Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Should public schools teach children about the Bible?

Starting this year, Public high schools in Texas will be required to teach students about the Bible.
Texas House Bill 1287, which passed in September 2007 but was not enforced because of problems with training and funding, stipulates that the Bible must be taught in an objective way and "would neither promote nor disparage any religion." The goal, according to bill, is to "teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture," as well as familiarize students with the contents, history, literary style, and structure of the Old and New Testaments.

Even though the courses are elective, not mandatory, and are supposed to focus on how Christianity has influenced American history and society, some parents are furious.

"I don't want anybody teaching their religious beliefs to my child unless they want to send their child to my house and let me teach them my religious views," one parent told Texas news station KLTV. "There is no difference."

I'll admit it: That was my immediate reaction, too. But then I thought it over, and wondered: Does one have to be -- or become -- a believer in order to study the Bible?

USA Today columnist William R. Mattox says no. "You can't effectively explore American history without teaching about the Rev. King," he points out, "and... you can't teach about the civil rights leader without helping students understand the meaning and power of his frequent references to 'the Promised Land' and other scriptural metaphors, verses and concepts."

I agree. My Dad is Roman Catholic, but my brothers and I were raised in my Mom's faith, which is Zoroastrianism. Even so, one of my favorite books to read at bedtime was a children's version of the Bible -- especially the stories, David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, Joseph and his coat. As a college student, a friend of mine inspired me to read the Bible cover to cover -- not for salvation, but as literature. (Well, he may have been gunning my salvation, but what I got out of it was a better understanding of society in general and how contradictory it can be).

Think of all of the cultural references that one simply can't understand without a working knowledge of the Bible. Shakespeare. Milton. Stephen Colbert's "Colbert Report." The lyrics to The Stone Roses' "Love Spreads." Jim Carrey in "Bruce Almighty." Madeline L'Engle's "Many Waters" and other young adult classics. The Indiana Jones movies -- or, at least the first and third ones, about the lost Ark and the Holy Grail.

The problem, I'd argue, is when instruction steps over the line into indoctrination. While the bill sets up some stark parameters to prevent that from happening, the curriculum will be left up to individual teachers, and a precedent has already been set: A review of Bible courses currently taught in 25 Texas school districts found that most of the courses were "explicitly devotional" and taught by people with no academic training in biblical or religious studies and who were not familiar with the issues of separation of church and state.

"Some classes promote creation science. Some classes denigrate Judaism. Some classes explicitly encourage students to convert to Christianity or to adopt Christian devotional practices," Mark Chancey, associate professor in religious studies at Southern Methodist University, told The Associated Press. "This is all well documented, and the board knows it."

One commenter at my Child Caring blog asked something along these lines, and it really stuck with me: Americans tend to consider madrassas,those Muslim schools that focus on a fundamentalist religious education, as hotbeds of terrorism. If they were teaching the Bible instead of the Koran, would we still feel the same way?

I think it's fair to say that American history, politics, and even pop culture has been informed by Christianity and the Bible. But in today's multi-cultural, global society, where's the push to teach students about other religions? As a commenter at Reddit.com wrote: "I look forward to Texas schools offering classes on the Talmud, Q'uran, Tao Te Ching, LaVey's Satanic Bible, Dianetics, Eastern Orthodox Bible, Wicca, and Atheist/Agnostic texts as well. Wait, they're not doing that? Hmm."

That might be pushing it a bit, but still: Isn't it equally important that high school students in Texas have an understanding of how other religions have shaped the rest of the world?

Edited to add: A shorter version of this post is one of the most popular this week on Yahoo!'s Shine, and the discussion going on at Boston.com is really roaring. Click through to check them out!


Leandra said...

This is a very thought provoking article. While I agree that not having a working knowledge of the Bible limits understanding of a host of cultural references, I think the same argument could be made for a lot of other literature. While it would be ideal to expose children/young adults to every possible literary classic, I think it's impossible to do so. And because we are a Christian nation (for the most part), I think it is going to be very difficult to teach the Bible without imparting some preferences. Not that it can't be done. Just very difficult. And I'm a Christian.

I took a "Bible as Literature" in college and even at that grade level it was very difficult for some in the class, including the teacher, to look at it strictly as literature. Instead of saying "what did the author mean here?" the teacher often asked "What did God mean here?" Those two questions are completely different, and impart very different ideas to the class, as you can see.

So, those are my two cents. Sorry to hijack your comments.

LMAlphonse said...

That's not hijacking at all! :)

You make a great point about the difference between asking "What did the author mean here?" and "What did God mean here?" -- I don't see how schools in Texas are going to work around that, other than by offering students only selected passages from the Bible. But the bill doesn't give teachers guidance at that level -- the passages to teach, and how to teach them, are entirely up to the instructors...