May 14, 2005

Ahistorical America: Are We Doomed to Repeat the Past?

It is common knowledge that many of our children are ignorant about their American history.

We then have the secular left fundamentalists actively trying to rewrite history, especially our understanding of the American Founding.

As a result, this article by David Gelernter, a senior fellow in Jewish Thought at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, should come as no surprise to anyone:

A report just issued by the Bible Literacy Project suggests that young Americans know very little about the Bible. The report is important, but first things first: A fair number of Americans don't see why teenagers should know anything at all about the Bible.

Scripture begins with God creating the world, but there is something these verses don't tell you: The Bible has itself created worlds. Wherever you stand on the spectrum from devout to atheist, you must acknowledge that the Bible has been a creative force without parallel in history.

Here are a few choice excerpts:

…Here is a basic question about America that ought to be on page 1 of every history book: What made the nation's Founders so sure they were onto something big? America today is the most powerful nation on earth, most powerful in all history--and a model the whole world imitates. What made them so sure?--the settlers and colonists, the Founding Fathers and all the generations that intervened before America emerged as a world power in the 20th century? What made them so certain that America would become a light of the world, the shining city on a hill? What made John Adams say, in 1765, "I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence"? What made Abraham Lincoln call America (in 1862, in the middle of a ruinous civil war) "the last, best hope of earth"?

We know of people who are certain of their destinies from childhood on. But nations?

Many things made all these Americans and proto-Americans sure; and to some extent they were merely guessing and hoping. But one thing above all made them true prophets. They read the Bible. Winthrop, Adams, Lincoln, and thousands of others found a good destiny in the Bible and made it their own. They read about Israel's covenant with God and took it to heart: They were Israel. ("Wee are entered into Covenant with him for this worke," said Winthrop. "Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us.") They read about God's chosen people and took it to heart: They were God's chosen people, or--as Lincoln put it--God's "almost chosen people." The Bible as they interpreted it told them what they could be and would be. Unless we read the Bible, American history is a closed book.

Evidently young Americans don't know much about the Bible (or anything else, come to think of it; that's another story). But let's not kid ourselves--this problem will be hard to attack. It's clear that any public school that teaches about America must teach about the Bible, from outside. But teaching the Bible from inside (reading Scripture, not just about Scripture) is trickier. You don't have to believe in the mythical "wall of separation" between church and state--which the Bill of Rights never mentions and had no intention of erecting--to understand that Americans don't want their public schools teaching Christianity or Judaism.

But can you teach the Bible as mere "literature" without flattening and misrepresenting it? How will you address the differences (which go right down to the ground) between Jews and Christians respecting the Bible? (The question is not so much how to spare Jewish sensibilities--minorities have rights, but so do majorities; the question is how to tell the truth.) What kind of parents leave their children's Bible education to the public schools, anyway? How do we go beyond public schools in attacking a nationwide problem of Bible illiteracy?...

America's earliest settlers came in search of religious freedom, to escape religious persecution--vitally important facts that Americans tend increasingly to forget. A new arrival who joined the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1623 "blessed God for the opportunity of freedom and liberty to enjoy the ordinances of God in purity among His people." America was a haven for devoutly religious dissidents. It is a perfect reflection of the nation's origins that the very first freedom in the Bill of Rights--Article one, part one--should be religious freedom. "Separation of church and state" was a means to an end, not an end in itself. The idea that the Bill of Rights would one day be traduced into a broom to sweep religion out of the public square like so much dried mud off the boots of careless children would have left the Founders of this nation (my guess is) trembling in rage. We owe it to them in simple gratitude to see that the Bill of Rights is not--is never--used as a weapon against religion.

You cannot understand the literature and experience of 17th-century American Puritans unless you know the Bible…

* * *

The Bible Literacy Report: What Do American Teens Need to Know and What Do They Know? was commissioned by a nonprofit organization called the Bible Literacy Project; it was published April 26. Students in the Gallup-conducted survey were mostly in 7th through 9th grades; they were enrolled at 30 public and 4 private schools (one Catholic, one Protestant, and 2 non-sectarian). Forty-one teachers took part--"a diverse sample of high school English teachers in 10 states." All are reputedly "among the best teachers in their subject."…

The teachers are strikingly confused about the legal status of Bible-teaching in public schools. The ACLU and kindred organizations are winning the fight to suppress religion in public--to ban it from the public square as religion has traditionally been banned under regimes that tolerate it only marginally; to force it indoors and under wraps, as minority religions have traditionally been treated by powerful majorities that threaten violence. The ACLU and friends are winning by court order and--more important--by confusion and intimidation. "It was not uncommon," says the report, "for educators to hold erroneous beliefs about the legality of using the Bible and Bible literature in public-school classrooms."…

What to do? Every school that teaches American history must teach the Bible's central role. Easily said; but experience suggests that many of today's classes in English and U.S. history are stuck somewhere between useless and harmful…

But students need to read the Bible, not just about the Bible. High school Bible-as-literature electives are rare and controversial...

There are good reasons to be wary of such courses. There is nothing wrong with them on constitutional grounds, and the Bible Literacy Project has reasonable, serious curricula of its own on offer. But these courses have to keep well clear of teaching the Bible as a sacred text, or promoting religious views of any kind. And it happens that nearly all of the smartest, deepest readers of the Bible through the ages have approached it from a religious direction. No doubt their views can be worked in somehow, but in how natural a way? And won't they be a lot easier just to skip?...

So let's have Bible-as-literature electives in every public high school, by all means. But let's also face facts: These are hard courses to teach at best. Do we have teachers who are up to the job? (With laudable foresight, the Bible Literacy Project is already developing workshops for teachers.) And let's also keep in mind that, for most children, such courses can only be half-way houses. Children studying the Bible should learn their own religious traditions as precious truth, not as one alternative on a multicultural list.

Teaching precious religious truth is not what America's public schools are for. Ultimately there is only one solution to our Bible literacy crisis. Our churches, our synagogues, and all other institutions that revere the Bible must do better. How well are they doing? To judge by the new report, lousy…

What has the Bible been to this country? In 1630, John Winthrop repeated Moses' instructions: "Lett us choose life." How to do it? By reading and obeying the Bible, above all "the Counsell of Micah"--"to doe Justly, to love mercy, to walke humbly with our God." Americans (by and large) have done their best to follow Winthrop's instructions. If they haven't always succeeded--if America has managed at times to be a profoundly sinful nation (which is no less than the Bible expects of all nations)--they have also tried hard to be good. They have tried hard to choose life. And the Bible has been as good as its own word (Proverbs 3:18)--"It is a Tree of Life to them that lay hold of it."

This study confirms yet again how we are an increasingly ahistorical and ill-informed society that is becoming disconnected from the roots of our Founding and Western Civilization.

A quote from George Santayana puts this issue into perspective:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.
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Thank you for posting about Dr. Gelernter's cover story in The Weekly Standard. To read the Bible Literacy Project's full report on teen Bible literacy at no charge, visit

Posted by: Sarah Jenislawski at May 19, 2005 10:34 AM