One Nation, Undereducated

Regardless of personal religious beliefs, students should learn about the importance of religious liberty–and why it is threatened when the government endorses any particular religious view

The Texas Board of Education, the nation’s second largest purchaser of public school textbooks, is revising its K-12 social studies curriculum and deciding how to characterize religion’s influence on American history. Three consultants have recommended emphasizing the roles of the Bible, Christianity and civic virtue of religion. As America’s children go back to school, how would you advise the Texas board? How should religion be taught in public schools?

With its many poetic passages that have greatly enriched our language and literature, ideally I would like to see the Bible taught in public schools, but only if done the “right” way. Of course, my right might differ from yours. The Bible and religion would have to be taught as objectively as possible. Any course that does not include the good, the bad, and the ugly in its subject matter, is unlikely to pass my objectivity test.

We can, for example, point out that many fine Christian leaders deserve credit for working to abolish slavery, but not without also pointing out that many Christian leaders also used their Bible to perpetuate slavery, especially those Southern preachers who defended it as an institution established by God. We should also include some of the many non-religious people who were motivated by humanistic principles to work for abolition.

This is probably not the sort of thing the Texas Board of Education has in mind. What they did to the teaching of evolution, some now want to do to social studies: replace documented evidence with sectarian religious belief. In Texas, evolution is a political and religious controversy, not a scientific one, and the board allows for non-scientific creationist critiques of evolution in science class. Some on the board now want social studies textbooks to say that the foundational principles of our country are Biblical, that Christianity is an overall force for good, and that this is a key reason for American exceptionalism.

If I were teaching a social studies course that incorporated the Bible, I would ask my students to compose an essay giving evidence from the Bible to support fundamental American ideals like individual rights (including those for women and blacks), democratically-elected representatives, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. I’ve read the Bible carefully, and I expect those essays would be very short. I would also assign other necessarily short essays on any scientific statement in the Bible that is not contradicted by modern science, and on all mentions of God or Jesus in the U.S. Constitution.

There would not be much chance of getting my syllabus through the Texas School Board. Since local politicians exert so much influence over what goes into a public school curriculum, perhaps it would be better to drop Bible teaching entirely, and not embroil the public schools in yet another needless controversy. In fact, the major problem seems to be local control, itself. Why should evolution or the Bible be taught so differently in Texas than in Vermont? Our system cries out for national education standards, which exist in most developed countries.

Regardless of personal religious beliefs, students should learn about the importance of religious liberty–and why it is threatened when the government endorses any particular religious view, as some influential leaders in Texas propose. Many students falsely believe that the original Pledge of Allegiance contained the words, “under God,” words added in 1954 during the shameful McCarthy era. In the melting pot called America, we are one nation under the Constitution (or maybe under Canada), but not one nation under God. In fact, given how the religious right opposes the teaching of evolution, or any scientific or social view that conflicts with a literal interpretation of the Bible, we are really becoming one nation under-educated.


Photo Courtesy of: Michael 1952

Herb Silverman
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  • maryellensikes

    Herb asks, “Why should evolution or the Bible be taught so differently in Texas than in Vermont?” The sad truth is that it might not be. Curriculum in supersized Texas bears an enormous influence over the content of textbooks used by many smaller states with less purchasing power. If not for Texas’s undue weight in the textbook industry, many of us in the secular community might have simply ignored the educational brouhaha there. However, I agree with Herb that national standards would go a long way toward eliminating regional inequities in education. The Bush Administration would have argued that No Child Left Behind accomplished something of the sort; however, NCLB is not a curriculum. It imposes certain objectives on states and then rewards or punishes them (using money) for their performance. I doubt NCLB’s goals are designed to “catch” a state that overemphasizes religion in social studies or allows the teaching of creationism in science classes. And even in states with fewer problems than Texas, we do almost nothing to educate our teachers about the appropriate role of religion in the classroom – not just in curriculum, but in the unpredictable conversations and situations that inevitably arise in a classroom full of children. Herb is right that children need to learn *about* religion. It influences people, literature, the arts, and the study of history. But he is also right that presenting a lopsided view to encourage religion to be favorably viewed by children (in some cases quite inaccurately) is wrong and unconstitutional – particularly when irreligion is so deftly ignored by most programs of education. Our kids learn that Martin Luther King was a minister, but not that Marie Curie was an atheist.

  • LorettaHaskell

    I applaud Dr. Silverman’s comments on the choices before the Texas Board of Education. Not only does the United States need national education standards but Texas and all American students deserve to be taught the truth in schools as well as the tools that will allow them to be critical thinkers.

  • DAN46

    The obvious truth is that the Texans who seek to inject religion into school books are motivated not by education but by religion. This is clearly a religious campaign. Too bad these people don’t work so hard for real educational efforts.

  • jonesm2

    I agree with Professor Silverman that it is fine to teach the Bible in school as an academic process and not a religious one, but then it should be fine to teach the Koran or any other holy text from any of the world’s religions. I’m not sure that the Texas Board of Education would consent to a teaching of the Koran in schools, but should they succeed in getting the Bible as part of the curriculum, then I hope that some group follows up with a request to teach the Koran.

  • bobbiek1

    Dr. Silverman is too polite–but I am not–to point out that if Christianity were a good thing it would not be necessary to stack the deck, as “emphasizing the roles of the Bible, Christianity and civic virtue of religion” command. If Christianity has been a positive influence on our country, it will be apparent without and special directive, and if religion had a civic virtue, that principle would no more need to be taught than “it’s nice to have friends.”

  • norriehoyt

    Better to teach something useful, like math, financial management, or writing.Or, if you must get into teaching something about religion and philosophy in early America, try Ethan Allen’s anti-Christian rantings.Texans should approve: Allen was a war hero who took Fort Ticonderoga for the new nation.

  • ihatelogins

    Texas: #49 in national verbal …SAT, #46 in average math SATsAnd yet Texas must have nothing better to do than take on an extremely difficult topic fraught with educational peril, and I’m sure there’s no agenda behind it!Can’t we let this fundamentalist state leave? Sure, we’d lose some resources; but we’d also lose a heckofalot of dumb.

  • Louise10

    The effort by religious politicians to skew public education in favor of religion is not education, it is indoctrination. Consider an example in Herb Silverman’s home state of South Carolina, where publicly religious Gov. Mark Sanford (of recent marital infidelity fame) appointed to the South Carolina Board of Education a woman who homeschools her own four children. She recently resigned as chair of the board, citing family obligations, but during her tenure she pushed for statewide abstinence-only sex indoctrination and intelligent design science indoctrination. Fortunately, she was not successful, but every year the battle begins anew. Until national curricula standards are developed and accepted (which I know is unlikely), America’s children will continue to be undereducated in many states like South Carolina.

  • twobhaers

    I would like to comment on Herb Silverman’s beautifully insightful column on “One Nation, Under Educated”. Speaking as a former elementary school teacher and college professor in the area of curriculum development, I too would strongly urge the Texas Board of Education not to adopt a curriculum which would not meet vital standards of historical context and accuracy and would do children in Texas public schools a great disservice. Any social studies curriculum that Texas adopts, in order to meet the highest standards of academic excellence and historical accuracy, must refer to America’s secular heritage and our tradition of religious pluralism.Dr. Silverman noted that the Bible and religion would have to be taught as objectively as possible. I would agree that it is important to teach about the significance of religion in history and society. But when that subject is taught, it should be taught in an objective and unbiased way. Fortunately, there is an organization which has developed resources for teaching about religion at all grade levels. It is called OABITAR (which stands for “Objectivity, Accuracy and Balance In Teaching About Religion”). The developers of social studies standards in Texas should become familiar with the organization’s 36 lesson plans and study their six position statements, the last of which states, “Teaching about religion in public education needs to serve the interests of a pluralistic society, preparing students to meet with aplomb the full spectrum of religious and nonreligious diversity within the public realm.”

  • pelicanwatchcb

    It’s very simple — teach religion in the home, church or synagogue. Teach science, history and social studies in school. That’s what these institutions were created for. Yet some disingenuous zealots insist on mixing it up and creating a political firestorm in the process.

  • abhab1

    Paarsurrey says:“I love Jesus and Mary as mentioned in Quran.”Whoever wrote the Quran did not know much of history, geography, science, mathematics or much of anything else. He/she/they copied and embellished some of the legends and myths of the neighboring pagans, Sabaeans, Zoroaster as well as distorted stories from the Old and New Testaments as well as the Jewish Talmud. The Mary you mention above which the Quran describes as the daughter of Imram and which is supposedly the mother of Jesus is the sister of Moses and Aaron the sons of Imram. The mother of Jesus is the daughter of Joachim. Get your facts right before making sweeping judgments.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Prof. Silverman,The Bible cannot be taught “objectively.” It is a text, the text, in fact, of the Western World, and of Israel.The Jewish Tanakh is neither the Catholic nor the Protestant OT. The Tanakh knows not Christian typology. Objectively, would require, to begin with, a Jewish reading of a Jewish text written by Jews for the Jewish community.There would then have to follow the historical, ideological reasons for Christian supersessionisn and its consequences, both good and genocidal. Nor would this be enough. Following the presentation of these religions, of course, all other known beliefs would have to follow. Alongside all of them, the development of doubters must be given attention.Finally, to establish national standards in this or in any other domain, is a development devoutly to be wished. Consider, however, the specious nature of NCLB, specious, that is, in many ways. Consider, too, that national standards would require equal funding for education throughout the states and fiscal accountability at the federal level, not that the federal level is notably less corrupt than the state, but still….

  • dbrown11

    “One nation, undereducated” is a nation where democracy is not likely to work very well, a very scary prospect. All who share this notion hopefully will also share the commitment to prevent those who would replace critical thinking with religious dogma from prevailing in our nations’s education system.

  • dbrown11

    “One nation, undereducated” is a nation where democracy is unlikely to work very well, a very scary prospect. Let us hope that all who share this notion also share the commitment to prevent those who would replace critical thinking with relious dogma from prevailing in our nation’s education system.

  • justillthen

    ihatelogins “Can’t we let this fundamentalist state leave? Sure, we’d lose some resources; but we’d also lose a heckofalot of dumb.”You have a point that has not only some good humor to it, but merit, mebee, as well. :-)