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Core Knowledge Or A Disaster In Waiting? Religious Literacy, The Classroom, And Unintended Consequences

March 8, 2007

I ran across a Boston Globe article the other day about the need to teach world religions and the Bible in public schools. A Boston University professor, Stephen Prothero, is advocating that these subjects be taught with a dispassionate, E.D. Hirsch-like “religious literacy” in mind. Here are some excerpts from the article by Christopher Shea:

– “Stephen Prothero, a professor of religious studies and chair of the religion department at Boston University, thinks he may have found something that conservative Christians and liberal secularists can agree on: It’s not a good thing if students, whether religious or not, think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife — or stare blankly when a teacher (or President Bush or Hillary Clinton) refers to a ‘Good Samaritan.’ “
– “In his new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t, Prothero lays out the evidence of what he considers Americans’ paradoxical, and troubling, religious ignorance. According to various surveys conducted since 1990, half of all Americans can’t name even one of the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the cornerstone of the New Testament. A majority can’t name the first book of the Bible (Genesis).”
– “This ignorance about basic religious and Biblical matters crosses all sorts of sectarian lines. In a survey from 2000, 60 percent of evangelicals, but only 51 percent of Jews, answered yes when asked whether Jesus was born in Jerusalem (the New Testament says he was born, as we’re reminded by all those Christmas carols, in Bethlehem). Less surprising, students do even worse when asked almost anything about religions besides Christianity.”
– ” ‘I am convinced,’ he writes, ‘that one needs to know something about the world’s religions in order to be truly educated.’ And his concern is not morality, though he believes it’s possible that students who are more knowledgeable about the Bible ‘would have smarter discussions about moral questions,’ as he put it in a recent interview. Strengthening morality, he says, ‘is not my issue.’ “
– “Instead, it’s about citizenship. Because religion isn’t going away — on the contrary, it’s booming — and because it is central to so many of the most important issues facing us today, knowledge of religion matters more than ever. ‘You need religious literacy,’ he writes, ‘in order to be an effective citizen.’ When biblical teachings are invoked by politicians and activists on issues from abortion and same-sex marriage to poverty and global warming, how, he asks, can a person engage in political debate without at least some fluency in the language being spoken? ‘For me,’ Prothero says, ‘the hope is that we can have more and better political conversations.’ ”
– “On the Bible Literacy Project‘s advisory board sit such leading scholars as Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago and Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School. Its proposed curriculum, which includes a textbook called The Bible and Its Influence and a Bible of the student’s choice, has been praised both by the conservative evangelical leader Charles Colson and Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt.”
– “The middle ground of non-devotional Bible education may be more controversial than he thinks. The National Council for Biblical Curriculum in Public Schools, another group advocating ‘non-devotional’ Bible courses, has attacked the Bible Literacy Project as the tool of secularists. Language on its website speaks of ‘reclaiming our families’ while a letter posted on that same site, from the televangelist John Hagee, refers to the statements about theology in the Bible Literacy Project textbook as ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ — and equates discussion of other religions’ creation stories with a celebration of polytheism.”
– “Daniel Dennett, the Tufts philosopher and noted defender of atheism, has made the case that a course on world religions ought to be mandatory for high school students, given the enormous influence of faith.”
– ” ‘My own sense,’ says Mark Noll, an acclaimed historian at Notre Dame who is an evangelical Christian, ‘is that the Bible is a pretty explosive book. If students read it carefully, they’d be changed in a way that public schools couldn’t handle.’ “

Check out Boston.com article for more.

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Great books advocates in the 1940s and 1950s made the same arguments as Professor Prothero about citizenship. Namely, good citizenship depends on one’s solid knowledge – both wisdom and information – about a wealth of things. In fact, the only reason the Bible wasn’t included in the 1952 set of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World was because the editors (Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler) assumed every home in their target sales audience had its own version.

Today, however, it’s now clear that for all our talk about the Evangelical movement in America, and its power and political influence, our general ignorance about what that means is deep seated.

Despite my agreement with Prothero and his cohort that our ignorance about religious matters in general is shocking, I have other concerns. Mark Noll’s quote gets at something deeper, even more revealing of our Bible ignorance today.

Professor Noll is absolutely right in warning that the Bible is an explosive book. But because people don’t realize this widely today, they don’t understand the potential consequences of teaching the Bible – whether in public schools or elsewhere. Have people forgotten that the Bible, like the Koran and other traditional religious texts, has affected people tremendously in history? Those books are like disguised gunpowder. Moreover, their final good and bad effects on individuals are wildly unpredictable. What of the unintended consequences?

But the article noted that finding a middle ground on Bible teaching might be difficult. Maybe U.S. citizens will realize, either implicitly or explicitly, the explosive potential of something like the Bible Literacy Project? Perhaps Prothero and others like him will move cautiously while on this path? Then again, maybe religious apathy is such that even teaching these subjects from a core knowledge, “religious literacy” angle won’t really make that much difference?

In the end, because our public schools are still wrestling with the evolution-creation debate and other religious issues, I think the Bible Literacy Project – no matter my sympathy with its ideals – is more of a disaster in waiting. – TL

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