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The Chicago Tribune:
Public schools' exclusion of religion does students great disservice

By Jean Bethke Elshtain
April 27, 2005

The release this week of the "Bible Literacy Report" showing 98 percent of high school English teachers believe public school students need to know the Bible and that only 8 percent of public schools teach an elective course on the Bible raises a question: Why the radical disconnect between what teachers profess we should do in public schools and what is actually done?

From the beginning of schools in America nearly 400 years ago and until recently, the Bible was an essential part of school education. In many cases, it was the sole textbook.

The first printed reader for schoolchildren, "The New England Primer," published in the late 17th Century, drew heavily upon the Bible and was a very popular book used all the way up until the 1890s. The "McGuffey Readers," popular in the 19th Century, also drew heavily upon the Bible.

Working on my biography of the great American reformer Jane Addams, I saw her well-worn copy of the classic "Pilgrims Progress" by John Bunyan. Given that Addams saw her life through the lens of a goal-oriented pilgrimage, not to understand that is not to understand her.

The fate of Bible literacy in America tells an interesting tale. In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the morning reading of the Bible as well as religious exercises was devotional and thus inappropriate for public schools.

One can certainly understand the reasoning behind such a holding. At the same time, Justice Tom Clark, in writing the majority opinion in Abington vs. Shempp, stated: "Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the 1st Amendment."

With this ruling, the safer course for public education around the country seemed to be to eliminate the Bible from schools and classrooms altogether, although this was not then and is not now constitutionally mandated. Over the years educators have seen that not to grant the Bible any place in public education is, in many ways, to offer an incomplete education.

Those of us in higher education, especially if we teach subjects that touch on religion, political life, philosophy, the humanities generally, see the deleterious effects of Bible illiteracy on a regular basis. Even a popular novelist like P.D. James, she of the Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, wrote a book called "The Children of Men" and in it there is a female character named Miriam who is central to the safe birth of a child under terrible circumstances. Not one of my students in that class could identify her as the sister of Moses who sees to it that her brother, floating downstream in the bulrushes, is rescued by an Egyptian princess.

It is not surprising to me that English teachers found that students without Bible knowledge take more time to teach and often appear "confused, stumped and clueless" when asked to parse certain passages or offer interpretations of fundamental texts in politics and law. Abraham Lincoln's speeches are laced through and through with biblical references and prophetic passages. He understood slavery as a great sin and placed it within a theological context as well as a political one.

I am heartened by the release of this study, as well as by the increasing recognition of the academic community, that excluding religion is unsound academically. Much of what drives the burgeoning interest in courses on religion in colleges and universities is student interest and demand.

Courses such as "Christian Literature" or "The Bible and Human Rights" are overenrolled everywhere one looks. That being the case, it makes no sense to starve our public school students by eliminating the Bible and religion from the curriculum, given overwhelming interest of students in the subject and the legal and academic support for it.

How can we be truly multicultural, in the best sense, if we do not understand our own culture? It is impossible for us to evaluate other ways of life without some strong understanding of the roots of our own.

Jean Bethke Elshtain is a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago.

Copyright 2005, Chicago Tribune


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