Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A conservative's concerns about teaching the Bible in public schools

Someone once noted that there is a significant distinction to be made between teaching religion and teaching about religion. The latter could be considered appropriate for public schools and the other not. The question is which side of this distinction does a bill now being considered by the Texas legislature, which would require teaching about the Bible in state schools, fall? And even if it does fall on the right side of this distinction, is it wise?

The bill is discussed in a story here, and the obligatory knee-jerk reactions to can be read at Dispaches on the Culture Wars here by Ed Brayton.

On the other side, there has always been a lot of chatter among cultural conservatives about the time before "God was thrown out of public schools," but most of this is simply nostalgia rather than serious thinking about what good policy in this area would consist of.

On the one hand, there is certainly an important secular educational purpose a course on the Bible would serve. The literary critic Northrup Frye, in his book, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, points out the omnipresent and potent influence the Bible has had on Western literature, and how much many students, now Biblically illiterate, miss when they try to read the great texts of the Western tradition without a basic knowledge of the religious references of which they are full. Even atheist Richard Dawkins, in his book, The God Delusion, advocates the importance of teaching about religion.

On the other hand, one fears what happens when the Scriptures are placed into the hands of teachers, many of whom either don't know much about them themselves, or simply don't believe them. We are, after all, talking about an institution (public schools) that seems to have trouble inculcating basic literacy. I have always said that that was my chief problem with sex education in public schools: if the results of teaching about sex were anything like the results of their attempts at teaching reading, then the very survival of the race could be placed at risk.

In short, can we trust public schools to teach the Bible any more than we can trust them to teach anything else? And aren't the stakes of educationally mishandling the very Oracles of God much higher than those for what they already so badly do?

Then again, is this a problem we would be dealing with in the first place if we hadn't done with the Bible what we parents have done with education in general: namely, have someone else do what we should be doing ourselves?

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