Classroom veterans dispel myths surrounding public-school Bible courses

Sunday, July 30, 2000

Mention teaching about the Bible in public schools, and voices from the left and the right will argue that it shouldn't be done.

But try telling that to teachers who are actually doing it. They're convinced that despite the challenges and controversies, it's possible to teach about the Bible — and keep your job.

That was the message from the 50 teachers from six states who attended a conference on the Bible in the public-school curriculum this week at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Some of these teachers include study about the Bible in their social studies or literature courses. Others teach a Bible elective. But all are working hard to make sure that students learn about the Bible in ways that are fair and objective.

Their efforts appear to have popular support. According to a recent First Amendment Center poll, 75% of Americans think the Bible should be taught in literature classes, and 85% support teaching about the Bible in a comparative religion class.

But the conflicts start when public schools attempt to offer more extensive opportunities to study the Bible — especially in elective courses.

Critics on the left are convinced that most of these Bible courses will be turned into Sunday-school lessons in which a single view of the Bible is promoted to the exclusion of all others.

A mirror image of this concern is evident in the objections of some evangelical Christians. They're convinced that Bible courses in public schools will focus on what secular scholars say about the meaning and origin of scripture to the exclusion of the evangelical view of the Bible.

There's evidence to support both objections. In some school districts, Bible teachers are poorly prepared, balanced classroom resources aren't available, and confusion reigns over what is and isn't permissible in a public school.

That's why it was so heartening to spend three days with 50 teachers committed to constitutional and academic teaching about the Bible. Their collective experience and wisdom challenges the two most widely held myths about Bible courses in public schools.

Myth number one: Teachers can't be trusted to do this right. They'll either promote their own faith or undermine the faith of parents and students.

In reality, most of these teachers have won the full trust of their communities, including the skeptics on both sides. A number of them have advanced degrees in religious studies. And all of them seek out continuing education so they will have the knowledge necessary to present a variety of perspectives on the Bible.

Myth number two: Evangelical Christian parents will reject Bible courses that include perspectives other than their own.

According to these teachers, the vast majority of evangelical parents in their communities have no problem with the inclusion of modern scholarship or explanations about how liberal Protestants, Catholics and Jews understand the Bible — as long as the evangelical view is fairly and accurately presented.

The nay-sayers are wrong. Teachers can do this, but they need the states to develop clear academic standards for religion courses and certification requirements for the teachers who teach them.

Teachers also urgently need new classroom materials that introduce students to the books of the Bible in ways that are educational and age-appropriate, as well as fair to the major interpretations that Jews and Christians apply to their scriptures.

While we await these reforms, other colleges and universities should follow UNC's example by offering institutes focused on helping current teachers to do a better job.
With the growing number of Bible and other religion electives in public schools, it's time to dispel the myths and deal with the real-life needs of teachers.