This informal CPD article Religious Studies in Public Education was provided by Wilma J. Brown-Foreman at Academic Initiatives for Biblical Literacy (AIBL), an organization seeking to promote Biblical literacy in both public and private secondary education.
Religious Studies in Public Education
Across America, the consensus is that public school curricula should consist of more religious studies, including the academic studies of the Hebrew Bible. To erase the confusion about the constitutionality of teaching about the Bible or religion in a public-school setting, educators need to take the time to revisit the U.S. Supreme Court 1963 ruling in Abington v. Schempp.
After explaining its decision for ruling against devotionally teacher-led prayers and daily Bible readings that are not a part of a secular program of academic studies, the Court expressly stated:
“It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”
Teachers in public education may teach about religion and the Hebrew Bible if such teaching is academic, not devotional. As a teacher of literature in public school settings for more than forty years, I found myself constantly struggling with how to teach a specific literary work replete with religious or biblical allusions, symbols, and idioms without breaking any of the “separation of church and state” laws. At the same time, I pondered over the logic of having to downplay the significance of one of the most, if not the most, influential books in history, the Hebrew Bible.
Without question, the Bible examines the shared questions related to the human experience. Any teacher of literature realizes that biblical literacy gives more insight about other literary works that contain biblical references, allusion, symbols, names, quotations, and similar themes. Educators can agree that fully literate students understand the academic, social, and political influences of the Hebrew Bible on Western culture.
For instance, the Ten Commandments, the Bible’s most famous judicial document, has influenced human thinking and actions as much as the biblical command, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” This maxim is most prevalent in all human history. “The Golden Rule” is a universal injunction that establishes the significance of treating people with justice and compassion. Our world can benefit from a better understanding of this principle!
A quality secondary education should incorporate academic biblical studies in elective courses to strengthen students’ knowledge of and appreciation for the influence that the Hebrew Bible has had on Western and world cultures. Such knowledge will improve students’ ability to engage in meaningful oral and written discussions related to both historical and current events requiring biblical literacy. Leaving out the significant influences of the Hebrew Bible’s contributions to Western literature and history frequently leaves the entire literary and historical learning process “without form and void” (Genesis 1:2).
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