December 16, 2011

Teaching Challenges in Religiously Diverse Classrooms

By Jennie Piccolo, PGY1 Pharmacy Resident, Carroll Hospital Center 

“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.”  In his inaugural address, President Obama used religious diversity as one of the many illustrations of diversity in America, proclaiming “our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.”1 He did not address the challenges this often presents, however, in the classroom.  Sara Shady and Marion Larson of Bethel University ruminate on this ever present challenge to educators at American colleges and universities: “How should we handle the presence of different religious views in the classroom?  How can we best prepare students to constructively engage a world of competing religious truths?”2 

The pharmacy curriculum and curricula of other health professions are certainly not strangers to this concept.  Science and faith oftentimes clash when controversial topics, such as oral and emergency contraception, methadone clinics, and many others are discussed.  I will always remember my class on oral contraceptives, where our professor firmly proclaimed her views, disregarding the beliefs of many of my classmates.  When one of my fellow students confronted her, stating his views which contradicted her teachings, an argument ensued.  Each was firm in their views and the disagreement lead nowhere; neither side relented and both just agreed to disagree (and the class simply ended).  A similar disagreement occurred the following year during a class that discussed the use of methadone as treatment of drug abuse.  With so many controversial topics as essential components of a pharmacy curriculum, how can we avoid these conflicts? 

While few pharmacy professors approach this topic, Jan Worth, an English professor at the University of Michigan, admits that faith based topics “sometimes intersect in troubling ways with my own prejudices and personal history as a teacher and person.”3 She confesses to having trouble separating teaching from her personal beliefs and recognizes that educators often view faith as negative.  Career tracks that are strictly science based, such as pharmacy and other health sciences, tend to be even less open to combining scientific teachings with diverse religious views.  Many feel that logic and faith cannot coexist.  I can attest to feeling the need to downplay my religious upbringing and beliefs to gain respect from my teachers and peers.   Worth acknowledges “in teaching, we must respect our students—both the complicated personal histories and experiences with which they come to us.”3 She continues “it takes patience and fortitude, and, sometimes, conscious self-restraint.”3 College and universities strive to attract a wide variety of students, from a wide variety of cultures.  Pharmacy educators must be prepared to embrace this diversity when approaching a difficult subject.

You may be asking, what tactics can we use in such a volatile situation?  Pharmacy educators need to resist forcing what they see as truth on their students without taking into consideration the diversity of views in their classroom.2 One of Worth’s tactics is to bring the conversation back to a text book, where the facts can be presented, hopefully free of cultural controversy.3 Other strategies could include phrases that do not over generalize, such as “some people..” or “in my experience…” to help prevent students from feeling that their cultures or beliefs are under attack.4 Allowing students to express their views in a low risk setting, such as an ungraded assignment or a small group discussion, helps to create a safe environment to express views on the subject matter.2 By staying as unbiased as possible, a teacher can help promote healthy discussion rather than fuel arguments and controversy. 

In a world where pharmacists have refused to fill prescriptions based on their personal, moral, and religious beliefs, controversy will continue to fill the curriculum of pharmacy schools as well as other health professions.  Our college and university classrooms are full of cultural and religious diversity.  If pharmacy educators can remain unbiased in their teachings and prevent imposing their own views on their students, they can help foster a safe learning environment. 

1. Obama B. “Inaugural Address.”  January 21,2009.
2. Shady S. and Larson M. Tolerance, Empathy, or Inclusion? Insights from Martin Buber. Educational Theory. 2010; 60:81-96. 
3. Worth J. Hot Spots and Holiness: Faith-Based Topics in Freshman Composition.  2002. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. 
4. Liggett T. and Finley S.  Upsetting the Apple Cart: Issues of Diversity in Preservice Teacher Education. 2009

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