Faith/Religion
8:25 am
Mon October 7, 2013

World religion classes in Columbia high schools broaden student horizons

For George Frissell, giving students the opportunity to talk to Champa Lhunpo, a Tibetan monk, for the past 15 years has been a highlight of the world religions course he teaches at Hickman High School.

“Here’s someone who was a member of the Dalai Lama’s own monastery, and offers them [students] perhaps a perspective that’s one that they really can’t get from a book or from watching a video,” Frissell said.

Through this religion course, and another one like it at Rock Bridge High School, students have an opportunity to explore cultures, worldviews and traditions with a depth that’s not feasible in other courses.

Without student interest, however, the course may never have been created. Several years ago, a group of Hickman students went to their principal asking about the possibility of a religion class being offered at school.  Although Frissell was not a religious studies major in college, he felt his degrees in history and English would serve him well in creating and teaching the course. He’s now taught the class for about 20 years.

Greg Irwin checks his computer on a Monday morning at Rock Bridge High School in Columbia. Irwin is the world religions teacher at Rock Bridge, and the course is being offered for the first time this year. FAVS photo by Jill Ornitz.

When Greg Irwin came to him and asked for tips on starting a similar class at Rock Bridge High School, Frissell was happy to help.

Irwin majored in philosophy and religion in college, and he said his experience meeting people of different faiths and cultures was valuable to him and inspired him to bring the course to Rock Bridge. The course is in its first year, and Irwin said he’s using his own experiences and students’ interests to build the curriculum.

“My goal for the course and the curriculum is that students would be able to really consider the wisdom of any given religious tradition, but also look at critically, what are some of the weaknesses it’s exhibited throughout its history,” Irwin said.

One reason for the Rock Bridge course being offered has to do with the expansion of Columbia’s public school system – Irwin said the school was encouraged to offer more courses due to the opening of Battle High School.

For Michelle King, a senior at Rock Bridge, the course has given her an opportunity to explore her own religious identity with her family.

From left, John Rohmiller, 17; Inas Syed, 17; and Haley Benson, 17, all seniors at Rock Bridge High School, listen to a guest lecture from Punam Sethi, a learning specialist at the school, on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013 in Columbia. Sethi is a practicing Hindu and spoke to Irwin’s class about the belief system and its customs. FAVS photo by Jill Ornitz.

“I talk to my parents a lot about it [world religion], just because I’m in an age right now that I’m taking everything that I’m learning and kind of helping build my own faith basis,” King said.

Hickman junior Gabriel Gassmann chose to take world religions after being redistricted from Rock Bridge. His interest in the course stemmed from the experience he had in a humanities class at Rock Bridge.

“I actually have a lot of friends that are also taking the class, and I think everyone is pretty open to the whole thing,” Gassmann said.

Both Frissell and Irwin have maintained an attitude of education, not conversion, within the classroom – the course focuses on religious education in an academic sense.  According to Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, this distinction can be difficult in public schools, where confusion surrounds what should be taught in the classroom.

“Some people want their own religion to be taught as the norm and that’s problematic,” Chancey said.  “So, what’s a poor teacher to do?”

This religious studies bulletin board was displayed in Greg Irwin’s classroom at Rock Bridge High School in Columbia, Mo. early this fall. Irwin has taught at Rock Bridge for eight years, and this is the first year the school has offered a world religions class. FAVS photo by Jill Ornitz.

In spite of the potential for controversy, the world religions courses at Rock Bridge and Hickman have helped students better understand the world in which they live.  Although students may not know much going into the world religions class, Rock Bridge senior Alexander Vessell said he would recommend the course.

“I’d say you should take it because, if nothing else, you kind of learn a bit more about yourself,” Vessell said.