Smart Schools Teach Religion, but Leave Spirituality to the Students

I wrote and submitted this article the day before the bombings in Paris.  How silly it seemed, the next day, to be writing about red cups as an impetus to teach religion in schools.  The content of the article was made maybe even more relevant, but it was edited to remove the first and last paragraphs instead of revising them.  It turned out to be a bit of a clunky article, but the message is consistent (link to SCMP, or full original version below).  What do you think?…/religion-hong-kong-schools-teach-it-dont-preach-it 

Last week my Facebook feed was full of red coffee cups. The latest social media phenomenon centered on a Starbucks minimalist holiday cup design which one consumer strangely extrapolated to be a scourge against Christmas and, by extension, a direct threat to Christianity. The extent of attention his video garnered in the U.S. media got me thinking about religious literacy and its place as an academic subject in schools.

My sense is that the secularization of school curriculums in a well-intentioned commitment to separate church and state has had the unintended consequence of creating a general public illiteracy about religion. According to New York Times bestselling author Stephen Prothero, “Only ten percent of U.S. teenagers can name all five major world religions, and 15 percent can’t name any.” In an effort to avoid offending anyone schools have decided to skip religious education altogether, so students are left to gather what understanding they can without the analytical framework schools usually provide. This has fueled uneasiness and misunderstanding instead of cultivating tolerance from a base of knowledge.

Schools should not promote religion, but they should teach it.

Understanding history is impossible without an understanding of the religious traditions that helped shape the world. From a purely secular standpoint, atheists should know and understand what they choose not to believe in.

Schools have very different approaches to the question of religious education. In my opinion, Hong Kong International School does a relatively good job at weaving religious education into the curriculum. As part of its mission statement HKIS states that it is, “An American-style education grounded in the Christian faith and respecting the spiritual lives of all.” At HKIS, Christianity is taught at all levels and is an integral part of the ethos of the school, but it is not expected that all students will practice Christianity.

In the elementary years, HKIS students are taught a basic understanding of world religions with cultural and traditional experiences both in the classroom and through field trip visits around Hong Kong to mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship where children are encouraged to ask questions. Throughout the year parents of many faiths are invited to share traditions within the classrooms.

In the middle school years, religious education focuses on understanding one’s own values and beliefs and respecting those of others. Charitable outreach, social justice and world issues are discussed in the context of personal values.   On Back to School night I was impressed to hear a middle school religion teacher explain that, “We teach religion, but we do not teach spirituality. Spirituality has to be developed on an individual basis.” This distinction gave me confidence that the school was not proselytizing.

In high school, students cultivate a more subtle and complex understanding of the differences and commonalities among world religions. Students study, go on service trips, sometimes engage in shared practice of different religions and explore further their own sense of self.  Some students find great expansion happens in these classes, and for some, the few minutes of silence and reflection in religion classes are the only moments of calm in their day.

Marty Schmidt, a high school humanities teacher at HKIS, calls this Social Conscience Education, and has written extensively on the topic.  Schmidt describes social conscience education as, “A personal consideration of one’s role and responsibility in society in the context of an emotionally engaged understanding of the world.”

This is one example of a school that embraces religion as an essential field of study in a well-rounded education, yet inextricably linked to human development.

In the words of twentieth-century American philosopher John Dewey, “For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.”

The red cup incident should remind us all to reflect on actual needs, problems and possibilities rather than allowing fear and obliviousness to distract our own carefully cultivated convictions.

Music Literacy for Kids


If your evening routine includes arguments, incentives and timers in order to cajole your children to practice an instrument, you might want to rethink your approach. While creating music should be a joyful lifelong experience, the path toward mastery of an instrument can be tempestuous if the motivation is wrong.

Music, like competitive sports, AP classes and volunteering has become another near chimera in the desperate sprint toward collage acceptance.   For some, music is a ticket to college. But for the vast majority, music practice ranks near the top of the list of topics that induce day-to-day stress in busy households. The path to musical literacy for the majority is strewn with abandoned instruments.

Despite having grown up with music teacher parents, I never learned to play an instrument. I was determined the same would not happen to my own children, so I followed the typical path signing them up for traditional music lessons from the time they were small. In my home I have two violins, a trombone and a piano; all abandoned by my children. Perhaps it’s my own lack of resolve in disciplining them to stick with it, but I could tell that their lack of enthusiasm was honest and any amount of prodding by me would be a battle.

For my eldest I sought the advice of Dr. Frank Abrahams, a prominent college music educator in the United States. I expected he would share the latest practice technique with me, but instead he simply said, “Get him an ipod. That way he can figure out what kind of music he likes. Once he knows what he likes, I can teach him how to play it.” I was shocked (and a little disappointed at first), but then I began to understand the approach.

“What’s great about this idea” says Kathryn Bechdoldt, beloved Middle School Choir Director at HKIS, “is that it gives kids the ability to examine and grow their taste independently. Giving a child ownership of their aural environment, their time, and their taste will immediately increase their interest. From there, it’s the teacher’s job to find ways to stretch and support knowledge and skill in a variety of genres.”

My son abandoned the piano and trombone, but picked up the electric guitar when I found a teacher who taught him to play rock music. His genuine interest and a lack of pressure from me found him more open minded when a jazz musician offered to work with him, and encouraged him to play acoustic and to practice scales so he could move his fingers more smoothly over the strings. This gave him ownership of the process and the outcome. His goal was to be able to play the music he likes rather than to play scales better than he did yesterday. He felt empowered to improve himself, not simply challenged to please the teacher.

But music, like a sport or mastering anything takes practice and discipline. There’s no getting around learning to read music and practicing scales, but the student has to understand the purpose. For example, Ms. Bechdoldt explains that, “When I’m teaching guitar, I show students how much more strength their fingers have when they hold the guitar neck with correct technique, and how much more easily and quickly they can switch chords. It allows them to see that I’m not making rules at random; the “rules” of how to hold a guitar are actually making them better guitarists.

Start by asking yourself what’s your goal in music education for your child? Do you want them to have performance experience, to win awards, recognition, or do you want them to have a life long love of music and the ability to create it?   If the latter, then perhaps let the child explore music in a fun, creative way by attending all kinds of live music concerts, let them pick the music you listen to in the car and seek out instructors who are forward thinking and who love to create music themselves.

Consider music making as an art form, not a competition to be won. Encourage kids to learn to play music that they like and expose them to a wide range of music to expand their horizons.

For example, Premiere Performances of Hong Kong ‘s PLAY! Family Concert Series is a great way to introduce children to world-class, live classical music in an accessible and fun way.

These are positive things parents can do to empower children to cultivate authentic, life-long musical literacy.