Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Teaching the Bible in Public Schools

USA Today recently published an opinion column discussing the issue of teaching biblical literature to public school students. Like it or not, the Bible has had a profound influence on history and culture throughout the world. Several of my students taking biblical poetry last semester were English majors, only there to raise their biblical literacy enough to catch and understand more of the biblical allusions in classic English literature. Time magazine ran an article a year or so ago that explored the issue of teaching Bible as an elective in public schools. Their article looked specifically at what was being done in some of the states that had added the Bible elective to their curriculum. Here's an excerpt from USA Today. I recommend reading the whole piece.
"Students who want to do serious study of Western civilization need to know the Bible," says Barbara Newman, Northwestern University professor of English, Religion and Classics. "They need to know the Bible, even if they do not believe the Bible."

Harvard professor Robert Kiely, for one, agrees. In 2006, he participated in an academic survey of professors from many of America's leading universities — including Yale, Princeton, Brown, Rice, California-Berkeley and Stanford. The survey — commissioned by the Bible Literacy Project, which promotes academic Bible study in public schools — found an overwhelming consensus among top professors that incoming college students need to be well-versed in the stories, themes and words of the Bible.

"If a student doesn't know any Bible literature, he or she will simply not understand whole elements of Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth. One could go on and on and on," Kiely told Concordia professor Marie Wachlin and her research team.

"Knowledge of the Bible can be a key to unlocking other subjects. . . especially literature, art, music and social studies," say Chuck Stetson, co-editor of the visually stunning high school textbook The Bible and Its Influence, and founder of the Bible Literacy Project.

And knowledge of the Bible can be a key to understanding much of today's pop culture. Like Stephen Colbert's irreverent humor on Comedy Central. Or Jim Carrey's screwball spirituality in Bruce Almighty. Or the devilishly clever title of the band White Stripes' release, Get Behind Me Satan.

Not surprisingly, students growing up in non-religious homes are often behind the curve. "Many of my students are quite secular and have very little knowledge of the Bible," Northwestern's Newman says. "This is a major disadvantage."

Indeed, Newman says that trying to appreciate biblical allusions in literature without an underlying knowledge of Scripture is like trying to appreciate a good joke when someone has to explain the punch line. You might eventually "get" the joke, she says, but by the time you do, "it's not funny anymore."


  1. While the classes aspires to be objective and non-confessional, I don't doubt for a minute that there will be teachers out there just waiting to use the opportunity to use the class as a witnessing tool. Back in High School here in the Philippines, our Values Education teacher (Values Ed is supposed to be a non-religious class on ethics) used it to preach baptist theology to a class with 80-90% catholics! I still remember her forcing, on pain of failure, the lone muslim girl to lead the class in christian prayer.

    Biblical literacy is good, but this has the potential for abuse. If a kid needs to take an elective in public school to learn about David and Goliath, it shows that it's the churches that are failing its youth and passing the buck into secular space.

  2. Our granddaughter was raised without any religion. When she got to college she took a course in Comparative Religion and didn't know what they were talking about. So I'd favor some introduction to religion, if it's non-religious.