Waltzing with elephants

Elephants_crossing As my colleague Mollie recently commented, journalists often write stories that analyze happenings in a particular context: winning and losing. Who is climbing up the greasy pole and who is sliding down? Because some find this aspect of a writer's art fascinating (the closer they live to D.C. or state capitols or New York City, the stronger the temptation to obsess) they sometimes ignore theologicals or doctrinal perspectives in favor of the current catfight.

But what happens when the opposite is true and journalists don't analyze the political setting of a religion story? What happens when they ignore the elephant in the room (or the sanctuary)? There's a big hole in a story that's been covered on Texas television websites and in large city papers -- the new state law that says the Bible must be part of the public curriculum. And while reading an otherwise very thorough article by Jessica Meyers on the Dallasnews.com website, I'm wondering -- what is really going on here?

Meyers starts in a class led by Plano teacher Vanda Terrell, who has been directed by the state to teach about the Bible, but given no guidance on how to do so.

But the law provides no specific guidelines, funding for materials or teacher training. So high schools are left scrambling to figure out what to teach and how to teach it. A handful of North Texas districts are offering an elective class, but most are choosing instead to embed Old and New Testament teachings into current classes.

Veteran teacher Vanda Terrell leads a Bible in Literature class at Plano West High School. She has no curriculum guidelines but is 'driven by the connections in literature.' Such broad parameters leave one of the most controversial topics in public schools virtually unregulated, say religious scholars and confused educators. They warn that the nebulous law may have thwarted its purpose -- to examine the Bible's influence in history and literature.

Meyers goes on to detail how the Plano district responded to the 2007 directive. She quotes teachers, curriculum experts, and students. She even quotes Warren Chisum, the legislator who originally sponsored the directive, on some of funding issues. Overall, this is a very good examination of the ways in which an apparently "unfunded mandate" is sowing confusion among educators. But what doesn't get enough attention here is how controversial the measure was -- or what motives prompted the instruction to the schools.

As we've discussed here before, schools often avoid teaching about religion for a multitude of reasons. While Meyers does quote one apparent expert in the field, he doesn't explain why teaching the Bible in public schools is such a "minefield." Nor does anyone comment on what maverick liberal legal scholar Jonathan Turley terms "an act of sectarian favoritism." He claims that the original law raises constitutional questions. Whether you agree or not, its a safe bet that reporters could find Texans who feel that way.

Meyers does note that other states have grappled with teaching biblical literacy -- that would be Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia. Can you imagine such a measure being passed in New Hampshire or Massachusetts?

Probably not. Here's a comment from one Massachusetts mom, a writer for the Boston Globe.

Meyers makes a very interesting point about which districts have chosen to teach particular courses, and which haven't. "Many North Texas schools seem to be sidestepping the issue by saying they already teach the Bible when analyzing allusions in Shakespeare or discussing ancient Mesopotamia." Could there be some regional religious differences playing themselves out here?

Once again we're back in the complex realm in which religion, politics and education meet. Texans may recall the debates before the law was passed back in 2007. Many readers (though not all) may assume a context in which teaching from the Judeo-Christian heritage is normative. Many parents may not give a hoot -- but it sure would have been nice to hear from a few.

The fundamental questions around original intent, the assumptions behind the law as it was actually passed, and how this plays out in the bigger, roiling field of separation of church and state (in which little seems ever settled), ideas which seem integral to any article on the topic, are only addressed in passing.

Again, journalists don't have time to cover all the angles in one story. Yet when context drives what is a story with both political and religious implications, it seems as though reporters are dancing gingerly around the elephants in the classroom.

Elephant crossing photo is from Wikimedia Commons

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