Public Schools Still Wary of Lessons on Bible

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 26, 2005 6 min read
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Even as Americans wage epic legal battles over religion in public schools—the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, and lessons on alternatives to the theory of evolution—teaching about the Bible remains taboo in many districts across the country.

More than 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said that “study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education,” can pass constitutional muster. But advocates of an academic approach to teaching about religion are still trying to allay misconceptions to the contrary and encourage public school educators to incorporate such content.

The report, Bible Literacy Report: What Do American Teens Need to Know and What Do They Know?,” is available from the Bible Literacy Project. ()

Knowledge about the Bible, its stories and figures, they say, is essential if students are to understand the allusions, metaphors, and themes in many classic and modern books, as well as the influences of the ancient tome on the nation’s founding documents and political discourse throughout history.

“The Bible is the common currency of the English language,” argued Marie Wachlin, a former high school English teacher who supervises teacher workshops on teaching about the Bible at Concordia University Portland in Oregon, which is affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. “If you want to understand our best works of literature, any complex works, contemporary [or historical] speech or writing, you need to know the Bible.”

‘Good Book’ Literacy

Many English teachers apparently agree that students need at least a basic knowledge of the book, which is viewed as sacred by large segments of the population but often fuels debates over the separation of church and state when included in public displays or school lessons.

On the Shelf

Teachers suggest that students need to know numerous biblical references in order to understand literature.

• Cain and Abel

• Judas Iscariot

• Let there be light

• Noah’s Ark

• Walking on Water

• Cast the First Stone

• Sodom and Gomorrah

• Twenty-Third Psalm

• Lord’s Prayer

• Golden Rule

• Eye for an Eye

• Prodigal Son

• Jonah and the whale

• Resurrection

• Solomon

• Apocalypse

SOURCE: Bible Literacy Project

Not surprisingly, schools tend to shy away from the topic, anticipating controversy or legal challenges, according to a report due out this week from the Bible Literacy Project. The report from the Fairfax, Va.-based group, which promotes an academic study of the Bible in public schools, outlines what students know and should know about the book of scripture in order to study English literature. Ms. Wachlin conducted the teacher survey for the report.

From William Shakespeare to John Steinbeck—and even to contemporary novels, songs, television programs, and movies—the stories and other works of art that students encounter are rife with biblical references. But “teachers can no longer assume that students know certain basic Bible stories and/or that they will recognize biblical allusions that occur in literature,” the report says.

Many of the 41 hand-selected English teachers Ms. Wachlin interviewed for the study recounted how their students had trouble mastering assigned texts after failing to recognize or understand biblical references in them.

A nationally representative poll of 1,000 high school students, conducted by the Gallup Organization and included in the study, suggests that many students lack anything beyond a rudimentary knowledge. Although 81 percent of those surveyed, for example, knew the Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” six in 10 teenagers could not identify a phrase from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. More than 80 percent of the students identified themselves as Christians.

For at least one of the teachers interviewed, the effect was dramatic.

“In [Charles Dickens’] Great Expectations, there’s a character named Abel Magwitch,” one teacher quoted in the report pointed out. “But [the students] don’t understand the reference to Abel as a biblical allusion to Cain and Abel, so I have to go through and explain the Cain and Abel story, and how Abel was a victim in that story.”

Despite the potential value of Bible-related lessons, however, legal worries, as well as the battle some conservative groups have waged to introduce religious lessons into the curriculum, have led many educators to approach such instruction cautiously or avoid it altogether.

“Because of the long history of the fighting about this, school districts are very reluctant to do this unless they are assured that the approach is constitutional,” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar in the Arlington, Va., office of the First Amendment Center. The nonprofit group advocates protection of First Amendment rights. “But Bible literacy is necessary if someone is going to be an educated person in our society.”

Getting It Right

Mr. Haynes helped draft a guide several years ago outlining how Bible lessons can be taught legally in public schools. The guide won the support of People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union, which tend to look warily at mixing religion and public education, as well as several religious organizations. While the guide has helped more districts infuse the subject into the curriculum within the bounds of the law, attempts continue among interest groups outside the schools to introduce curricula that treat the Bible as fact.

“There’s a real push for Bible electives [in schools],” Mr. Haynes said. “Unfortunately, many of these proposals … don’t include different perspectives on the Bible and often just treat the Bible as a history book.”

He said a lack of high-quality instructional materials and the need for training to help teachers approach the subject appropriately also hinder such undertakings.

The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools has made some headway since introducing a yearlong Bible course more than a decade ago. The Greensboro, N.C.-based advocacy group asserts that its curriculum follows “constitutional guidelines” and emphasizes the Bible “as the foundation document of our society.”

The curriculum is used in nearly 300 schools in 35 states. Even so, the group has drawn scrutiny from watchdog organizations for what they view as religious undertones in the lessons.

“The national council goes around the country below the radar telling school districts” that the curriculum meets legal guidelines, contended Judith E. Schaeffer, the deputy legal director for People for the American Way. The liberal Washington-based organization says that the Bible council’s curriculum is not objective.

The Bible council, however, disputes that criticism.

“Teachers are taught not to give any personal viewpoints,” said Elizabeth Ridenour, the executive director. “We’ve never had a legal challenge. It’s not about religion; it’s about ethics.”

Officials in Frankenmuth, Mich., a rural district of about 1,200 students, decided recently to reject the council’s course, citing academic concerns. But the school board for the 26,000-student Ector County district in Odessa, Texas, recently discussed the possibility of using the curriculum in its high schools. The board decided to take its time to study the issue, according to local news reports. School officials did not return phone calls to Education Week.

Such decisions can be difficult, but can benefit students if done well, said Mr. Haynes of the First Amendment Center.

“The good news is that there’s agreement, … at least in principle, as to how the Bible should be treated” in the curriculum, he said, referring to the guide published in 1999 by his center and the Bible Literacy Project. “Teaching the Bible is important, but it’s a challenge to get it right.”

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