Monday, April 09, 2007

Religion and Public Schools

I've just finished reading TIME Magazine's "The Case for Teaching The Bible." The article was written by David Van Biema, and I agree with its premise. Van Biema makes the point that The Bible is the most influential book ever written and a key part of our culture, but as George Gallup has said, we are "a nation of biblical illiterates." I think there would be no subject more interesting for a social studies teacher to teach, but I would be flattering myself if I pretended to think that I am qualified to do so.

Although TIME's article gives examples of public school teachers who are apparently teaching The Bible successfully, I think it would be a very challenging job. I know how hard it is to walk the tightrope of trying to show impartiality in dealing with Democrats and Republicans in my A. P. Government class. That would be dwarfed by the problem of teaching The Bible while trying not to offend Catholics, Lutherans, fundamentalists, Bhuddists, or athiests. (We have all of those in Warroad, but--sorry--no Jews or Muslims.) According to TIME, Jennifer Kendrick, the teacher featured in the story, did a good job of this, but it's one thing to pull it off for one day while a national magazine has someone observing your class; it would be quite another to pull it off day after day for an entire semester when it's just the teacher and the kids.

Although people who take an absolute view of "the wall of separation" might become apopleptic at the idea of having classes on The Bible in public schools, I actually think that those who would end up raising the strongest objections in practice might be people to whom religion is important. Looking at The Bible objectively means that everything would be subject to question, and when it comes to the religious beliefs of their children, many religious parents would be squeamish about that.

Since I am writing about religion, I should probably tell where I am coming from on the subject. I am a Catholic, and although there are doctrines of the Church that I struggle with, I try to make my religious faith the major driving force in my life. I would have to let somebody else judge how successful I am at that. Non-religious people like to point out the terrible things that have been and are still being caused by religion, but I still believe that religious faith is usually a very good thing. I actually see that in my school all the time. I don't know what people in other areas of the country see, but in our community there seems to be a very clear difference between kids who attend church regularly and those who don't. The kids who go to church seem to have a kind of compass directing their lives that is lacked by most kids who don't. That is most obvious when it comes to having a sense of right and wrong, but it goes well beyond that. Yes, there are exceptions, and yes, you can definitely see some hypocrisy in many of the church-going kids from time to time, and yes, they can also be judgemental in ways that can be rather obnoxious. Nevertheless, based on what I have seen, if I were going to give advice to young parents who wanted to raise solid kids, one of the first things I'd say would be, "Go to church."

As the TIME article points out, while it is unconstitutional to teach religion, it is perfectly okay to teach about religion. Despite that, I think having classes on The Bible in public schools would actually be a very positive thing for religion in America. No matter how secular a teacher was in his or her approach to the class, it would be impossible for kids to avoid taking a good look at their own beliefs. A religious faith that has been examined is a much more mature and solid faith than one that hasn't, and I think this kind of faith is one that makes a more positive difference in people's lives. I also believe that examining one's faith would help to eliminate some of that hypocrisy and judgementalism that can turn so many people off. The TIME article suggests having a class on The Bible paired with a class on the other world religions--one semester each--and that idea makes sense. Whether that is the way schools do it or not, having classes on The Bible is a trend in public education that I like, despite the very real challenges it presents. I hope it continues and grows.


Blogger CrypticLife said...

On the whole, I disagree with teaching the Bible as a course. A course about the Bible is probably not unConstitutional per se, but there would be extended opportunities for abuse. Indeed, it might be quite difficult for believers to refrain from abusing it, even unintentionally. Even though "everything would be open to question", I imagine that in a religiously conservative area many aspects of the Bible will NOT be open to question. Even now, there are cases where teachers egregiously overstep their bounds in teaching (a recent NJ incident comes to mind). While the Bible is entrenched throughout Western history and knowing something about it can help in interpreting literature, this seems a somewhat weak justification for a course below college level (for English lit. or writing majors).

While your note on going to church is interesting, keep in mind it has little to do with Bible study. I suspect it has more to do with the social network that church creates, rather than the students' faith in a particular religious doctrine.

Incidentally, I am an atheist (or, as Dennis mentions, an "athiest" ;)).

4/09/2007 3:31 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I hate it when people catch me on my writing errors, but I know it's really not that big a challenge. I was thinking of you as I wrote the post, and I assumed you would disagree.

I should say to you that I have had kids in class who said they were atheists (better?) who seemed to know exactly where they were going and had high moral standards. I haven't had a lot of them, but I have had them. I think the key was that they had given the subject some thought. To tell the truth, the non-church-going kids that seem so directionless strike me as never having thought about it. As in everything else, they just seem not to care, and I would imagine that in those cases the apples haven't fallen very far from the trees. The bottom line is that I think this is a reason courses like this would be good. Regardless of the conclusions people end up coming to, it's a subject that is healthy to think about. Healthy for the person, and healthy for our society.

4/09/2007 3:50 PM  
Blogger Teachjoep said...

Dennis- I've been lurking on your blog for several weeks now and am often amazed how you are writing what I am (or have been) thinking. Whether it is administrators teaching, or the place of unions in education, you have great ideas.

As to teaching the Bible, I'd agree that it has the potential to get sticky quickly. I taught a two week comparative religion course as part of a contemporary issues course years ago, after being amazed by the lack of knowledge students had on religion. (My argument to administration and parents: How can I teach the Middle East conflict without discussing religion?) The only flack I ever got was from strongly religious parents who were worried about my intent. Once we met and they saw I had no horns (I kept them hidden that day), they seemed okay with the topic. I haven't taught that class in 7 or 8 years now, and miss it.

4/09/2007 4:47 PM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

I really think that this could word well at the high school level for 11 and 12 graders as a comparative religions course. I don't think the Bible should be taught from a religious perspective. Kids should be taught how to question what they are reading and if it was a comparative religion class, I think that many would see the many similarities many world religions share.

4/09/2007 4:49 PM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4/09/2007 4:51 PM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

ack - I have a typo. "Word" should be "work" in my first sentence.

4/09/2007 4:52 PM  
Anonymous Em said...

I think this is a fascintating and controversial subject. I'm a newbie to both Blogging ( and teaching although, being a graduate entry I have life experience. I was educated in an Anglican school and have two thoughts on the teaching of the Bible.
1) By understanding the power and importance of the Bible and Jesus to so many in the world we understand and can make sense of much of the world, from a historical persepective, although I fully understand objections to scientiftic analysis of such an emotional subject. By teaching knowledge of the Bible we are giving our students another way to view the world. It follows, then that we should educate in all religions and thus the question follows - all or none?
2) As the carers children and parents see us teachers to be, it is important for us to provide avenues for our students to deal with the tumultous emotions and conflicts of the mind and soul, be this through Christianity, Buddism, Chocolate, sport or any other avenue we can think of. We live in a world of love and hate and even the most grounded of us have difficultly dealing with the associated emotions.
How then, with this and more in mind, do we even attempt to teach any form (spiritual or historical) of religion without putting our heads on the chopping board?

4/10/2007 5:26 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

"By understanding the power and importance of the Bible and Jesus to so many in the world we understand and can make sense of much of the world, from a historical persepective"

Perhaps, but one does not actually need to study the Bible to know its impact on the world. Few of the major world decisions have been made through initially studying the text of the Bible; most have been decisions of convenience or greed that were justified post hoc via biblical passages. A history of Christianity might be better if you're talking about impact.

"As the carers children and parents see us teachers to be, it is important for us to provide avenues for our students to deal with the tumultous emotions and conflicts of the mind and soul, be this through Christianity, Buddism, Chocolate, sport or any other avenue we can think of."

Wahoo! I'm going to tell my son he can get free chocolate from his teacher! :D

Believe it or not, I do not expect my son's teacher to resolve all his life issues (or "soul issues"). As far as how to teach without delving into spiritual advice, all I would be able to say is to teach it very carefully, and possibly record the lectures for posterity and evidence. Then, create a system that's relatively forgiving of teacher error.

If my son's teacher thought it was important to provide religious avenues to my son to help him with his conflicts of "mind and soul", I'd have to speak to the school administration.

4/10/2007 1:12 PM  
Anonymous denever said...

People, please: it's Buddhist and Buddhism, not Bhuddist or Buddism!

4/10/2007 3:03 PM  
Blogger Tracy said...

I think the study of the bible's stories is important as they are part of our historical heritage and often referred to.

People in this culture should know who Job was, who Moses was, who are the people gathered around the Cross in all those medieval paintings in museums, etc, so they can understand writings that deal with those topics.

I once dragged a Jewish friend to the National Gallery in London and was surprised at how confusing he found the fore-mentioned medieval paintings - he could identify the bloke on the cross and the lady with a baby but all the other New Testament stories were beyond him and so there was a large chunk of culture in there that he didn't understand.

4/10/2007 3:35 PM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

Interesting - here in Soviet Canuckistan, we have a government-written Christian Ethics course available - the separate school system (publicly-funded Catholic schools) teach it as one of their required courses, but it is also available in the public system as an elective at the Grade 10, 11, and 12 level. If memory serves, the school I'm at only offers the Grade 10 course, but I went through the Catholic system and recall taking all the courses.

The debate here has a very different tone, since the separate schools were guaranteed funding under the laws that formed our country, since at the time it was a language divide (originally, there was a Catholic system - French - and a protestant system - English. Over time, the protestant system developed into the public system, but the Catholic system remained). The teaching of religion in government-funded schools has never been an issue here precisely because of that.

4/10/2007 6:22 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ian H., Soviet Canuckistan?!?!?!?

Ms. Teacher, don't feel too badly about one typo. As Denever and Crypticlife have pointed out, the host on this blog didn't do very well on his spelling either. But hey, I got Catholics, Jews, and Muslims right. At least I think I did.

4/10/2007 6:48 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

By the way, Teachjoep and Em, welcome to this blog, and thanks for your comments. Teachjoep, as I said to someone in my previous post, you gave me my favorite compliment. I'd tell you that great minds run in the same channel, but considering my spelling goofs, I'd better leave that one alone. Em, I think Crypticlife was a little hard on you, but when it comes to taking shots from my very articulate and frequent adversary, all I have to say is, "Join the club." He is very good at keeping us on our toes, and once in a while, we even agree.

4/10/2007 7:09 PM  
Blogger Robert Ward said...

Hey Dennis,

Hope all is well.
I myself took a few comparitive religion classes at St. Olaf and I think it would be great for a school to teach a class that examined major belief systems in the world.
Society is becoming more global and the more students that we can inform about the differences (and more importantly, the similarities) between their beliefs and others held worldwide, the better off we will be.

I feel that a lot of classes that high schoolers take now are geared toward imparting outside knowledge and less toward having the students openly examining their beliefs and attitudes. A class that informs AND challenges students to make personal decisions would be a pleasant change up from their daily grind.

I know that my high school had such a class and it was very popular as it was taught by a energetic and engaging teacher. (Much like all of us here!) Without the right teacher though, this is really asking for a PR nightmare!

4/10/2007 8:28 PM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

Pat Buchanan called us that in reference to our "extreme liberalism". I thought it was funny that our liberal government allows religious instruction in public schools, while your conservative one would have a problem with it.

4/11/2007 9:06 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Tracy, I'm sorry for not addressing your comment before. I think you make a good point, and it is also one emphasized by the TIME article.

Hi Rob! I like your point about having a class that "informs AND challenges students to make personal decisions." You sound like a very intelligent fellow. I'll bet you had a high ACT, and that you are an incredible volleyball player. ;) I hope everything is going well for you over on Da Range.

IanH., you probably know this, but much of the "problem" our nation's schools have with religion comes from decisions made by a much more liberal Supreme Court than we've got now. It will be interesting to see what changes might take place in that area over the next several years.

4/11/2007 2:58 PM  
Blogger the anonymous teacher said...

I took a Bible as Lit class while I was in college, and while I really enjoyed the class, it was very difficult for me as a strong Christian. It was hard to read the Bible in a completely literary context without bringing religion in it at all.
So, while this class would be interesting, it would be difficult for some teachers to teach and for some students to learn.

4/11/2007 3:39 PM  
Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Dennis, interesting post. I recently had a student who, in the process of writing an essay on the theme: insiders and outsiders, had a desire to write about how we are all outsiders in light of the existence of god. She was not one of the students who regularly infuse every essay with a "tract" like sermon--which always amuse me considering my first degree is in Church Ministry. But anyway, she felt compelled to write about god, but informed me that she couldn't. Why not? She didn't have any Bible training. Though she's never come across as religious in any formal way, she recognized the importance that the Bible has had in society, and she felt cheated for not knowing much about it.

4/12/2007 8:17 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

I'm a bit less concerned about an elective class generally, given that it's an elective. However, given situations like the below, I feel anticipating such courses would always be taught neutrally would be misguided.

From the ACLU website (web searches will pick this up)

"[Lawyers] announced the filing of legal papers on behalf of the parents of a Kearny public high school student whose history teacher preached his religious beliefs in class.

The teacher, David Paszkiewicz, made statements in his 11th grade class that included telling students that those who did not believe that Jesus died for their sins belonged in hell, that evolution was less fact-based than the Bible, that there were dinosaurs on Noah's Ark, that the Big Bang is unscientific, and that the Bible has been proven to be literally true by the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies.

Rather than constructively addressing the teacher's violation of law and duty, the school found ways to penalize the student for exposing the teacher's inappropriate conduct and took actions that encouraged harassment of the student by his peers.


I don't think it would neutral the other way either. Unnecessary entanglement of the government and religion is a bad idea.

Incidentally, someone had asked me on some comment whether I had a blog. I just started one -- it's not an edu-blog (even though I seem to be trolling around on the edu blogs lately), and maybe at some point I'll find a real purpose for it. Until then, it's sort of random commentary.

4/19/2007 12:20 PM  

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