Does God Belong in Public Schools?

By Kent Greenawalt | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
History, Economics, and Literature

IN THIS CHAPTER, we will look at three subjects, two of which, along with mathematics and natural science, are part of the core of public school curricula. Literature is a central component of most English courses, and it is the primary focus of upper-level courses. Students learn history in most school years. Economics is less central, but is an important subtopic within the broader category of “social studies.” In the next chapter we will take up education about government and good citizenship, as well as teaching about morality more generally.

We have seen that the natural sciences adopt a strategy of methodological naturalism, and that whatever difficulties philosophers may have in defining science, scientists themselves agree fairly widely about what counts as scientific evidence and what constitute persuasive scientific theories. This scientific perspective may be juxtaposed against other perspectives, including religious ones.

The standards for other areas of knowledge are less clear, and this complicates issues for public school teaching. History, for example, can be viewed from a religious, an atheistic, or an agnostic point of view. The particular religious approach to history with which Americans are most familiar is the Bible's; historical events carry forward God's plan and record the interrelationship of God with God's people. Marxism is one atheistic approach to history, explaining all religious phenomena in materialistic terms. Standard modern history as done in Western countries, whether mainly political or social, is neither religious nor atheistic.1 It is agnostic, not in the sense of positively endorsing agnosticism as the correct stance on religious issues, but in declining to adopt a position on the validity of religious understandings and claims, rather treating those as outside the purview of their historical efforts, which focus on circumstances and causes and effects, without reference to claims about the supernatural. For instance, a historian recounts the Puritans' religious sense of their colony's historical significance, but without

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