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Teaching the Bible well in our public schools

The current debate over teaching ethics in NSW public schools would test the patience of Job. That phrase won’t make sense to most NSW pupils, and it is for that reason we need more time, not less, for teaching Scripture in our schools.

The Bible is clearly a central text for understanding Western (and not just Western) culture. And yet Bible literacy is in a woeful state, not only among students, but also among teachers and public figures. Recently, on the fabulous ABC TV music quiz show, Spicks and Specks, it took around a dozen pure guesses before any of the six panellists—all cultured people—could identify where a biblical character came from. I remember super-smart Jewish doctor friends who asked me where in the Bible they could find the story of Noah. And don’t get me started on the biblical illiteracy of the current rock-star atheists, who can hardly tell their Scriptural right hand from their left (that’s from Jonah ch.4 verse 11).

We have generations of school leavers, and now a generation of teachers, who know next to nothing about the Bible. The Bible Literacy Project in the USA (bibleliteracy.org) aims to correct this, and we desperately need something like it here.

It’s not just zealous Jews and Christians who are noting this educational failure. Andrew Motion, England’s former poet laureate, went public last year with his frustration about the lack of biblical knowledge among university students: “I’m not suggesting this is a ‘bolt-on’,” he toldThe Guardian, “but part of a broader rethinking about what education should be.”

David Plotz, editor of Slate.com, and a Jew by cultural background, came to the remarkable realisation that in his late thirties, he knew nothing about the central text of his culture. He spent a year reading it and blogging about what he discovered. (Now published as Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible.) He found the experience life-changing: “Reading the Bible has given me a chance to start an argument with God about the most important questions there are, an argument that can last a lifetime.”

It is for that reason—that, and the sheer, no-brainer educational necessity of it—that we need more, not less Scripture teaching in schools. Add in ethics of all kinds, by all means, but for heaven’s sake don’t even risk reducing the attention given to Scripture by a moment. Both subjects engender life-long learning in those who engage with them.

The problem, of course, is how to do it. Because of the legislation that exists in NSW, public schools must provide religious instruction, which can now be given by any religious group organised enough to offer it. It is done from a confessional perspective, that is, Scripture teachers are able to stand up and say, “This is what our faith teaches; what do you make of it?”

I think this is fine, although I can understand many people in our pluralistic society finding it threatening. It also produces the genuine problem, noted by Richard Dawkins and picked up by many others, that it requires the religious (or non-religious) labelling of children in a troubling way. But at least it is honest: it is an opportunity for students to hear what people believe, and why. As long as there is no coercion involved, and no particular religion is being favoured over another in the public school classroom, it seems like a genuine educational good (let’s make sure the quality of teaching is high).

The bigger problem is that this will not be sufficient to educate our children in the influence of the Bible (I’ll leave discussion of other important texts to those better qualified). The objective, academic study of the Bible is as important as ever, and at the time our national curricula are being revised, we must look at how to teach it well and thoroughly across a range of subject areas.

We need to integrate the Bible properly into the curriculum, so that when English students study Scott Monk’s novel, Raw, they know that he is drawing on the parable of the prodigal son from the Gospels in the New Testament. So that when students look at the origins of the Australian union movement, it is noted that William Guthrie Spence drew inspiration from Jesus’ teaching. A Sunday School superintendent and regular preacher, he saw the protection of worker’s rights as a working out of the attitude of Jesus. In 1892, he said, “New Unionism was simply the teachings of that greatest of all social reformers, Him of Nazareth, whom all must revere”. Do history students know those teachings?

We even need Scripture in the science classroom (bear with me here). Not, in my view, to explain the mechanisms of nature, but to understand the history and philosophy of science, the thinking of Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, who described the pursuit of natural knowledge as “philosophical worship of God”. So we might not want the book of Genesis in the laboratory, but we need to know it in order to understand why the laboratory came to matter so much to those magnificent 17th century thinkers.

This ought to be possible politically; both Abbott and Rudd have made supportive noises about the importance of the Bible. It ought to be possible pragmatically: we are at a key moment in the development of the national curricula. And it ought to be possible ethically, since there is such eagerness at present to sort out the proper place of religion in secular society. It would be a good thing to teach the Bible well in our public schools.

It shouldn’t be a David versus Goliath battle of any kind, if you know what I mean.

Dr Greg Clarke is CEO of the Bible Society

This article first appeared at The Punch and the Centre for Public Christianity website.

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