- - Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bible Literacy Project released Bible Literacy Report II a study of what university English professors believed incoming students needed to know about the Bible to be successful in college. The John Templeton Foundation funded this report. The following is from the Executive Summary with some quotations from the Report.

What do today’s college students need to know about the Bible to participate fully and equally in the courses taught in America’s elite colleges and universities/ This study surveyed 39 English professors at 34 top U.S. colleges and universities to learn their assessment of how important Bible literacy is to college- level study of English and American literature. What do incoming freshmen in college-level English courses need to know about the Bible?

Almost without exception, English professors, we surveyed at major American colleges and universities see knowledge of the Bible as a deeply important part of a good education. The virtual unanimity and depth of their responses on this question are stiking. The Bible is not only a sacred scripture to millions of Americans, it is also arguable (as one Northwestern professor stated), the “most influential text of all of Western culture.”

For example, when asked to respond to the question, “Regardless of a person’s faith, an educated needs to know about the Bible,” no professor disagreed; nine provided additional explanations. When asked, “Some scholars say Western literature is steeped in references to the Bible. How would you respond to that?” 38 of 39 English professors agreed; 24 strongly. When asked, “In your opinion, how important is it for students who take your courses to be familiar with the Bible?” 38 of 39 professors said it was important.

Overwhelmingly, professors in this survey indicated that a lack of basic Bible literacy hampers students’ ability to understand both classics and contemporary work. Arduously “decoding’ scripture references detracts from absorbing and responding to great works of art, both ancient and modern.

At the same time, a number of professors expressed discomfort or reservations with appearing to “take sides” in favor of the Bible in the contemporary context. They did not wish to associate themselves with a potential movement around the Bible, or to seem to detract from the importance of other aspects of a good education, including the value of becoming knowledgeable about other world religions.

This report concludes that high schools should make basic Bible knowledge a part of their curriculum, especially for college preparatory students. Doing so requires developing a variety of educational materials and curricula that simultaneously (a) acknowledge the Bible’s status as sacred scripture to million of Americans, (b) are fair to students of all faith traditions, and (c) are of high academic quality.

Doing so will be an important part of meeting the next generation’s educational needs in an increasingly diverse population.

Several professors expressed doubts that the negative effects of Bible illiteracy on students’ comprehension of literature could be compensated by noting references in footnotes or other similar techniques. A failure to be Bible literate means students must spend more time “decoding” the Bible’s literal meaning, and even when they grasp a specific allusion they may not fully comprehend larger issues the writer is raising.

It’s valuable for me to tell you this because I’m not a Christian, I’m a Jew. I know the Hebrew Bible better than I know the New Testament. But I know the New Testament. I know St. Matthew. If I teach Chaucer, and Chaucer is mocking the Prioress for wiping the edge of the cup clear. The Padre said, “Woe you scribes and Pharisees. You keep the inside of the cup dirty, but outside you wipe clean.” This I have to relate to my students because they can’t pick it up. They’re not going to find it in the footnotes of the text either. I’ve discovered.

Or when you have the old man in Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale’ who wants to die and doesn’t know how to die and the revelers who want to kill death, and again then you get the same thing in the figure of despair in Spenser and you get it in Milton. Well, students say “well, how can one kill death?” Well, it goes down from Hosea to St. Paul, you know. “Death, thou shalt die.” I use to teach a sonnet by John Donne about “Death Be Not Proud.” So, you know, there’s a kind of substantial theological basis that’s part of a literary culture that they need to understand. (Prof. Ulrich Knoepflmacher, Princeton University.)

(With) poetry and autobiography as my primary fields, it helps to know the stories in Genesis and Exodus. It certainly helps to know the New Testament stories and something of the Book of Acts. But if a student doesn’t know a reference, I assume that he or she can look at the footnotes in the text and go and look up whatever the Biblical story or reference might be. Now obviously if students know those intimately, they will recognize allusions or paraphrases or even quotations right off. Where the students who’s never read any of the Bible won’t. And that’s a disadvantage if you’re doing advanced work. (Prof. Linda H. Peterson, Director of Graduate Studies. Yale University.)

Students without Bible knowledge are always having to spend their energies just kind of decoding it. (Prof. Kevin Dunn, Dean of Arts and Sciences College, Tufts University.)

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