Bible Literacy Project News
The Chicago Tribune:
Public schools' exclusion of religion does students great disservice
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
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
Jean Bethke Elshtain is a professor of social and political ethics
at the University of Chicago.
Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune