Thursday, May 24, 2007

Public High School Bible Classes in Texas

The Houston Chronicle reported today that the Texas Senate "easily passed and sent to the governor" a bill to teach Bible classes to high school students. The claim is that young people need to know about the Bible. This class is supposed to provide a forum for students to discuss religion's role in history. The class will be taught if 15 students want it taught.

This makes me very concerned because we all know that there is no one trained in our secondary educational system to teach these courses from a religious studies or historical perspective. When untrained people think about 'Bible' classes, they think this means 'Bible Study' and further that this means 'Christian Bible Study,' which at best is comparable to 'adult education' on sunday mornings at church, at worse a prayer circle. I know this from years of experience teaching the Introduction to the Bible courses at various universities. I agree that it is a crying shame how illiterate Americans are when it comes to religious education, but I do not trust for a moment our secondary educational system to consistently provide non-faith-based religious education.

I am afraid that this bill is nothing more than another attempt to get bible study into the public curriculum. The language is more sophisticated, and given the aura of "historical" study, but what this means is let's teach our kids in the public schools that the bible is history. We are on the edge of the slippery slope.


Patrick G. McCullough said...

Well, I wouldn't say that there is "no one trained in our secondary educational system to teach these courses from a religious studies or historical perspective," unless by "our ... system" you mean Texas' system (which I can't speak to). Sure, secondary teachers don't have PhDs in biblical studies, but neither do they generally have PhDs in any of their subjects. I can immediately think of three English teachers from my public high school (back in Acton, MA) who were well qualified to teach the Bible as a literary document, without proselytizing.

I think I would agree with your concern (as an Anabaptist, I am a huge advocate for the separation of church and state, in conjunction with religious freedom), but I feel uncomfortable making a blanket statement regarding all secondary teachers that they can't handle the task. Even in Texas, they must have some teachers who could resist the evangelizing opportunity. Perhaps in Austin :) (which is where my Dad lives these days).

April DeConick said...


In secondary education, there is no training in Religious Studies. Teaching the Bible as English Literature is not teaching the Bible in terms of Religious Studies. Religious Studies is a field of its own, with its own perspectives and approaches. What irks me as a Religious Studies professional is the assumption that anyone who has a BA in education can teach Religious Studies when there has been no major in Religious Studies. Educational Studies programs do not support majors in Religious Studies. One may study the social sciences, English, mathematics, sciences, but not Religious Studies. So here we have the legislature saying we want Bible classes if 15 or more students want it, with no one trained to teach them. But they dont seem to even recognize the problem with this, because their understanding of it is as a Sunday School class that anyone who volunteers can teach.

Jim Deardorff said...

I agree with Patrick, but would go considerably further. As I see it, the religious-studies perspective is itself actually faith based, dating back at least to the 19th century when a plurality of scholars decided that Mark should be placed ahead of Matthew. The reasoning was faith based: why should (the writer of) Mark have omitted so much Judaistic and other material from the non-gentile slanted Matthew? By placing Mark first, contrary to the external evidence, this undesired question could be avoided.

Jim Deardorff

Patrick G. McCullough said...

Two out of the three teachers that I mentioned received training from religious studies faculty at Harvard (and, yes, this is a public high school). They were the exception, of course.

I agree that it's not an ideal situation, systemically speaking. But I think we should start somewhere. Perhaps teachers can make it part of their continuing education (I don't know if that's an option). I think that if they take a few good classes and are directed to some good books, they can at least be guided in the right direction and we can get the ball rolling on religious literacy. I have faith in secondary school teachers. The majority of my teachers were motivated to learn new things and willing to take on new ideas, then try to communicate them to the students as best they could.

Of course there will be abuses, but I just think we should give it a try.