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Ernest Miller Ernest Miller pursues research and writing on cyberlaw, intellectual property, and First Amendment issues. Mr. Miller attended the U.S. Naval Academy before attending Yale Law School, where he was president and co-founder of the Law and Technology Society, and founded the technology law and policy news site LawMeme. He is a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Ernest Miller's blog postings can also be found @
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May 27, 2005

Exec. Dir. of Biblical Literacy Project Responds

Posted by Ernest Miller

Earlier today, I wrote about David Gelernter's op-ed arguing for teaching the Bible in public schools (Gelernter Advocates Teaching the Bible as Literature: Good Idea, Too Bad That's Not What He Really Intends). I suggested that although there are good secular arguments in favor of teaching the Bible, I fear that there are ulterior religious motives for doing so. In any case, I've received an email from Sarah Jenislawski, executive director for the Bible Literacy Project, which "is a non-partisan, non-profit endeavor to encourage and facilitate the academic study of the Bible in public schools. Founded in 2001 by Chuck Stetson, we believe that failure to teach about the Bible leaves students in ignorance and cultural illiteracy."

Read on for Jenislawski's letter and my reply ...

The letter:

Thank you for blogging about David Gelernter's piece on academic study of the Bible. While Gelernter is not affiliated with my organization - the Bible Literacy Project (BLP) - he does cite our recently released Bible Literacy Report in his op-ed.

I am writing to address your concerns on how the Bible can really be taught academically, rather than devotionally, in the public schools. Our organization began to address this issue in 1999 by co-publishing a document with the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center called The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide. This consensus statement, which explains how to teach about the Bible academically in the public schools, was endorsed by 20 diverse educational and religious organizations, including the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National School Boards Association, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Council on Islamic Education, and the American Jewish Congress.

In this document, the BLP and these endorsers affirm the following statements that distinguish academic teaching about the Bible from religious indoctrination:

>The school’s approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
>The school may strive for student awareness of religions, but should not press for student acceptance of any religion.
>The school may sponsor study about religion, but may not sponsor the practice of religion.
>The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose, discourage, or encourage any particular view.
>The school may educate about all religions, but may not promote or denigrate any religion.
>The school may inform the student about various beliefs, but should not seek to conform him or her to any particular belief.

You are right to be concerned that the Bible will be taught in a devotional manner. For most of our nation's history, the Bible was taught in exactly this way- and still is in some parts of the country. However, our success in achieving the consensus found in the Guide leads us to believe that the Bible, like any other text, can be taught in an objective and academic manner, if proper training and materials for teachers are made available. Hence our creation of a textbook for high school literature courses and teacher training to be released in September. This is the first student textbook ever created for academic study of the Bible.

The textbook, which contains one semester on the Hebrew Scriptures and one on the Christian New Testament, is designed to teach basic Bible literacy - so that students will be familiar with the characters, themes and narratives of the Bible, and how they have been used in literature, art, music, and public discourse. All students, regardless of faith tradition, need to know about the Bible in order to understand the world around them. They also need this information to succeed on the burgeoning number of standardized tests that are taking on increasing importance in our educational system, as described on our website.

Ernest, I hope this information is helpful to you. I also hope that you will consider linking to the First Amendment Guide on your blog in conjunction with the discussion about teaching about the Bible.

Please let me know if you have any more questions or concerns about academic study of the Bible in the public schools. We are happy to serve as a resource!

[Greeting and signature omitted; links in original]

My response:
Thank you for your response. I completely agree that the Bible should be taught and that there are proper ways to do so. I applaud you for creating consensus on certain standards. My fears are in the practical implementation, however. Despite the best intentions and standards, I suggest that our current political climate isn't suited for concentrated courses in the Bible. I would favor teaching the allusions as necessary. In this way the focus is on the literature and history, not the Bible itself.

As I noted in my response to Gelernter's op-ed, I think teaching the Bible is a good idea, but I question the motivations of many who are heavily promoting the concept. Certain religious groups have become quite adept at couching their religious agenda in secular terms, such as the Intelligent Design movement.

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Freedom of Expression


COMMENTS

1. SFix on May 27, 2005 11:20 PM writes...

"You are right to be concerned that the Bible will be taught in a devotional manner."

I think it is impossible, given the extreme Christian religiosity in the US now, to teach the Bible in public schools in a secular manner. In order to be truly taught as literature, students have to be free to criticize the Bible as fiction rather than as a sacred document--a position the religious right will not tolerate. Even the teaching guide quoted by Ms. Jenislawski says schools "may not promote or denigrate any religion," thus the Bible can not be taught as literature.

"All students, regardless of faith tradition, need to know about the Bible in order to understand the world around them."

But what is it they need to know about the Bible? Why the Bible more than the Koran, Hinduism or the teachings of Buddha? The importance of the Bible is not in its value as literature, it is how it has been interpreted as religion. Ms. Jenislawski seems to be under the illusion that the Bible represents a sufficient diversity of views to be constitutional.

If Jenislawski really wants to teach students about the context of the US, she should support the teaching of students about the Deism some of the Founding of Fathers and how it relates to the complete absence of the mention of God in the Constitution ("Anno Domoni" after the date does not count!)

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2. Dan G on May 27, 2005 11:24 PM writes...

It would be smart if such groups established a cirriculum that included texts from other religions. Maybe the Koran, the Mahabharata (well, that's long, maybe just the Bhagavad gita), and some Buddhist texts (maybe from the Tripitaka).

If you're feeling adventurous, throw in the Book of Mormon, Dianetics, and Smith's Atheism and you've got a comparitive religion course that is convincingly secular...

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3. Richard G. Scurry on May 29, 2005 07:59 AM writes...

Re "I question the motivations...." Why do motivations matter? Can you not simply look at any given idea, or statement, or textbook, or the teaching of a course, and see if it stands up to intellectual and practical examination? Then evaluate the risks and rewards? Some of our greatest accomplishments have been done for the wrong reasons, and some of our greatest failures have been generated by wonderful motivations. With this particular proposal, I would think the motivations of the endorsing organizations differed significantly, sometimes being in direct conflict, and that some were highly suspicious of others. Yet they all signed - including the NEA, the ADL, the Council on Islamic Education, the People for the American Way, and yes, the National Association of Evangelicals. Perhaps they were thinking what the Chicago Tribune editorial page later wrote: "Public schools have no business using Bible instruction to advance a religious agenda. But when they decline to impart knowledge about such an important subject, they are not doing anything to preserve the separation of church and state. They are merely failing their students." (May 12, 2005.)

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4. Ernest Miller on May 29, 2005 10:00 AM writes...

Because, although you can get some wonderful agreement at the national level for an appropriate curriculum, it is its practical implementation at the local level that will be the issue. Unfortunately, at the local level these curricula are pushed not for their secular benefits, but as a covert means to insert religous indoctrination into the schools. It is incredibly difficult to police the local level. Teach the Bible, but teach it when necessary to explain particular allusions in literature, or why the South felt justified in defending slavery.

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