Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Everybody Ought to Know

When I was a senior at Georgetown University, I took a course called "20th Century British Literature," not only because I was interested in the topic but also (perhaps especially) because I could use the course to fulfill two different requirements for my degree (B.S. in Foreign Service with a concentration in the Humanities in International Affairs). At the time, I was teetering on the precipice of being short about three credits in my quest to graduate on time after four years in college.

April 1981 came and lilacs bloomed. Ronald Reagan was president and it was morning in America. It was the spring semester of my senior year. Perforce suffering from a severe case of senioritis, I skipped far more classes than I attended. (I was also working some 30 hours a week at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where I had started as a work-study employee in 1979, a serendipitous arrangement that set me on what became a career in public policy as opposed to the other alternatives I had in mind as a teenager -- acting in professional theatre or teaching in high school. I ultimately decided on a career that allowed me to eat.)

As part of my coursework in "20th Century British Literature," I wrote a 12- or 15-page paper on the topic of biblical allusions in the set of poems, plays, and prose that fell within the purview of the class title. I have long since lost my copy of the paper, but I remember references to Yeats, Eliot, and the late Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning.

One day -- perhaps the weather was unusually dreary that day -- I was sitting in class when someone brought up a biblical citation during a discussion. The professor said in reply, "Well, if Richard Sincere ever came to class, he might have something insightful to say about that!" Roused from my reverie, I chirped: "But I am here!" The professor, stunned at my presence, invited me to contribute to the discussion, which I did. Unfortunately, I have forgotten the substance of the colloquy, while the momentary embarrassment is as vivid in my memory as any classroom experience before or since.

All this came to mind when I saw an article in Monday's Washington Times by my mentor of those years, the Ethics and Public Policy Center's founding president, Ernest W. Lefever. During the time I worked for and with him (roughly 1979-89), I learned more about clear and comprehensible writing from Dr. Lefever than I ever learned in any English class. (He would be the first to demur and suggest that I came well-equipped for his tutelage, but I appreciate his contributions to the improvements in my skills all the more because of that.)

In his article, Dr. Lefever offers his own reminiscences about attending government schools in the 1930s, when the school day began with Bible readings and the Pledge of Allegiance (written by a socialist Baptist minister, Francis Bellamy). He uses this by way of introducing the idea that, if we are to produce culturally literate graduates of government schools, we must permit -- perhaps even require -- the teaching of the Bible as literature.

First, he notes the woeful, but not unexpected, ignorance of America's government-schooled youth:

A recent survey conducted by the Bible Literacy Project funded by John Templeton found that 90 percent of the top American English teachers consulted agreed that the Bible has had a profound and positive influence on the "laws, morals, politics and other literature" of Western civilization, and that knowledge of the Bible is crucial to a well-rounded high school education. They emphasized that there are no legal barriers to teaching the Bible as literature and that the Supreme Court has not banned the Bible from public schools.

To no one's surprise, recent surveys have documented widespread historical illiteracy in our public schools. One poll found that more teenagers can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. And the top 10 hip-hop tunes are better known than the Ten Commandments. A Gallup poll found that fewer than one-third of the teens could identify any quotation from the Sermon on the Mount and that 1 in 10 thought Moses was a disciple of Jesus.
(I wonder about whether that last one should be as suspect as it seems. Since Moses is a disciple of God, and Jesus is God, doesn't that make Moses a disciple of Jesus? But I digress.)

In his Washington Times piece, Lefever suggests a palliative -- bringing the Bible back into the curriculum of government schools, not so much as a text for religious lessons, but as the basis for the fuller understanding of history and literature:
Respondents to the Temple survey believe that teaching the Bible as literature in the public schools would help close this crucial knowledge gap and foster an appreciation for our rich Western culture. A knowledge of history, geography, politics, art and science -- and religion -- is essential to a well-rounded education. But they believe that teachers should not press their personal religious convictions.

All literate Americans know that the Bible is a treasury of literature, history and poetry, but that it is preeminently a book of religion -- portraying the pilgrimage of the Jewish people and the emergence of Christianity. So understood, the Bible serves as an introduction to the moral heritage of the West.
And then he brings in a parallel, noting that knowledge of the Bard of Avon is equally important to knowledge of the Bible:
William Shakespeare has likewise had a profound influence on American thought. The Bible and Shakespeare are by far the most quoted sources in the Western world. In Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, the King James Bible rates 53 two-column pages while the Bard gets 85 pages. In contrast, Charles Dickens gets four pages and Herman Melville three.

Both the Bible and Shakespeare deserve an honored place in America's public schools.
The connection is apt, as recent scholarship suggests that Shakespeare was secretly a Catholic whose plays and poetry encased coded messages to the faithful suffering under an oppressive Protestant regime, first under Elizabeth I and then under James I. In a review of one recent book on this topic in Sunday's Washington Post, Cynthia L. Haven writes:
In Shadowplay , Clare Asquith argues that the bard was using the theater of his day just as Hamlet did -- to send dangerous, skillfully encoded messages to his audience and his monarch. Hence, she writes, "it took not only intellectual brilliance but exceptional courage and constancy" to create and perform the greatest plays ever written.

Asquith is surfing an intriguing new wave of research: Shakespeare, it goes, was a closet Catholic at a time when the Church was banned. And far from presiding over the Golden Age, Queen Elizabeth I was running a police state, marked by raids, seizures, imprisonment and grisly executions, where informants snitched on private citizens. The court of her successor, James I, was worse.

Shakespeare's plays, Asquith suggests, encouraged patience and perseverance among the beleaguered Catholics and urged England's rulers to curtail the frequent crackdowns and persecutions.

While the content of Shakespeare and the Bible is important to a full understanding of history, literature, and culture, immersion in the poetry of both is a key to clear written -- and even spoken -- expression in our English language. As Professor Henry Higgins puts it in My Fair Lady, proper English is "the language of Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible." And, for that matter, of George Bernard Shaw and Ernest W. Lefever.


Tim said...

Yes, the King James Bible is a literary masterpiece. But students would learn much more about the craft of modern prose by studying Addison and Steele.

Rick Sincere said...

Forgive me for my cultural illiteracy, but who are Addison and Steele? A law firm? A team of detectives from a mid-70s buddy flick? A vaudeville act?

Duane Gran said...


Thank you for sharing this insightful commentary, of which I agree with entirely. Unfortunately I doubt if we can have a reasonable teaching curriculum in the schools with the Bible. Arguments about translations and intent would erupt immediately, thereby poisoning the well of good intentions. It is truly sad because people should be literate about basic Biblical teachings and historical events, but as long as the culture war rages we are left with a school policy of abstinence toward religion. This is a real loss for everyone.