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Teaching the Bible as Literature in Public High School -- Part 15

02/05/2015 02:27 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

Concluding Reflections

The Bible as Literature was part of a senior humanities English course that began with the Greeks and critical thinking, continued with the Bible, and concluded with a survey of British literature and an in-depth study of Hamlet. By familiarizing themselves first with the Greek and biblical views of the world, students achieved a broader perspective on many of life's perennial questions than would have been possible in a traditional college-prep English program.

In this age of specialization, high schools rarely teach the big picture, a sense of the past, an appreciation of classical Greece and the Judeo-Christian heritage, and their relevance to a fuller understanding of the modern world. The beliefs, values, and ideals of antiquity have nourished Western consciousness for over two thousand years, and no educated person can afford to be uninformed about these rich traditions and the added perspective they bring to our times. Without knowledge of the past, students would be condemned to a narrow provincialism that knows only the present.

It is because of the centrality of classical Greece and the Bible in fashioning the Western mind that the first four months of the course were devoted to exploring these two worldviews that gave students a sense of the historical context from which Western culture arose and of the past's enduring influence into the present. Students then explored literary Modernism, the Victorians, Romanticism, the Enlightenment, the Restoration, Shakespeare, the Renaissance, the Medieval and Anglo-Saxon Ages.

To deepen their understanding of modernism--the prevailing zeitgeist and third worldview explored in the course, AP students also read Euripides' Medea, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, G. B. Shaw's Saint Joan, and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, as well as Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and Moliere's Misanthrope.

The Bible as Literature introduced students not only to the Bible, but also to some of the controversies that have played about this towering monument for the past two centuries. It also exposed students to the world of scholarship that transformed their understanding of learning from a dilettantish affair to an organized and disciplined exploration of questions that only deepened their fascination about this mysterious text. The availability of JSTOR's immense body of scholarship provided students with the stimulus for pursuing their interests, while learning to prepare a research paper with lawyerlike arguments, counterarguments, rebuttals, and supporting citations.

Critical-thinking skills are relatively easy to learn, and with continual practice they become a permanent acquisition; the challenge is having the courage to apply them to questions with real-life implications. Knowing numerous theories with pro and con arguments, detecting fallacies, and refuting arguments can be empowering for college-bound seniors. Moreover, encountering theories that test one's convictions can be an exhilarating introduction to the life of the mind.

Grappling with a wide range of questions made students realize that the abdication of thinking begins with an allegiance to one school of thought, as though the ocean of truth could be contained in a thimble. The motto of the course was to "think for oneself" by avoiding any tradition that would relieve one of the responsibility of finding one's own answers. Better to learn all the traditions, have them talk to each other, and listen with an open mind.

The course explored the strengths and weaknesses of alternate answers to many questions, but took no position on any of them. The class was not about finding answers, but understanding questions. Which answer was correct was the concern of the students. The course tried to open minds, not close them with answers. By discovering that every question had plausible answers, students gradually understood why people of integrity could disagree with each other.

They also came to realize that the answers one group grows up with seem true because they're the only answers that group knows and has been socialized into believing, but that other answers also exist and are believed in just as sincerely by other groups. Once students understood the role of chance in human existence, how the culture into which one is born virtually predetermines one's beliefs, and how schools reinforce that outlook, they adopted a new caution about what they were taught, taking personal responsibility for what they accepted.

They became more motivated to read and inquire, more skeptical about statements that claimed to be true. They recognized the importance of freedom of thought and why it is often suppressed or discouraged by ruling elites. The institutions of society--government, media, and schools--were seen as witting or unwitting agents in fostering attitudes that encourage conformity and discourage dissent.

By the end of the year, students realized that one's knowledge about virtually everything consists of theories, and that one believes these theories because one has years of living invested in them, or because of social conditioning, group acceptance, vested interests, authority figures, fear, or the fact that they provide hope or courage in the struggle of life.

High-school seniors ask themselves many of the questions raised in the course, but rarely have a forum to explore them without fear of censure by teachers. They would find it simulating to be encouraged to say whatever they want, develop confidence in expressing and supporting their views, and receive training that prepares them to hit the ground running from their first day in college with their ability to critically evaluate whatever they're taught.

Unless, that is, they wish to be brainwashed by liberal and conservative professors, who "profess" the truth as they see it. With few exceptions, professors don't air both sides of a question, since they expect students to evaluate what they hear. Some may take questions, and a few may even welcome objections, because they want students who question.

With today's college sticker-shock prices, however, students who don't insist that professors give both sides of a question, or don't ask them for reasons that support their views, or don't ask hard questions aren't getting their money's worth. Professors are only too happy to discuss their positions, especially to interested students who refuse to be convinced without evidence, and are paying top dollar for the right to be satisfied.

To prepare its college-prep students for college, every high school in the nation owes them a thorough training in critical thinking across the curriculum from freshman year. Critical thinking is life's ultimate survival skill, and if students don't learn it in high school, they'll be too set in their ways to learn it in college.

The purpose of a college-prep program, especially in English, history, and other social-science courses, is not to teach students what answers are right, but to train them in how to deal critically with answers and theories that claim to be right. Students don't come to class to be brainwashed, or teachers to make converts, but to talk students through the course material in such a way that they can decide for themselves which view is right.

Critically presenting as many viewpoints as possible is the essence of teaching. Anything else is indoctrination, especially teaching only one viewpoint, implying that others don't exist, are unimportant, or wrong. Schools don't exist to train the memory, but to equip students for life with the training to deal critically with an infinity of claims, some of which are true, and others which are not. Address this issue of critical thinking, and American secondary education could be improved overnight.*

In that sprawling, variegated bazaar of life, there is bewildering throng of contradictory theories, creeds, and philosophies that huckster their claims in the hope of acceptance as they beguilingly intone their unrivaled virtues. Happy are those who have at their side those two wise counselors, Caveat Emptor and Buyer's Remorse.

If certitude is the sign of truth, then everyone who is certain about anything is right, as are those who hold contradictory answers to the same question. Only gradually does one come to discard such conclusions and discovers that certitudes are not proofs at all, and that it's not inherited answers that educate, but questions and the personal struggle to find the answers to those questions oneself.

In his essay on "Truth," Francis Bacon begins, "What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer." This battle-hardened legionary, who had risen through the ranks to become Roman governor of Judea, cynically asks this mysterious young carpenter from Galilee a question that goes to the marrow of life, but as a man of affairs, he is off to "more important matters." But for an 18-year-old, it is a question to keep asking oneself, or for anyone who would remain eternally young.

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*It should be noted that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan would fight this initiative tooth and nail since he is already dismantling the traditional curriculum that, for generations, has served our nation well. It makes no difference to him that government intrusion in the classroom is not only unconstitutional but also, in this instance, ideologically-driven to advance an agenda of privatization. Against the wishes of parents across the country, he continues to mandate standardized testing and common core standards, the first steps toward destroying public schools and replacing them with charters, which are already diverting billions of tax dollars annually to private investors.