Educating for Autonomy and Respect or Educating for Christianity? the Case of the Georgia Bible Bills

Article excerpt

Conscientious citizens should be wary of another approach to reintroducing the Bible in public schools. This approach seeks to implement Bible courses in the context of world religions; subjecting the Bible to inter-faith criticism, judging it by group consensus, and molding it to fit politically correct standards. Such courses tend to promote faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. While these courses are also legal, they teach comparable religions rather than a true Bible curriculum. (National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, 2006)

Many philosophers of education (Feinberg, 2006; Kunzman, 2006; Noddings, 1993; Nord, 1995) (1) have made strong arguments for including more religion in the public sphere. Others, like sociologist Robert Wuthnow (2005) of the Princeton University Center for the Study of Religion, have made more subtle arguments that public schools must be more hospitable to religious studies because our society is grossly ignorant of the religious other. Religious illiteracy is, in short, being recognized more and more as a public problem that public schools ought to address. Ignorance of the religious other can lead not only to everyday misunderstandings, but to more harmful acts such as in the days after September 11, 2001, a Sikh in Texas was murdered, assumed to be a Middle Eastern terrorist because of how he looked and dressed. However, even if we agree that ignorance of the religious other is harmful to a liberal, pluralistic state, it is not at all clear what it means to address this ignorance in public schools. In fact, once we begin to get more specific about teaching religion (about religion, religious studies), things get much more complicated. After all, to teach religion in the public schools is not necessarily to teach "a true Bible curriculum."

From a liberal educational standpoint, educational thinkers have argued that schools ought to provide students with opportunities to wrestle with existential concerns (Noddings, 1993), "grapple" with relevant moral issues (Kunzman, 2006), teach about religion from a multicultural frame of reference (Fraser, 1999), educate citizens for a global community (Nash, 2005), expose students to different religious experiences and religious ways of thinking (Nord, 1995, 1999), and deal with the issue of religious truth (Rosenblith, 2006, 2005, 2004). Among these different points of emphasis, there is some agreement that in order to foster autonomy in our students, a cornerstone of liberal educational theory, students must be given opportunities to wrestle with competing ideas and views on given issues. Religion, whichever way it is pursued thus seems ripe to help public schools meet broader liberal educational goals.

However, while public schools across the country are slowly becoming more open to the idea of more religion, the sort of religion and the type of religious education being served up should give those invested in preserving liberal educational ideals pause for concern. Furthermore, for those who value religious pluralism, such programs are also cause for alarm. That is, from a policy perspective many of the programs passing as "religious studies" are neither constitutionally sound nor educationally advisable. This paper examines in detail one policy: the Georgia bible bills.

The first part of this paper provides a somewhat detailed account of the Georgia legislation. The story of how the final bill came to be reveals more about political maneuvering than it does about sound educational policy decision-making. This is important to describe in some detail because as I will demonstrate, the combination of a strong evangelical Christian influence as well as political pandering, meant that discussion of important liberal and pluralistic ideals such as autonomy, critical thinking, understanding, and respect were neglected. The second part of this paper provides a brief constitutional critique of the legislation as well as a more developed educational analysis. …