Narrow examination of the teaching of religion in America’s public schools.
Education writer Wertheimer experienced anti-Semitism firsthand on various occasions while growing up in Van Buren, Ohio, in the 1970s. The experience shaped her and thoroughly shapes this book on the teaching of world religions in public schools. Justified or not, the author’s study comes across as pre-concluded and defined by a restrictive set of values and views. Wertheimer traveled to a handful of places where the teaching of religion has in one way or another been newsworthy, and she interviewed local students, teachers, administrators, and community leaders. In Lumberton, Texas, she explored a controversy that arose when students tried on burkas during a class discussion about Islam. In Wichita, Kansas, she visited an elementary school that has experimented with beginning world religion education as early as first grade, with mixed reception by the public. In Modesto, California, she toured a school system that intentionally built a religion curriculum based on extensive training and strict adherence to “equal time.” The author’s case studies are interesting and well-documented but hardly broad enough to provide a picture of the education of religion nationwide. Moreover, no matter how much readers may want to agree, Wertheimer’s personal prejudices are simply too heavy to ignore. Evangelical Christianity is always immediately suspect in her writing, while other faiths are not. For instance, she sees it as a success when the religion class in Modesto caused a Pentecostal girl to question her faith, stop wearing long skirts, and in the end leave her church tradition. It is difficult to imagine the author being equally happy about a woman of any other faith tradition having the same reaction. Wertheimer also looks down on rural or noncoastal America with a stereotypical haughtiness, and the book is replete with references to her experience growing up, which, though perhaps valid, don’t add much to the narrative.
A worthwhile study marred by bias.