Thursday, March 23, 2006

Biblical Showdown

The Georgia Legislature is on the verge of legally sanctioning the teaching of the Old and New Testament in Georgia's "government" schools. We all know where this is going. If the law could pass the academic-seriousness test, I think it could have a legitimate shot at actually passing constitutional-muster; but, alas, this is the "Bible-belt" and a presumption of indoctrination will attach itself like a tick to the motives of the legislature - perhaps rightfully so... Anywho..., I agree with Prof. Volokh's view of what it will take to be constitutionally-permissible:

The trouble is that for the classes to be thoughtful, intellectually rigorous, and educationally valuable, they'd have to deal with lots of things that many students (and others) might find quite troubling. If you teach the Merchant of Venice as literature, you probably ought to discuss criticisms of the moral view that the Merchant of Venice seems to express. If you teach classic-era histories (e.g., Livy) in a class on Roman history, you certainly ought to discuss whether the historians are reliable, and whether they might be repeating myth as truth. If you teach historical legal systems in a class on ancient law and culture, you need to discuss ways in which those legal systems may have been unjust by today's standards, or inconsistent even by their own standards.

Are Georgia voters and legislators prepared to have Georgia high school teachers raise these hard questions about the Bible? If so, great. But if the hope is that the teachers will teach the Bible without the same willingness to critique the work -- and to encourage students to think critically about the work -- that we'd expect in serious classes on other works, then that would be a pretty bad step for the Georgia school system to take: It would suggest that the school system is just trying to reinforce students' existing beliefs, rather than teaching them to analyze historical sources carefully and thoughtfully.

I like the idea of a "biblical history" class and I certainly like the idea of critical analysis. Indeed, why should the bible receive a pass while Homer, Ovid and Livy are picked to the bone? If the book is historically valuable and presents facts, then why not look at it with a critical eye? What's the danger? I just can't believe that this will get very far. If the teachers apply a "Sunday-school" approach to their classes, the usual suspects will (correctly) seek and receive an injunction. Or, should any teacher promote skeptical analysis, the crazies will have melt-down. In any event, it all might prove to be entertaining.