Former Oregon Teacher of the Year Barbara Lynn Murray, an English teacher at West Linn High School, likes to tell the story of how her literature students were discussing in class one day a modern work in which a character "washed his hands" of a situation.
"OK, what does that mean?" she asked the class. "What does it mean when you wash your hands of something?"
Student responses ran the gamut, she said. "I got everything from 'Ivory! It's 99.6 percent pure!' to 'They just want him to be really clean, right?'"
"OK, but there's an allusion here," Murray told the class. "Do any of you know what that is?"
There were a few kids who did. "Isn't that like . . .," one said hesitantly, ". . . Pontius Pilate?"
"Absolutely!" Murray said. "Who is he?"
Murray said the class went on to discuss the biblical text in which Pilate, though he knew Jesus to be an innocent man, ceded to the Jews' calls to "Crucify him!" He then literally washed his hands before the crowd, symbolically cleansing himself of responsibility for Christ's death even though he could have stopped it.
Murray brought the force of the allusion home to her students. "We talked about how when people wash their hands of something, they're talking about not taking responsibility for something that they could have," she said. The class also discussed the seriousness of the allusion: "You don't use that as an author unless you want someone to see that this is a serious flaw in characters, that they're not going to stand up for what's right."
The works of Shakespeare contain more than 1,600 Bible references. On one high-school advanced-placement literature exam, two-thirds of the allusions students need to know are biblical phrases. But Barbara Murray's class is far from the only one in which only a handful of students would recognize a biblical metaphor. While 81 percent of English teachers in one local survey said that teaching about the Bible is important in literature classes, just one in 10 said they actually do so, according to the Bible Literacy Project (BLP), a nonpartisan, nonprofit group founded to encourage the teaching of the Bible as an academic subject in public schools.
Meanwhile, scholarly reviews of textbooks in public schools confirmed that virtually all religious references, including the Bible's role in history, art, and literature, have been excised from the curriculum. Two groups, BLP and the National Council on Bible Curriculum in the Public Schools (NCBCPS), are trying to change that. Citing university English professors, those groups argue that Western literature is "steeped" in biblical references, and that lack of basic Bible literacy creates the need for arduous "decoding" of Scripture references.
The BLP last fall released The Bible and Its Influence, a high-school textbook designed to bridge the gap between ignorance of the Bible and unconstitutionally sectarian approaches to teaching it. As of Oct. 23, school districts in 28 states, Canada, and Taiwan had adopted the group's new textbook for classroom use. BLP communications director Sheila Weber said she expects that number to grow since many districts indicated plans to adopt the book for use in 2007, pending release of a teacher's edition this past August.
Prominent evangelicals such as Chuck Colson have praised the BLP text, but others have criticized it for its detached stance on the ultimate meaning of Scripture ("Meekness of Moses," Sept. 16) and on crucial theological questions such as the reason for evil. BLP has responded with changes in the forthcoming second edition, removing some passages and enhancing others.
NCBCPS also revised its two-semester course, "The Bible in History and Literature," in August 2005, partly in response to a Texas civil-liberties group's complaint that the curriculum pushed a strictly evangelical view of Christianity. Today, the revised course is in use in 37 states and more than 350 districts nationwide, said NCBCPS board member Steve Crampton, who is also chief counsel for the American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy. An additional 49 districts adopted the curriculum this year, Crampton said-but he would not name the districts, citing school officials' wish not to become unnecessarily entangled in controversy.
Both the BLP and NCBCPS courses attempt to address concerns voiced by high-school and college instructors who say that "regardless of a person's faith, an educated person needs to know about the Bible." Reading English-language literature without basic Bible knowledge, said Brown University professor George P. Landow, is "like using a dictionary with one-third of the words removed."
For just over $400, you can help a class of elementary students in North Carolina improve their spelling. Or help a teacher of low-income, hyperactive students in Chicago calm her class with classical music CDs and big floor pillows for reading breaks.
That's the kind of charitable giving that former New York City teacher Charles Best wants to encourage. He established donorschoose.org, a website that allows public-school advocates to bypass traditional bureaucracies through very specific projects initiated by teachers. Projects tend to be small enough-around $500-for average donors to manage, yet large enough for them to believe they can make a difference. Public-school students, often from single-parent families, will likely be reading more books, listening to good music, taking some field trips, and working on hands-on media projects where donorschoose.org is at work.
Best started the website as a teacher in a low-income Bronx school in 2000. He tired of paying for special projects from his own pocket and wondered if donors might respond to specific appeals, in contrast to the more common political plea for multimillion-dollar remedies for public education. The website has raised $8 million for projects, generally in low-income school districts, and has expanded beyond New York to other states.
A teacher at Dodge Renaissance Academy in Chicago is asking for the classical CDs and pillows for kids who are "fidgeting at their seats, playing with things in their desks, shooting rubber bands, not being able to stay in their seats." In Wake County, N.C., an English teacher is asking for $2,014 to cover the cost of 30 copies of The Bible and Its Influence from the Bible Literacy Project. Basic knowledge of the Bible, he says, is essential to understanding classical literature: "The children are arriving knowing less and less about this once-shared cultural knowledge."
Best was born in Manhattan and attended Yale before he began teaching. Donorschoose runs with a small staff of 15, underwritten by corporate sponsors, who screen proposals and get supplies to a teacher once a project is funded. Best notes that the website appeals to both red- and blue-state residents, whether conservative or liberal. "We have plenty of NPR radio listeners who go to our website to help poor kids, to help level the playing field," he says. "They may feel that the government ought to be doing more for urban poor public schools."
But in red states such as Indiana, Texas, and North and South Carolina, Best finds that conservative donors are just as interested: "For a conservative or libertarian this is a way to circumvent the school bureaucracy and choose where the money is going. That's fundamentally a red-state approach."
Donorschoose may be tapping into the old politically nonpartisan public-school ethic-a time when public schools could be run by an informal partnership of parents, civic leaders, and professional educators. It was never a perfect marriage between these groups, and the ethic was shattered in the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. But by taking advantage of the latest technology and communication, Donorschoose points to a way to recover some of that lost sense of civic responsibility for public schools.