Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Should the Bible be Taught in Public Schools?

The cover story of this week's Time Magazine touches an issue that has been dear to my heart. Should the Bible be taught in public schools? If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I am a liberal. I have been critical of fundamentalism and the emerging theocracy in our nation. So why would I argue for the Bible in public schools? Here are my answers, bullet by bullet:

  • What you do not know can and will be used against you. How can we expect our students to deal with the nonsense of creationism, for instance, if they do not have a basic understanding of the argument? A sixth grader with average to above average intelligence could read the Genesis stories and see that they are mythological, unless of course they never read the Genesis stories. The Bible is used as a weapon against gays. "The Bible says" we are told. Read the darn thing. Hardly a word is mentioned about gays in the Bible.
  • It is the classic of Western civilization. As the article points out, the Bible is the bestselling book year after year. Shakespeare makes 1300 references to the Bible. It is a great work of literature and you cannot get the references of other literature without it. It speaks about great moral questions. It is a saga of a people. It has shaped our ethics, government and ideals. To not read it because we are afraid of the fundamentalists is to miss out on some great stories! We increase our stupidity by ignoring it.
  • The best way to disarm the mystique surrounding the Bible is to read it. The Bible, like any other work, is not "owned" by the religious. It is a text for humanity in general. I took a Bible as Literature course and a History of the New Testament course in secular state universities. I also majored in English literature. These courses removed the film of dogma from the Bible. In a public education setting, it would not be taught as the "Word of God" but as a classic of literature. It would be taught through the lens of historical/critical thinking. We live in a time in which Americans by and large revere the Bible but do not read it. This sets us up for interpreters of the Bible (right-wing theocrats for the most part) to control its interpretation. But when people actually read it, they realize that it is impossible to take it as the right-wingers want people to take it.
The article points out that not all courses would be even. Teachers would need training in how to teach the Bible, and fundamentalists would certainly sneak in there. However, overall, I think that a standard curriculum of enlightenment-oriented thinking, the way we teach all of our courses, would eventually win the day.

I am curious as to your thoughts about this. I found the Time magazine article to make some persuasive points. Now, you liberals on school boards, surprise your comrades by introducing the Bible as an elective in your high school!


  1. John,

    If I recall, you also have a background in English Literature. As an undergrad, I would watch as my professors labored in frustration to explain the most basic Biblical allusions within texts. I felt truly sorry for my classmates; it was as if they were reading literature with only 1/3 of the symbolic dictionary.

    Further, since God's word is a living thing, powerful, and actually accomplishes something when it is read, I am convinced that bringing the Scriptures into the classroom can only help with our nations intellectual, moral, and spiritual development.

    In other words, I'm with you on this one.

  2. I believe in Religious Education in schools, from having observed its usefulness in Cambridge, UK, a rather progressive town. Check out the requirements at: Click on "Religious Education". I think these are fair and enriching standards which could definitely be implemented here (US) with appropriate regard for the separation of church and state.

  3. Thanks, C, for the link.

    And Chris, nice we agree on something!

    I should add something to my post. In studying the Bible in public schools, it would be important to address its ambiguity. Seeds of hatred, intolerance, ignorance, anti-semitism, violence, manifest destiny, and so forth (which also is all a part of western civilization) has its roots in the Bible.

  4. John,

    That'd be fine as long as teachers were equally honest about the seeds of democracy, women's equality, rationality, compassionate humanitarianism, and scientific progress being found in the Scriptures as well.

  5. Chris,

    Absolutely. The ambiguity of the Bible and Western culture.

  6. John, I enjoyed reading this post. I agree with you that what you don't know will hurt you and it is important to know and listen, not just listen. However, I believe that if the Bible was taught in public schools that some teachers would use this opportunity as a vehicle to regurgitate their [conservative] interpretations of the Bible--not everyone would follow the curriculum that you listed. Also, I fear that some teachers would go "above and beyond" with what they believe as being "morally correct". I do think that students in High School or college, however, should be required to take a World Religions course.

  7. Hi Polyphonics,

    Welcome! Thanks for your comment and I hope you will visit again. (That is the same welcome to all of you, of course!)

    I understand your concern, certainly. It would be a risk all right. Some places would do it better than others.

    I just would hate to give up exposure and study to the central text of Western civilization because we are afraid of those who would abuse it.

    We have certainly had a good start at the college level by introducing courses in religion and in sacred texts from an historical-critical viewpoint.

    I wrestle with all of this, too.

    thanks again!

  8. John -

    You make some valid points, as do some of the other commentators here. Two personal experiences I have had would give me reason to be concerned, though, about it happening in the critical manner which you propose, and which would certainly make it open to students of all backgrounds (and foregrounds!).
    1) Back in Minnesota, around 2003, the head of the state Department of Education, Cheri Pearson Yecke, fought to have the concept of Inference removed from state curricula because she was concerned it would "lead students to question scripture". She was, I am delighted to report, unsuccessful (and she was later fired for her rather nasty management style).
    2) When I was a student at Loyola University, I was excited to take a class on World Religion. Imagine my surprise when, the first day of class, the instructor, a Jesuit Priest, stated that since it was a Jesuit school he was not interested in teaching us about other people's religions, just Loyola's. I dropped the class that day.

    I just wanted to share a couple of instances where religious tunnel vision had the potential to affect the minds of students.


  9. Hi Sandra!

    Welcome! Good points of course. I wonder if it would be easier to have a course on the Qur'an as well as the Bible?

    Treat them both as literature in the same class.

    I just think that we have to be literate in religion, not about "believing in it" but knowing it.

  10. Yes, I agree that we should know it, and that it should be a part of the curriculum for "critical thinking". However, I fear that so many are so completely invested in the Bible (or Qu'ran) that they could not allow it to be looked at critically without thinking they are allowing heresy and blasphemy in the same tax-funded classroom. How do we fix that? I would like to see critical thinking taught at an earlier stage than it is, which is basically at the university level (unless you get some great teacher, like my brother, Mike, who makes it a part of his curriculum). But there are just as many who would rather not teach the citizenry how to think, because it leads them to question! On that note, I appreciate in one sense Pearson Yecke's forthrightness in stating her reason for not wanting to see inference taught in K-12. If everyone were that candid, at least we would know more what we are up against!