Monday, August 17, 2009

The handwriting on the wall?

Well, no, not really.

What the linked document will tell you (it's a PDF summary of the law in Texas, and opinions by the Attorney General of Texas regarding that law), is that schools now have to offer a course on the Bible as part of a curriculum, with a focus on the cultural influence/impact of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Which would be extremely interesting if taught from a Jewish perspective, especially; or a Muslim one. Although, as the law recognizes, it would also be controversial. I can't think of a school district in Texas where I wouldn't arouse controversy simply for teaching the Bible as Literature (which I've done, in college courses), instead of as sacred text. The latter, of course, is verboten, and the law and the Texas AG recognize that, so it can't be done. But this is not the indoctrination plan Keith takes it for. Maybe it was meant to be; but I don't think it will work out that way.

I can tell you, as a teacher of high school as well as college level students, that I've encountered students every year with no background in Judaeo-Christian stories; the kind of thing I grew up taking for granted as part of the culture as much as Mother Goose and Looney Tunes. I've taught students who'd never heard of Noah, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, David, Goliath, Jonah, the whale, the Good Samaritan, much less Paul on the road to Damascus or even Balaam's ass. Try teaching English literature before 1960 to students who have no common touchpoint with those stories. It's rather surprising how many references there are to stories once common currency but now as dead as the Dodo because the common lore is now what was on TV when they were children. Students who don't know the Creation stories from Genesis, for whom Sodom and Gomorrah mean nothing (not even opprobrium), for whom "Lot's wife" is an empty phrase. These ideas are shot through English literature down to the near-present, but if you don't know them, you don't hear them. So teaching the Bible as literature is simply teaching it alongside Greek stories of Olympus, or the epic of Gilgamesh. It's hard enough teaching "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" without having to stop and explain what John the Baptist's head is doing on a platter, or who Lazarus is and why he's returning from the dead. But I have to do it every time I teach that poem.

So I'm not shot through with dread at this news, even though I am staunchly in favor of the separation of church and state, even though I know the Texas State Board of Education, which has to approve any curriculum for teaching under this new law that any school may come up with, is full of religious zealots. They are constrained by the U.S Constitution, and they are constrained by Texas law. It may well be more religion slips into some classrooms than should, but if it does, it's there anyway. If any student learns anything that contributes to their knowledge of Western culture, then it won't be an entirely bad thing. Maybe it's not what Texas schools need (and lorry nose, Texas schools need a lot they aren't getting), but it's not the first shot fired in a war for theocracy, either.

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