Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Teaching the Bible in public schools

The following is a letter to the editor of Arizona State University's State Press that the paper didn't print. It was written in response to an editorial by Will Munsil, son of Len Munsil, who was editor of the State Press when I was an undergraduate in the 1980s. Len Munsil is an extremely conservative Republican, failed Republican candidate for Governor in 2006, and founder of the Center for Arizona Policy, Arizona's version of the American Family Affiliation. His daughter, Leigh Munsil, is the State Press's current editor-in-chief. When Munsil Sr. edited the school paper, he sometimes refused to print my letters to the editor for shaky reasons.

The letter below was written in response to Will Munsil's "Putting the Bible back in public schools," which was published on October 14.
I disagree with Will Munsil's assertion that the Bible is the foundation of American political thought. On the contrary, the American form of government was rooted in the work of enlightenment philosophers such as Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. The U.S. Constitution's form of government has more resemblance to Caribbean pirate codes than to the Ten Commandments.

That said, however, I agree with Munsil that knowledge of the Bible is worthwhile and should be taught in public schools for the purpose of cultural literacy, so long as it is done without endorsing Christianity or Judaism. The Bible Literacy Project's curriculum might be one way to do it. One way not to do it is to use the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools' curriculum--it takes a sectarian perspective, is full of errors, and has failed legal challenges in Texas and Florida for being unconstitutional.
I suspect this letter wasn't excluded by reason of content, but because they had already printed a couple of letters critical of Will Munsil's op-ed by the time I submitted this on October 16. Perhaps I should have mentioned that I'm an atheist, which makes the extent of my agreement with Munsil more interesting. Of course, my view is contrary to Munsil's in that I think Bible literacy is likely to decrease, rather than increase, religious belief. But it wouldn't surprise me if the NCBCPS curriculum is the one that Will Munsil had in mind.

I should point out that I think it should probably be taught as part of a world religions class that covers more than just Christianity--kids should not only get information about the Bible that they won't get in Sunday School, they should be informed about other religions, as well as the fact that history has been full of doubters of religion, as documented in Jennifer Michael Hecht's excellent Doubt: A History.

You can find out more about the NCBCPS curriculum that failed legal challenge in Texas here.

Munsil cited Stephen Prothero, whose op-ed piece, "We live in a land of biblical idiots," I wrote about at the Secular Web in early 2007.


Neural Gourmet said...

You know, I wouldn't mind seeing a World Religions component to the standard Social Studies curriculum. After all, if students are studying world and American history they're going to bump up against the major religions anyway so why not given them some context to understand the impact of religion on history?

The problem as I see it, is where to fit it into the curriculum. There's so much content to fit into the curriculum already. I don't know how it is today, but when I was in high school in NYS (I graduated in 1986), the Regents college-bound curriculum pretty much stopped with the conclusion of World War II after four years of studies.

Mike Beidler said...


I greatly appreciate your objectiveness in this matter, and I find it amusing (although not surprising) that you and I think identically on this subject.

Without a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible, much of our cultural history would be met, in our present day, with that "deer in the headlights" gaze, as our students miss the import of many great works of literature, turns of phrase, etc. Context, context, context.

Good job!

OneCrazyMama said...

We should have world religions and world history taught in US public schools beginning in the lower grades. It is vital to understanding the world.

As to the teaching of the Bible, specifically and exclusively: NO. Church and state must remain separate for the health of both.

To be honest, I wish more of the churches would worry more about actually increasing their own epistemology, origins, and scriptures on their own turf in an open, studied and loving manner.

Sadly, the last church I attended was filled with lay people who were completely ignorant of their own history and texts. Well versed on superstitions/generalities, but lacking in any meaningful understanding (or interest in understanding) their own faith.

Bibe literacy in public schools, grrr, how about some literacy in the churches?

My nightly prayer anymore is something along the lines of: God, please save me from your other followers.

Jim Lippard said...

OneCrazyMama: Unfortunately, there is no incentive for teaching the entire Bible in churches--it is only taught selectively because the doctrines taught by most churches have evolved independently of what the Bible says, and present problems. See my report on Daniel Dennett's talk about clergy who have become closet atheists as a result of seminary at the Atheist Alliance International convention.

I agree with you that the Bible shouldn't be taught *exclusively*, though there's no reason it couldn't be taught *specifically* without a church/state violation, so long as that was teaching about its contents and history, rather than advocating it to be inerrantly true. Given the time constraint Neural Gourmet mentions, perhaps the World Religions component route is the most realistic.

My high school U.S. History class (I graduated in 1983) got up much closer to the present, but it was a pretty rapid glide. I had a separate World History class, as well as a World Religions class, *and* a Christianity/Bible-specific class, but that was at a Jesuit college prep.