Rationale for Teaching an Academic Course on the Bible

A Rising Tide of Consensus

Studying about the Bible in public high school English and social studies classes is both academically valuable and legally grounded. In 1999, The Bible in Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide was compiled and endorsed by a diverse coalition of 21 prominent educational, religious, and civil liberty organizations, including the National School Boards Association. This document provides guidelines for teaching a legal, academic course about the Bible in public schools. Such courses offer great academic value because the Bible has had a timeless influence on literature, culture, and public discourse. Furthermore, non-devotional teaching about the Bible has a firm legal foundation, and classroom materials to ensure that these courses are taught effectively and appropriately are now in use nationwide.

1. Consensus on the Academic Value of Teaching a Course on the Bible: In four major studies, educators at the secondary and post-secondary levels reported that the Bible is key to a good education.

  1. College English department chairs were asked what they wished incoming freshmen had read. The most frequently named work was the Bible. (Juhasz and Wilson, “Should students be well read or should they read well?” NASSP Bulletin 70(488):78-83.)
  2. In a 1997 study, 81 percent of high school English teachers surveyed reported it was important to teach some Bible literature. (Wachlin, “The Place of Bible Literature in Public High School English Classes,” Research in the Teaching of English 31(1): 7-49.)
  3. In 2005, 98 percent of high school English teachers surveyed agreed Bible literacy was academically advantageous. (Bible Literacy Report, 2005)
  4. In a 2006 study, English professors from America’s top-rated schools -- Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Texas A&M, UC-Berkeley and others -- were interviewed on the need for basic literacy in the Bible. No professor disagreed that “Regardless of a person’s faith, an educated person needs to know the Bible.” The professors said the Bible is “indispensable,” provides “great advantage,” and is “absolutely crucial.” (Bible Literacy Report II, 2006)

TIME Magazine described this growing consensus in a cover story titled “Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public School.” (April 2, 2007, page 40.) The article states that the Bible is the “bedrock of Western culture.”

Stephen Prothero, chair of Boston University’s religion department, in his book Religious Literacy: What Everyone Needs to Know and Doesn’t (Harper San Francisco, 2007) argues that everyone needs to grasp Bible basics. Prothero approvingly cites the argument that students “can’t be effective citizens (or neighbors) if they don’t know something about the Bible” (2007, pp. 132-134). English teachers and professors agree that American literature is steeped with Biblical allusions, Biblical symbols, and Biblical archetypes. The works of Shakespeare contain over 1,300 documented Bible references and allusions. The 2002 Advanced Placement study guide, AP Literature and Composition: Preparing for the Advanced Placement Examination (Bevilacqua, Israel, & Timoney) listed 108 characters and events that are “common allusions in poetry and prose.” The majority of characters and events on this list are Biblical.

2. Consensus on the Bible’s Timeless Influence: Writing for The New Yorker, Daniel Radosh noted, “The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: the Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year. Calculating how many Bibles are sold in the United States is a virtually impossible task, but a conservative estimate is that in 2005 Americans purchased some 25 million Bibles—twice as many as the most recent Harry Potter book.” Cultural literacy demands knowledge of the Bible. Reference books such as Coined by God (Malless, 2003), The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Hirsch, Kett, & Trefil, 2002), Brush up Your Bible (Macrone, 1993), I Never Knew That Was in the Bible (Manser, 1999), Everyday Biblical Literacy (Lang, 2007), and others catalogue the literally hundreds of Bible phrases, characters, place names, and symbols that have become the common currency of Western culture. According to E.D. Hirsch, Biblical terms are used with the assumption that a culturally literate person understands the Biblical reference (Hirsch, Kett, & Trefil, 2002, p. 1).

3. Consensus that Teaching About the Bible has a Firm Legal Foundation: Supreme Court opinions support academic study of the Bible in public schools. The Bible study landmark case is Abington Township School District v. Schempp. In the Schempp majority opinion, Justice Tom C. Clark wrote, “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. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study” for its literary and historical qualities (1963, p. 225). That decision has been tested over the years to the conclusion that any course that teaches the Bible academically, that provides an awareness of the religious content of the Bible while not promoting religion, and that does not require conformity to beliefs encountered in the study of the Bible is legally acceptable in public education. Please read this article regarding the teaching of the Bible and the First Amendment.

4. Availability of Materials to Support Constitutional Bible Courses: The 1999 publication of The Bible and Public Schools has provided the educational community with a cogent guide for every aspect of teaching an academic course on the Bible; including the preparation of materials, the training of teachers, and the development of textbooks and teacher’s editions. Such materials have been and are being developed. Most notable among these is the complete curriculum provided in The Bible and Its Influence (BLP Publishing © 2006) -- a textbook program that provides an overview of the content of the entire Bible and its impact on literature, culture, and public life. This curriculum is supported by a teacher’s edition and an online teacher-training course. This particular program was reviewed by over 40 scholars, educators, and First-Amendment experts. The TIME Magazine cover story of April 2, 2007 stated that that “[Public school Bible electives] should have a strong accompanying textbook on the model of The Bible and Its Influence...”

5. Conclusion: A 2005 Chicago Tribune op-ed concluded: “It makes no sense to starve our public school students by eliminating the Bible and religion from the curriculum, given overwhelming interest of students in the subject and the legal and academic support for it. How can we be truly multicultural, in the best sense, if we do not understand our own culture? It is impossible for us to evaluate other ways of life without some strong understanding of the roots of our own.” (Elshtain, 2005, p. 27) A second Chicago Tribune editorial noted, “When [public schools] decline to impart knowledge about such an important subject [the Bible], they are not doing anything to preserve the separation of church and state. They are merely failing their students.” (“Biblical Ignorance,” 2005, p. 22) To offer a rigorous elective course about the Bible affords students a significant advantage in current and future classes and in college preparation, provides them with the keys to understanding history and culture, and helps equip them for the working world and for empowered citizenship.