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By Willow (willowashmaple.xyz)

A case for public school Bible (and more) curriculum

July 5, 2024

The recent decree by Oklahoma's head of public education directing (and compelling) every public school in the state to teach the Bible has raised a lot of outcry and controversies. Many of the predictive objections relate to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the emergence of "Christian" Nationalism. Other problems include: How can untrained school teachers, many of them perhaps unfamiliar with the scriptures beyond an average layperson's understanding, actually teach the Bible? What kind of Bible is it -- Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or even Latter-Day Saints to include the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Prices? Can it be genuinely non-sectarian and promote any specific religious affiliation or viewpoint above others? In a state like Oklahoma where church affiliation is a big part of its culture, how do they prevent teachers from injecting their own denominational and theological biases into classroom instruction? Why is it that the Republicans are eager to compel public school educators to teach the Bible while they hypocritically object to teachers having to teach LGBTQ history or SOGI curriculums because of supposed religious freedom?

These are important concerns that must be addressed and rectified.

Yet, I feel that biblical literacy has been an important part of a well-rounded liberal arts education since the beginning of the liberal arts itself. In this era of shifting the focus of education towards STEM and vocational subjects and away from literature, ethics, and philosophy, this can be a positive development if done correctly.

It is also undoubtedly true that many elements of U.S. history are inspired by the Bible and its ethical and philosophical points. The slave abolition movement, penal reform, and the Civil Rights movement all have their roots in the ethics of the Bible as understood by those who stood up for their causes. Also, much of the Western literature and arts draw their inspiration from the Bible. Many famous classical music masterpieces are some such examples and knowing the Bible gives younger people a greater appreciation for them.

Having said that, how should a public entity approach this without violating religious liberties and also respecting the diversity and pluralism of American society?

My two cents: Create "World Heritage Literature" curriculums designed in age-appropriate and non-sectarian manners by respected academic experts.

A World Heritage Literature class would be year-round and may look like this:

Fall (September-December)

- The ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia, Sumer, Egypt, China (Confucius, Mencius, Sunzi), India (Vedas)

- The Tanakh and the Old Testament apocryphal documents, with an emphasis on the wisdom and prophetic writings

Winter (January-March)

- Greco-Roman classics (especially Aristotle and Plato)

- The New Testament and select Early Church writings

- Buddhist sutras (overviews of famous ones such as the Heart Sutra and the Lotus Sutra)

Spring (April-June)

- The Talmud (with attention to how the sages debate on ethical and legal questions and arrive at their logical conclusions)

- The Quran

- Medieval philosophers (such as Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, and others)

Can this be done? A potential model is the Ethical Society class curriculum previously used in Japanese high schools in the late 20th century. The Constitution of Japan is far more explicit than the U.S. in its separation of church and state and prohibition of using public funds to promote religion, not to mention it is a highly secular society antagonistic toward organized religions. Ethical Society was a branch of Social Studies and taught philosophy and ethics based on world classics such as Socrates, the Bible, and the Analects of Confucius. Even at younger grade levels, discussions of such classics are part of their social studies classes. I am not aware of any legal cases in Japan opposing such instructions (the Jehovah's Witnesses, with their strict adherence to the Bible teachings in all areas of their lives, went to court objecting to Japanese schoolchildren's compulsory participation in martial arts lessons, but I do not think they've ever sued schools for the Ethical Society classes).


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