can teach and raise children who will be forces for positive change.
This story about class discussions of gun violence was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Jennifer Rich is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Rowan University, and the director of the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Her research and teaching focus on “hard histories” (such as slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Holocaust), and how teachers can talk about these time periods in more honest and inclusive ways.