Sunday, May 1, 2005

Some of the nation’s top English teachers say the Bible should be part of any high school class covering the finest works of Western literature, according to a new report issued by the Bible Literacy Project.

The Bible is “one of the basic pieces of literature that in Western civilization has influenced laws, morals, politics and other literature,” says Laurance Levy, a teacher at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md., who participated in the national survey.

Researchers spoke with 41 teachers in 10 states, from both religious and nonreligious backgrounds, who are regarded as outstanding by colleagues. Teachers at four private schools and 30 public schools were part of the study.

Nine out of 10 teachers who participated argued that knowledge of the Bible is crucial for a good education; 40 of the 41 teachers said Bible literacy is an educational advantage.

The study by the Bible Literacy Project, backed by Wall Street financier John Templeton, was conducted in tandem with a poll by the Gallup Organization that quizzed 1,002 teenagers on their knowledge of the Bible.

The Gallup poll found that fewer than half of the teens surveyed knew that the Bible says Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding. Nearly two-thirds couldn’t identify a quote from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, or the relation of the road to Damascus to the Apostle Paul’s conversion.

The Gallup survey, with a margin of error of 3 percentage points, also found that 63 percent of private schools in the United States offer classes on the Bible as literature, but only 26 percent of public schools do.

McDonogh, a private school, does not have a unit on the Bible as literature, Mr. Levy says. Scripture, he says, does “not at all top our list of critical topics to teach.”

The Bible Literacy Project, a nonpartisan organization in Fairfax that promotes academic study of the Bible, plans to release a textbook in September designed for use in public schools.

Bryan Borah, chairman of the English department at Centreville High School, says the Bible is important, but adding the book to an already crowded curriculum would be tough.

“I understand philosophically the importance of biblical works and that it does affect mind-sets and attitudes,” he says. “But logistically, can I squeeze it in? I can barely get in a creative-writing class.”

Other school officials are making a place for the Bible.

In West Texas, the Ector County school board voted Tuesday to add an elective Bible class in two high schools in fall 2006. The class would be taught as a history or literature course.

“The research I’ve done is that you can’t hardly go back and look at history without the history of the Bible or the literature in the Bible. It’s an integral part of American heritage, and we need it to be a more integral part of American society today,” Ector school board member L. V. “Butch” Foreman III says. “I see [the Bible] as no different than any another book that will be used to educate children.”

A group of parents asked the school board in March to approve the class.

The Massachusetts State Department of Education requires selections from the Bible to be taught as part of high school English classes, spokeswoman Heidi Perlman says.

“The Bible is in our English language-arts framework to be used as another type of literature, but by no means do we condone the teaching of religion in our classrooms,” Ms. Perlman says.

Marie Wachlin, author of the Bible Literacy Project report, says that when it comes to teaching the Bible, teachers are affected by “political correctness issues.”

“Teachers implied they were very cautious, even fearful about teaching the Bible in class,” she says, often out of a misinterpretation of the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.

That fear is ungrounded, says Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center.

“Contrary to popular belief, the Supreme Court did not ban the Bible from public schools,” Mr. Haynes says. Rather, he says, the high court barred public schools from supporting religion.

Incorporating the Bible in a public school curriculum is not unconstitutional, writes Chuck Stetson, founder of the Bible Literacy Project and former vice president of the National Bible Association.

“The great authors of literature made an assumption that the general population understood the basic themes of the Bible,” he writes. “Yet, our study reveals that we are losing this knowledge and raising a generation that teachers say is ‘clueless’ about the context for some of the most basic phrases in our common language.”

Christians who regard the Bible as the inspired word of God also generally are supportive of its being studied as literature, says the Rev. Joseph Jenson, executive secretary of the Catholic Biblical Association.

“The Bible is fundamentally a foundation in many ways [throughout] our culture and the Western world,” Father Jenson says. “A lot of the narratives in the Bible are very fine examples of good literature and the study of them can only be a help to people.”

Teaching the Bible as literature doesn’t “take anything away from it, because they’re not discussing it in a spiritual realm,” says Kiera McCaffrey, a spokeswoman for the Catholic League, which promotes religious and civil liberties. “Anything teachers can do to impart knowledge of the Bible to their students, we’re behind it.”

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