Michigan State Board of Education approves Sikhism in social studies

Sikh American activists in Michigan celebrate the State board of Education’s approval of including Sikhism in state public schools social studies curriculum.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a significant victory for the Sikh American community in combating distortions of the Sikh faith and its traditions, the Michigan State Board of Education on June 11, voted to approve new social studies standards, including Sikhism for the first time.

Consequently, public school students in Michigan will now have “the opportunity to accurately learn about the Sikh faith, traditions and community for the first time ever,” the Sikh Coalition, which led the effort to affect these changes, said.

Harleen Kaur, a Sikh community activist in Troy, Michigan, said, “As an educator and parent with children in Michigan public schools, these new standards are a milestone in creating safe and inclusive classrooms.

“The Board of Education’s vote to approve social studies standards that are more inclusive signals a positive step forward for all students,” Kaur added. 

Sikhism, the fifth largest world religion, has an estimated 500,000 followers in the United States, according to the Sikh Coalition, which has consistently argued that “the Sikh religious articles of faith, including the turban and unshorn hair, represent a commitment to justice, tolerance and equality for all.”

But although Sikhs have been an integral part of the American fabric for 125 years, the coalition that has been in the forefront of fighting for the civil rights of the Sikh community in the U.S. has bemoaned that members of the community “continue to remain disproportionately targeted in cases of school bullying, bias and backlash due in part to the lack of educational awareness about the Sikh community, faith and traditions.” 

Rajanpreet Kaur, Media & Communications manager for the Sikh Coalition said that the coalition “worked behind-the-scenes to ensure that Sikhism is taught in Michigan public schools and that it is taught accurately,” and had been prompted to take action “when the Michigan Department of Education(MDE) released a draft of the K-12 social studies standards for review in March 2019, where it incorrectly described Sikhism as a blend of other religions and not as an independent religious tradition in one section, and fully excluded Sikhism from the list of world religions in another.”

In response, the coalition had mobilized Michigan community members and gurdwaras to advocate for the accurate inclusion of Sikhism and over 400 Michigan Sikhs community members had taken “direct action asking the MDE to make corrections in the draft social studies standards.”

As part of the concerted action, 12 Michigan gurdwaras had also signed on to a letter requesting the MDE and members of the state standards writing committee make changes to the proposed standards.”

In their joint missive the gurdwaras said, “As a community that has proudly been a part of the Michigan fabric for generations, we deem the inclusivity and accuracy of these new education standards critical for the future wellbeing of our public school students and the communities we serve.”

They said, “First, we ask for the insertion of Sikhism in ‘World History & Geography Era 3, Standard 3.2,’ and in ‘Era 4, Standard 4.1.1’, where it has been omitted in both lists of world religions.”

The gurdwaras argued, “As the world’s fifth largest religion with over 25 million followers, it’s critical that Sikhism be included in both these instances. Second, we ask for the correction in ‘World History & Geography Era 5, Standard 5.1.2,’ which describes Sikhism as a case of religious syncretism.

“This is incorrect. Sikhism is an independent religious tradition and should be described as such,” the gurdwaras said.

The coalition of gurdwaras involved in this lobbying effort included the Sikh Religious Society of Michigan — Battle Creek, led by its president Mandeep Singh Chinna; the Gurudwara Gobind Marg, in Canton, headed by Amritpal Hayer; and the Singh Sabha of Michigan, also in Canton, with Tejkiran Singh, Director of its Conflicts Resolution Committee, taking the lead.

Rajanpreet Kaur said that “This collective action played a significant role in ensuring Michigan schools will include accurate information about Sikhs,and include Sikhism in the list of major world religions.” 

“Teaching students about Sikhs is an effective and proactive way to combat bigotry and address the issue of bullying,” said Sikh Coalition Education director, Pritpal Kaur. “Michigan now becomes the 10th state to incorporate these critical updates into their standards as we continue our work to create safer classrooms and increase religious literacy across the United States.” 

The new standards are expected to be rolled out over the next five years, and a detailed implementation plan is envisaged to be developed over the summer after which stakeholders from across the state will be invited to help with the development of resources and other educational materials for teachers. After teachers have studied the standards, aligned assessments will then be developed.

The MDE expects many school districts to be making good use of the standards in the second and third year (and beyond), integrating them into their lesson plans. In the fourth and fifth year, it is expected that assessments will be used across Michigan.

Linda Forward, Senior Executive Policy Advisor from the MDE, said,”A great deal of hard work over many years has gone into developing these new more inclusive standards.”

“This is a step forward for Michigan’s diverse communities and will go a long way in preparing our students for a globalized world,” she said, and predicted, “ At the same time, students will have a solid foundation about what it means to be a citizen, including their obligations and responsibilities.”

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