Academic Initiatives in Biblical Literacy

A Useful Educational Resource

  • Secondary/College English and Social Studies Teachers' Supplementary Reference
  • An Elective Biblical Literacy Course in Secondary Education
  • College English Students/ Teachers' Reference
  • Secondary Christian Educators' Reference
  • After-School Religious Clubs Activities
  • Bible/Scholastic Bowl Teams Practice Questions
  • Sponsors of Academic Initiatives for Biblical Literacy Reference
  • Teens/ Young Adult/Adults Biblical Study Groups
  • Bible Study Groups Activities/Reference
  • Educational Workshops and Conferences Resource for English and History Teachers
  • Cultural Literacy Reference

Introduction

Wilma Foreman

Before I recently retired as a secondary English teacher with more than thirty-seven years of experience in teaching students in both public and private schools, I was successful in imparting much information contained in lessons that challenged my students' abilities to think. Like the majority of secondary English teachers in America, I was afforded many opportunities to strengthen students’ literacy skills by connecting the literary and historical elements in Western literature to the history, allusions, symbols, names, themes, and wisdom found in the Hebrew Bible. Oftentimes, however, I found myself filled with shock and dismay as I encountered rampant Biblical illiteracy among high school students, especially in public schools. I recognized that this lack of Biblical knowledge that is so ingrained in Western culture left a void in their overall understanding of many other literary works that “educated” citizens in our society are expected to know. For the past fourteen years, I have agonized over this obvious deficiency in students' reading comprehension which, in turn, has prompted me to work to urge school administrators and educators to include Biblical literacy initiatives in secondary academic curricula. Constitutionally, such lessons and classes may be taught on public school campuses, as long as the studies of the Bible are academic-not devotional (http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/madison/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/teachersguide.pdf).

   Across America, the consensus is that more religious studies are needed in public school curricula. To help  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.”

However, in spite of the Supreme Court’s clear ruling in support of the academic study about religion, including the literary and historic qualities of the Bible, (because of possible intimidation from “watchdog separation of church and state” interest groups), public schools are still graduating Biblically illiterate students who enter society with a high school education that can largely be classified as “void and without form.”

I believe that a quality education should be grounded in foundational principles, including lessons on morals and values that lead to strong character in all students. I believe that such an education is fundamental to personal and societal progress; therefore,  the literary, historical, and moral contributions of the Hebrew Bible to Western culture should be included in the academic process. In the attempt to evaluate ideas and assumptions, high school students should seek, find, examine, and understand foundational truths, especially the timeless truths found in the Hebrew Bible. English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote:"For more than a thousand years, the Bible, collectively taken, has gone hand in hand with civilization, science, law--, in short, with the moral and intellectual cultivation of the species, always supporting and often leading the way.”

 The prevalent degree of Biblical illiteracy among today's public school students and in Western society, in general, leaves a void in the overall comprehension of other great works in Western literature, and denies students innumerable opportunities to ponder the wisdom and timeless truths contained in such a "worthy" Book as the Hebrew Bible. In turn, students' levels of reading comprehension are inevitably weakened because of the failure of educators to teach foundational knowledge and proven truths contained in the Hebrew Bible. Consequently, our society is being deprived of the ethical and moral principles essential to the strength and success of any country. Such ignorance is detrimental to the healthy progress of our world. Horace Mann (1796), a forerunner for reforms in American public education, said: “Ignorance breeds monsters to fill up vacancies of the soul that are unoccupied by the verities of knowledge.”

 Gallup was right when he said, “We revere the Bible, but we don’t read it.” In public classrooms across America, this is certainly evident when it comes to any lessons or discussions related to the Biblical literature. The shallow responses that the majority of students in public schools give to such literary questions are not at all reflective of the depth of thought associated with advanced interchanges expected of students on a secondary level of instruction. For example, I have taught seniors in high school who did not recognize the biblical names, Adam and Eve. How can any high school student in a senior English class understand and fully appreciate Milton’s Paradise Lost without biblical background knowledge of the characters, Adam and Eve? Some students had never heard of Jacob and Esau, or Samson and Delilah.  In fact, years ago, one of my students in an accelerated English 9 class stated that she had never heard of the Biblical David and Goliath when a reference to these characters was made about persons who face challenges in life. Does the definition of literacy change when it relates to the Bible? Can students be classified as functionally literate with so many voids in their comprehension of Biblical literature, since Western literature is so inclusive of the Bible? Does not a complete education entail literacy in general, whether the materials taught are religious or not?  Most importantly, why should any public system of education ignore or downplay the Bible as a major work of literature and history when such knowledge is so ingrained in the fabric of American society? Does not the Bible deserve the same treatment given to any other major literary or historic work?

Literacy can be defined on a number of levels. It is that which defines names, phrases, events, or other items that are familiar to most literate Americans. Literacy is obviously concerned with the ability to read and write, but a fuller definition might be: “the capacity to recognize, reproduce, and manipulate the conventions of text shared by a given community.” Acquiring knowledge is more than just passing the SOLs by memorizing facts, punctuating sentences, or defining general and technical terms absent of any reference to the Bible or religion.  Fully educated persons should be able to engage in meaningful cultural exchanges that will demonstrate their competencies in ways that earn respect and recognition. Obviously, American society still values knowledge and understanding of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, a Gallup poll taken in October 2000 found that 65% of Americans agree that the Bible “answers all or most of the basic questions of life.” Interestingly, however, 28% of those who agree with this statement admitted that they rarely or never read the Bible. To help close the illiteracy gap, Biblical literature needs to be read, analyzed and discussed in public school settings so that education will be more relevant in real life experiences. Biblically literate students should be given opportunities to participate in personal reflections shared through oral and written interactions that express knowledge and understanding of the Bible as a literary work esteemed so highly in Western culture. The aim of literacy in public education, then, should be to promote cultural and social participation, regardless to whether students endorse a particular religious belief or not, as long as such instruction is academic instead of devotional

(https://www.aarweb.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/Publications/epublications/AARK-12CurriculumGuidelines.pdf).

Since teachers are employed as agents of the state, they cannot require students to engage in devotional activities; however, this does not make schools religious-free zones for public school children. While the state cannot impose any particular religious belief on students, students are free to express their own religious beliefs.  Most importantly, educators must understand that it is not illegal for public schools to include academic studies about religion in high school curricula. Students can learn about religion, including the Bible, wherever such teaching is presented “objectively as part of a secular program of education.” In guidelines sent to every school district in America in 1995 and again in 1998, the U.S. Department of Education reiterated that public schools “may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about religion, including the Bible or other sacred scripture.” In keeping with the First Amendment’s mandate of governmental neutrality toward religion, the study of religion in a public school must be educational, not devotional. This same principle holds true whether teaching about the Bible occurs in literature, history, art, music, or any other class, and whether the class is required or is an elective course

(http://www.ed.gov/Speeches/08-1995/religion.html ).

As a former teacher of English literature,  I found myself constantly struggling with the legal ramifications of teaching a particular literary work with any religious or biblical allusions, themes, symbols, and quotations without breaking “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. Unquestionably, the Bible explores all the common questions of human experience. Any teacher of literature understands that biblical literature gives more insight about other literary works, including their overall structures, themes, and background history.  Without the academic background needed to fully understand Biblical references in other literary works, written and oral contributions from the majority of students in literature and social studies classes continue to be empty and pointless. Fear of intimidation from “watchdog” groups continues to stifle the full learning process in public education, and ignorance of the law empowers such groups to prevent our teachers and students from experiencing the invaluable contributions that the Hebrew Bible can make in educating our youth.

Psalm 11:3 asks the question: “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Undoubtedly, many other English teachers, can relate to my deep concerns over the lack of Biblical literacy skills among high school students. I am sure that many are also troubled about the obvious societal ignorance of the knowledge and wisdom found in the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps some educators can even agree that classroom teachers have a responsibility to our students and to society to teach lessons on morals and values that will help strengthen character development.  My premise is that simply agreeing with the truth is not enough. All educators must become agents of action. We must be willing to work today to produce the desired fruits that we hope will be manifested tomorrow. Why not begin repairing the breeches in our educational foundations now? Mahatma Gandhi wisely said, “The future depends on what you do today.”  My professional convictions prompt me to devote my present and future years to the goal of providing academic initiatives and resources for the acquisition of Biblical literacy and values education. My aim is to help close this foundational breach in public education. The ultimate objective is to strengthen students' understanding and help build sound character traits through a values education that will benefit our entire society.   I plan to provide academic resources for teachers and students (grades seven through twelve) in the forms of books, newsletters, lesson plans, after-school Bible literacy activities (e.g., Scholastic/Bible Bowl teams and tournament study guides), “life skills” lessons and writing prompts from the Book of Proverbs for character and values education. I will also facilitate professional development academic workshops/seminars for English and social studies teachers. These academic and values education lessons and activities can be used in other settings, such as after-school  religious and Scholastic Bowl clubs, off-campus Bible study groups, Bible Bowl competitions. and For more information, please visit my website: Academic Initiatives for Biblical Literacy (AIBL) at: www.AIBL.info or e-mail: wilmaforeman@yahoo.com.

 

Philosophy 

My philosophy of education is based on an essential or fundamental orientation, rather than on Progressivism. Since an educational leader is a pillar in any society, I do believe that I have an ethical responsibility to fulfill my duties to God and to His children for the general welfare of all in society. Thus,

 

  • I believe that a sound education (knowledge) is the key to building and sustaining a healthy society and that educators are vital agents that help shape future generations.
  • I believe that the classroom is a place for training students’ minds, not just to find employment to meet a particular standard of living, but to teach children how to become both principled and productive contributors to society.
  • I believe that what is planted in the minds and spirits of the children today will be the fruits that will manifest themselves tomorrow-whether these fruits will be bitter or sweet. 
  • I believe that while students must take personal responsibility for their learning, educators are significantly responsible for what is formed (created) in the minds of our youth.
  • I believe that an effective teacher does not merely share a systematic set of lessons that are cataloged by facts, events, or rules; instead, the best educators seek to attain, understand, and diligently plant into the minds of students the timeless universal principles and wisdom that govern human existence and experiences.
  • I believe in a well-structured curriculum with a meaningful content that will guide students to rational and purposeful thought.
  • In the attempt to evaluate ideas and assumptions, I believe that it is important to seek time-proven truths.
  • I believe that a quality education for all students is foundational to personal and organizational success on all levels.
  • I believe that the timeless truths and principles set forth in the Hebrew Bible are worthy of consideration in public, as well as in private, academic curricula.