Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Bible in Public Schools

Ann Althouse has a story here about adding the study of Bible to high school curricula, followed by a vigorous debate in the comments section. As the debate in the comments section seems to have devolved into stories of Christians who hate atheists and atheists who hate Christians, I thought I'd comment on this issue here.

The story she links to suggests, I think, that adding the study of the Bible to high school curricula is a Trojan horse, out of which streams of screaming Christians will descend. To be honest, I have no idea of the intentions of the particular program described here, nor the intentions of opponents of the program. Both sides seem kind of fishy to me from the article.

Let me, therefore, make an unequivocal statement regarding Bible education (and one that will likely get me in trouble with some folks) -- no Westerner without a broad knowledge of the Bible and classical mythology can be considered an educated person. Without both of these, the entire literary, philosophical, and historic tradition of the West cannot be understood.

I'm distressed every semester by English majors who have to overcome a deep ignorance of the Bible -- and this includes self-described Christian students. I found this to be true in both the urban North and rural South. In this I mean no insult to the intelligence of these students, since they have a good grasp of things that have been taught to them, such as Greek mythology (they tend to be shakier on the Roman variants for some reason). High schools understand perfectly well the hurdles they need to overcome if they are to teach the Bible in any context, and so they decide (reasonably, in my judgment) to expend their political capital elsewhere. Legal hostility to Christianity has led to a general hostility to the Bible, and results in high school graduates poorly equipped to grapple with difficult literary texts.

To be sure, ignorance of the Bible is only one of many factors that make the study of literature difficult for so many students. Nevertheless, the centrality of the Bible to Western thought makes our refusal to teach it inexcusable. It is rather as if we try to teach physics but discourage the study of arithmatic.

For example, Althouse writes:

"While there is clearly nothing wrong per se with studying the Bible in public schools -- a local high school here in Madison has a "Bible as Literature" course, for example -- there are some ways of teaching about the Bible that violate the Establishment Clause."

Let's stop and think about her statement here. Althouse feels compelled to point out, with caveats, that studying the Bible in public schools is not wrong per se. She is, I think, trying to offer this as a defense of academic, non-devotional Bible study, and rightfully so. But why are we positioned so that this statement is anything beyond absurd? I would counter with a statement of my own, amending hers to read:

"While there is clearly everything wrong per se with failing to study the Bible in public , private, and parochial schools -- a local high school here in Madison has a "Bible as Literature" course, for example -- there are some ways of teaching about the Bible that violate the Establishment Clause" [bolded words my editorial changes, obviously].

My point is not to take Althouse to task, since she is simply participating using the rhetoric popular in legal circles, and seems to be doing a fine job of it. Rather, it is to point out the absurdity of having to point out that study of the central text of the West is not wrong per se.


  1. I think you're absolutely correct.

    I'd probably add the Confessions of St Augustine as another essential text, in terms of understanding The Bible, Christianity, and modern Western culture.

    The only useful thing I brought away from a rabid, tent-revival, fundamentalist Christian upbringing is that I still have great whacks of the Bible committed to memory--the kids in this denomination were richly rewarded for being able to recite entire chapters, word-for-word without error-- and I've read different versions cover-to-cover on numerous occasions.

    Both the memory skills and the text proved invaluable throughout college and grad school.

  2. Yes, the Western intellectual tradition is rooted in the Bible and its interpretation. To ignore this for political purpose does a disservice to students.

  3. When I teach my medieval and Renaissance survey course, I often see something very interesting happen during the week we start reading the sonnets of Milton and Donne. Up to that point, the most self-consciously clever students typically dominate class discussion; they make Tolkien-related comments about Anglo-Saxon poetry, and they crack jokes and make shopworn references to Monty Python when they get their first taste of Chaucer's urbane wit.

    When we hit the sonnets, everything changes. Often, those same students are suddenly outclassed by a couple of little church ladies who have been sitting quietly (and sometimes confusedly) for several weeks. Extremely well-versed in the Bible, they identify overlapping scriptural references and put them in context much more comfortably than I can. It's great to see such students come alive, and their display of knowledge is a better lesson for their classmates about the importance of the Bible to Western literature than a thousand detailed footnotes in some ginormous anthology ever could be.