Special Report

Studying Religious Texts in School Is Bad. And Good

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 07, 2020 5 min read
17BI 5 cCallory

American schools generally do not teach about religious texts. This is unquestionably a good thing, an important way in which public institutions, including our venerable K-12 schools, abide by and uphold the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which prohibits the state sponsoring of religion.

But there is a part of me that sometimes worries about unintended consequences. It happens most frequently when I read about current events, like the ongoing debate over the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in the Middle East, rising Hindu nationalism in India, or young Christians’ differing attitudes toward gay marriage compared with their parents’ views. Every day religious texts, and their imprint on the spiritual and social practices of faith, reshape the geopolitics of our world. Shouldn’t we question whether in our haste to protect our children, we may be losing something?

I’m not actually a particularly religious-with-a-capital-R person, but the study of a religious text, in large part, shaped my beliefs of what high-quality schooling can look like. And it prepared me to ask deeper questions about the link between religious beliefs and social and political structures.

Armed with color-coded highlighters and index cards, my 9th grade classmates and I went through chunks of the Old Testament, part of a unit on source criticism—the theory that four major schools of writers compiled and edited the books comprising the Torah (which are also the first five books of the Old Testament). Taught by the indefatigable Donna Maree Wanland at my Jesuit high school, the course was nominally a religion class. In substance, though, it was an intellectually rigorous exploration of how different sources mirrored evolutions in Judeo-Christian thought, culture, and law.

This kind of teaching would be exceedingly difficult to do well in public education. But Ms. Wanland’s class was the first time I can recall ever engaging in scholarly thinking at school. Today, I attribute a continued fascination with how texts are constructed to this class. It contributed to my decision to get two degrees in English and, later, my choice of profession, journalism—which is, after all, about sorting through competing sources in search of some greater understanding of events.

As has been argued before, there is also valuable cultural capital in studying religious texts. The allusive nature of Western literature, despite ongoing debates about its worth, means it’s a lot harder to make much sense of Dante, Milton, or Shakespeare without a good working knowledge of the Bible. And in U.S. History, it is far more profound for students to grapple with the African-American experience in the United States when they learn that the Bible was almost always the first book that enslaved people learned to read—and that the black experience of Christianity is deeply linked to the development of black music, the roots of the civil rights movement, and the Great Migration.

Shouldn’t we question whether in our haste to protect our children, we may be losing something?”

It’s possible for students to learn the skills of historical inquiry and literary analysis absent a focus on religious texts. But I’m not convinced that that is the case for making more general sense of world events. Even in my own experience, I never received similar exposure to the central texts or traditions of any other major world religion, like the Quran or the Hindu Vedas, and my knowledge and understanding of those religions is rudimentary. I’m skilled and well-prepared enough to be able to research and learn more about them on my own, but I doubt most Americans can say the same. If anything, the challenges for self-teaching are greater than ever, given the mainstreaming of white Christian nationalist ideas and anti-Islam sentiment.

In no way do I mean to suggest that K-12 schools should suddenly begin secular religious studies programs. The evidence we have indicates that teachers are woefully underprepared to teach them. In a 2013 study of dozens of Texas district’s biblical-literature curricula, religious-studies scholar Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University found several problematic themes, including a bias toward a conservative Protestant interpretation, inaccurate representations of Judaism, and the promulgation of the myth that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

The limited data that we have about the public appetite for the teaching of religious texts is also concerning. In a recent survey, more than three-quarters of American parents favor a comparative religions class and more than half support nonsectarian Bible study. Yet, digging below the surface data yields uncomfortable divides and hints at hidden agendas. Evangelical Christians, the group of Americans that most favors a Bible studies course, remain deeply wary about teaching other religions, for example.

Secondly, the track record of so-called nonsectarian providers is discouraging. Not long ago, I attended a press conference held by a group promoting a secular Bible curriculum and textbook. When queried why they thought schools should devote precious time to the topic, they asserted that if more students knew something about the Bible, there would be less crime and fewer wars. The motivating factor for this group, in other words, had little to do with the intrinsic historical, literary, or global value of understanding this text and much more to do with values that they felt it conveyed.

It is not generally good form to end an essay like this with the equivalent of throwing one’s hands up in the air, but here we go: Students’ First Amendment rights, already curtailed more than in other public institutions, are crucial; we cannot and should not do anything to jeopardize them. And, yet, I worry: Few students will experience the kind of structured inquiry into religious studies that I did, unless they are lucky enough to take such a class in college.

I only hope that smarter minds than mine can figure out a way forward on this paradox.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2020 edition of Education Week as Why Studying Religious Texts in Schools Is Bad. And Good


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