Community considers faith in curricula


David Min and Danielle Brennan

In the classroom, the school facilitates conversations about religion in a variety of ways. In Global History I, freshmen discuss the Holocaust in the fall through the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum. Jewish Cultural Club Co-President Ali Roche ’22 said her teacher had taught without bias towards a certain religion.

“My teacher did a really good job of just sticking to the history of [the holocaust] and letting you see for yourself how awful it was,” Ali said.

Ali said she wanted to tie the discussion into current events, though, with a possible focus on religious hate crimes today.

United States History, Advanced Placement European History, and Environmental Studies in junior and senior years also include some discussion of religion. Later in freshman year, Global History I spends around two months in a World Religions unit covering Daoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

“The freshman curriculum introduces the basic tenets of religions and how they organize society,” Upper School (US) History and Social Sciences Teacher Matt Turnbull said. “We do our best to understand some of the major ideas with the understanding that a lot of the students may have more knowledge in a particular area than I do,” he said.

The curriculum aims to teach religion from a historical and communal standpoint, Mr. Turnbull said.

“I don’t think any of us as teachers are [telling] students what they should believe, or that there’s a correct way of thinking about God, or gods, or the world,” he said. “I like the way we talk about religion as an aspect of society that we want to understand.”

Sanya Goenka ’22, who identifies as Hindu, said some of the projects, like an essay that asked students whether Buddhism or Hinduism was better, felt insensitive.

“Ranking religion just based off what one learns in a classroom is dangerous because of a lack of understanding, and religion should be celebrated, not compared and put down,” Sanya said. “Many of the students in my class wrote about the flaws of Hinduism, and stereotyped Hindus in negative ways, making me feel ostracized and misunderstood.”

Leo Wang ’24, who doesn’t identify with a religion, said he enjoyed the religion unit because it covered a variety of beliefs and their origins, adding that he wished he had the opportunity to dive deeper into each religion.

“It was a nice way for students to have a window into the lives of the billions of people who consider religion to be an integral part of their life,” he said.

In sophomore year English, students examine the Bible as a literary text. The readings consisted of passages from Genesis and Exodus along with other selections from the Old and New Testament.

US English Teacher Sam Crihfield said he saw two purposes to the unit: understanding a historical literary work that’s influenced succeeding literature and gaining religious literacy.

“What I think is important about Genesis and Exodus is that [they’re] part of several religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, also, to a lesser degree, Islam,” Mr. Crihfield said. “Genesis is this creation narrative that speaks to the relationship between the divine and the mortal world, and then Exodus is this liberation narrative of people freeing themselves from oppression, so I think that speaks across history very profoundly.”

US English Teacher Sharon Krauss enjoys seeing students find connections in the text to literature, pop culture, and their own lives.

“Someone might excitedly bring up a “Mumford and Sons” lyric that they suddenly understand or astutely catch the Biblical allusions in ‘Macbeth’ or Bulawayo’s ‘We Need New Names,’” she said. “I think many of us [teachers] also ask students to write a personal narrative linking some experience in their lives with a theme that we’ve traced through the Bible stories—such as sibling rivalry, temptation, or tests of loyalty. That kind of assignment increases the stories’ relevance for the students.”

Saanika Raina ’23, who was raised partially Hindu but identifies as non-religious, recognized the Bible’s importance but felt the US should cut down on their coverage, she said.

“For me, I look at [religion] as something to study, so I don’t have a problem with BB&N’s curriculum. Touching the bases is OK, and if you want to learn more, you can on your own.”

Saanika said her class studied the Bible with an overly casual tone.

“Sometimes it seemed like [there] was a mocking tone, a little bit, or [the Bible] was taken lightly,” she said.

In contrast, Sammy Krem ’22, who identifies as non-religious, said the biblical lessons he learned were applicable to his own life.

“I learned from the Proverbs, such as the sowing the seed story and the prodigal son. [These stories] taught me and reinforced good morals.”

Katie Baker ’23, who identifies as an Episcopalian Christian, said she learned how different perspectives interpret the texts.

“[The course] did a great job separating faith from education,” she said. “[Reading a religious text] might sound scary to someone because [religion is] personal, but in the end, I loved it. I think other faiths in the class felt comfortable sharing their knowledge, and I learned so much more from them than I ever would have known about Judaism or even [other] Christian denominations.”