Should a good education include the ‘Good Book’?

Sunday, May 1, 2005

According to a study out this week, most students in public schools don’t know much about the Bible — and many teachers are hesitant to teach it.

True, most students polled could identify Moses correctly (72%) and knew about Adam and Eve (90%). But when probed for a more substantive knowledge of the Bible, such as David’s actions in the Books of Samuel or what happened at the wedding of Cana as described in the New Testament, a large majority either didn’t know or answered incorrectly. 

These findings — from a survey commissioned by the Bible Literacy Project — shouldn’t surprise us. After all, from the “Bible wars” of the 19th century to the lawsuits of the 21st, Americans have a long and bitter history of fighting over the role of the Bible in public education. In our litigious culture, the path of least resistance is just to leave it out.

But does Bible literacy really matter? Apart from religious arguments for knowing the Bible (which aren’t the business of public schools), are there educational reasons for taking the Bible seriously in the classroom?

If you ask some of the nation’s top English teachers, the answer is a resounding yes. Forty of the 41 teachers surveyed for this study believe that knowledge of the Bible is essential for a good education. “It’s impossible to understand Western literature without it,” said one teacher. Not to mention much of Western art, music and history.

The teachers agreed that lack of biblical literacy puts students at a distinct academic disadvantage. Consider this: One preparation guide for the advanced-placement literature and composition exam lists more than 100 allusions students should know — and more than 60% of them are biblical references. The list includes everything from Abraham and Isaac to “through a glass darkly.”

In spite of the obvious academic need, most high schools (58%) have little or no teaching about Bible literature in their English courses. As for actual Bible literature courses, all four private schools surveyed have such courses, but only two of the public schools have electives in the Bible as literature.

One of the great barriers to more teaching about the Bible is widespread confusion about what is permissible under the First Amendment. Contrary to popular myth, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t eliminate the Bible or prayer from public schools; it barred state-sponsored religious practices, including devotional use of the Bible by public school officials.

More than once, the Court has made clear that public schools may teach students about the Bible as long as such teaching is presented objectively as part of an academic program. And over the years, leading educational and religious groups have developed consensus guidelines on how to teach about religion, including the Bible, in ways that are constitutionally and educationally sound. (These guides are linked at the bottom of this article.)

The best approach is the one taken by the Bible Literacy Project: Focus on the Bible as a literary text. But taking the literature approach shouldn’t mean ignoring the religious implications of the Bible. The Bible is not only literature — for millions of Jews and Christians it is sacred scripture. So “Bible Literature” courses should also include discussion of how various religious traditions understand the text.

But guidelines and agreements on how to teach about the Bible haven’t yet overcome the fear and confusion surrounding this issue in public schools. That’s because it isn’t easy to find good materials or teachers academically prepared to use them.

Unfortunately, very few opportunities now exist for teacher education in this area — and many of the so-called “Bible curriculums” now in circulation belong in Sunday school, not public school. But fortunately, the Bible Literacy Project has announced plans to fill this gap in the coming months by publishing sound lessons and offering in-service training that prepares teachers to use them.

Although focused on biblical literacy, the Bible Literacy Project study also looked briefly at what students know about other religions and scriptures. Only 10% could name the five major religions on the world — and 15% couldn’t name a single one. When asked to name the sacred book of Islam, 31% correctly named the Quran while 66% didn’t know.

These grim figures suggest that public schools also need to include more study about a variety of religious faiths in the core curriculum and offer electives in world religions. Without this education, students misunderstand much of history — and are ill-prepared to live in a nation and world where religion plays such a major role.

Since we’ve been arguing about how to handle religion and the Bible in schools for more than 150 years, we aren’t likely to turn our swords into ploughshares overnight. But who knows? For everything there is a season.