Alexander, Hartley Burr Letters to Teachers, and Other Papers of the Hour Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company 1919

In my last letters I discussed the place of the humanities and of history in the public school curriculum. In the letter which I now write I propose to discuss a topic immediately related to these, and that is the place of the study of the Bible in the public schools.

This matter is immediately related to the study of the humanities and of history, first of all, because it is a part of such study. The Old Testament is the literature–historical, poetical, and philosophical–of an ancient nation having in antiquity more than a thousand years of recorded history, and a nation which has been second to none in its influence upon the subsequent history of the western world. That its influence, like that of the Greeks, has been exclusively in the domain of ideas and ideal influences but renders the more patent the necessity, which every person who can pretend to historical learning must recognize, of an intimate acquaintance with its literature. The two great sources of ideas at the foundation of European civilization are the Greek and the Hebrew; the thought and experience of both of these ancient peoples is still living and vital in our society, in the one case in art, philosophy, and science, in the other in religion and in the interpretation of history. Obviously, he who would understand the modern world must be familiar with its great beginnings in the literatures and records of these ancient peoples.

Of course the Old Testament cannot be separated from the New, in this consideration. Nor is there any reason why it should be so; for every reason which can be urged for an acquaintance with the Old Testament applies equally to the New; from any point of view it is a book of profound significance in the development of the thought of the western world. The very fact that we mark our era and tell our time with reference to events narrated in the New Testament indicates the tremendous significance which these events have for our imaginations and for our interpretations of human life. Indeed, as I indicated in my last letter, the first lesson which a child must learn, who would be at all instructed in history, is the meaning of the Christian Era; and again as I indicated, the readiest and best approach to a comprehension of history is through the chronological arrangement of Biblical events as formulated in theological tradition–such an arrangement as is given by Archbishop Ussher, and was indicated in the “time-form of European history” which accompanied my last letter. This, I say, is easy to impress upon a child’s mind, both because of its simplicity of form and because of its dramatic appeal; for we should not overlook the fact that the Bible, in spite of its being a collection of books composed through a series of centuries, has none the less in its organization and scope the form of a great drama of history and of the world, and is in this sense alone the most stupendous coordination of ideas yet achieved by mankind. Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained–surely the noblest poems in the English language–are an interpretation of this Biblical drama of the world, which in the course of centuries has become so deep-seated in the European mind that it colors all forms of speculation: politics, history, geology, astronomy, to say nothing of art and literature, have been and are influenced beyond count by Biblical ideas. It goes without saying, therefore, that knowledge of these ideas is a pre-requisite to an understanding of ourselves.

But it is not merely for its historical significance, fundamental as this is, that the study of the Bible is important from a public school point of view. It must also be regarded as a great and moving record of human experience, and of experiences which time has shown to possess the most profound power to mould the sentiments of mankind. In this sense the Bible is not only to be reckoned among the humanities, but it is by all odds the foremost of the humanities. No one can for a moment question it’s pre-eminence among the ideal forces which have gone to the making of the mental attitudes of men of the present day. Here again we come to the final issue of education; namely, the comprehension of human nature in its subtlest and most enduring interests, to the end that we may be able to live the lives of self-comprehending men, and therefore of self-responsible citizens. Such comprehension demands perspective, and in particular it demands the power to enter imaginatively into the great movements of the past, which have been profound determinants of later conduct. If the Bible contained no more than the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles of the New Testament, it would still be incomparably the most significant of our records out of the past; for in these tracts (which is what first they were), we have the picture of the greatest ideal movement which has ever influenced mankind–a movement which made its century the first of our era, and without rival the most striking century in the whole story of human progress. This judgment I believe must be confirmed by every student of human history, no matter what his views as to the final interpretation of the Scriptures.

Reasons such as I have given make it certain that the Bible is a proper subject for school instruction. It is of first order in intrinsic significance, and other subjects, both scientific and historical, cannot be fully understood apart from Biblical knowledge. But there are yet other considerations which emphasize this importance of the book. I refer to its contemporary meaning in intellectual and religious experience.

The first of these, the intellectual, apart from the historical and humanitarian values which I have already discussed, is a literary value. As literature the Bible is a very extraordinary book, most extraordinary, I think, from the fact that in the long run it has been more influential in translations than in the original texts. In English, for example, there is no book by a native author, not even Shakespeare which has had so profound an influence, not only upon the thought of English-speaking peoples but upon the style and quality of the language itself, as has the King James version of the Bible. The imagery and diction of this version are so characteristic that we regard its style as the finest model. we possess for simple and forceful as well as for noble discourse. Moreover, many books and passages of the Bible are themselves examples of sublimity not only in matters of style, but in that union of exalted style with exalted thought which Longinus regards as the supreme achievement of literature; nor is it without thought that Longinus–though a pagan himself–cites the beginning of Genesis as a high example of sublimity. Similarly, Watts-Dunton, the “British poet and critic, speaks of the Biblical psalm as constituting a special form of the lyric poem, which he terms “the Great Lyric” and which he places alongside of the tragic drama and epic poem as supreme among the forms of human literary expression.

The Bible is, of course, the most read book in the world. It is also the most edited and translated. In the English-speaking world familiarity with the authorized version is all that is strictly to be demanded of a man of culture and all that the schools need take greatly into account. Nevertheless, there is another version of the Bible which ought to some extent be known, especially by persons who make literature an important part of their study. This is the Latin Vulgate, the style of which not only served as the model for the English of the authorized version, but has in innumerable ways affected the development of literary expression. There is, indeed, a whole field of profoundly moving Latin literature, the Latin literature of the church of the Middle Ages, to which the Vulgate is the natural introduction; and it is my own opinion that, in the university at least, this field and type of Latin (for the style is as distinctive as is Biblical English) ought to be given a position little short of that accorded to classical Latin. Certainly, here is another reason for the stressing of the study of the classical languages; for Latin is the tongue of one of the greatest fields of European literature, the Christian literature of the church, while Greek is, of course, the original language of the New Testament and of the Septuagint version of the Old. It has been the habit of educators to regard knowledge of these as necessary only in the case of clergymen and theologians, but this is certainly an erroneous view so far, at least, as the Vulgate Bible is concerned; its phrases re-echo throughout the whole range of the European literature of our era.

But what of the Bible as a religious book? Dare the schools tamper with the great source of religious instruction more or less jealously interpreted by the many groups of Christian sectaries? The question is certainly a delicate one; it has been and is the cause of the gingerly fashion in which the public schools approach instruction in Biblical learning. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it is by no means an insoluble problem. Knowledge of the Bible is a vastly important factor in a sound liberal education; this is undeniable, and it is this fact which makes the duty of the schools to offer instruction in this as in other liberal branches obvious. Granted the duty, the tactful means should be discoverable. It is surely an anomaly that we have numbers of private schools supported along with our public schools to give this form of instruction, which the parents of the children who attend these private schools rightfully regard as important.

Possibly if we call to mind the circumstances which have induced the present attitude of the public schools with respect to this subject, we may be in a better position, to pass judgment upon sound policy. These circumstances go far back in the history of our education, finding their roots in the two great cultural movements which introduced what we call the modern period of western history. I refer to the Renaissance and the Reformation. On the side of book-learning, the Renaissance was marked first and essentially by its tremendous interest in the pagan classics of Greece and Rome. In the Middle Ages the universities had given no instruction in the pagan humanities, and had, indeed, in particular frowned upon a too close acquaintance with the writings of the pagan poets. Theology, philosophy, and poetry all had their ecclesiastical forms distinct in spirit and form from the classics. But the Renaissance humanists were immensely taken with the rediscovered monuments of pagan literature; they developed, indeed, a veritable cult of these “humanities” (as distinguished from theological studies), and out of this enthusiasm grew the modern academic “classical” education, stressing pagan and avoiding Christian culture. To a not inconsiderable degree the Renaissance reaction against the mediaeval schools is the source of our modem liberal arts college; and since the liberalism of the college is reflected in the secondary schools, the whole tendency of the Renaissance spirit has been to secularize educational ideals–leaving, of course, the matter of religious (and Biblical) instruction in the hands of the churches.

The Reformation raised still another issue. The medieval church had been eminently political and in general international. With the Reformation came the rupture of Protestant and Catholic and at the same time the establishment of national churches. The conflict of church and state which grew out of these movements has had various forms: the form of the antagonism of Protestant nations, with their own national churches against Catholic internationalism; the conflict of Protestant sects, not officially recognized with the established churches, and finally the conflict of the political publics of various nations (including our own at its foundation) with the whole idea of politically recognized religious bodies. These varied conflicts, which in some countries are still undetermined, have given rise to a general modern sentiment, especially in the democratic nations, that the political society should be tolerant of all denominations and should favor none; and hence to a general conviction that public school instruction should be, as it were, neutral in all matters touching religion. It is this feeling, indeed, which has had most to do with the discouraging of Bible study in the public schools of the United States.

But it is obvious that these influences, both of the Renaissance and of the Reformation, are not vital in our country and time; they belong to the Old World and to former centuries. The United States has nothing to fear politically from ecclesiasticism within its borders, while the academic tradition with respect to the classics is already tremendously weakened by the broadening of modern curricula. Indeed, teachers of the classics should gladly welcome such an added incentive to their cultivation as is afforded by interest in the Christian Latin literature. When such supreme poets as the Catholic Dante and the Protestant Milton can be comprehended only by a combined knowledge of the Bible and the pagan classics it is clear that the humanist cannot dispense with either source.

The final matter is purely one of method. How should Bible study be handled in the public schools? The answer can only come in full from trial, but I think I can point to at least two lines of approach at once important, easy and beyond criticism. The first of these is the historical, which I have already mentioned. Biblical history should be taught as a part of ancient history and as a clue to the understanding of all history. This is in part done already in school text-books in ancient history, but these text-books are rarely brought into connection with the Biblical narratives, a task which every teacher of school history should see through, if for no other reason than to keep the mind of the young from an utter confusion, and from what sometimes happens, a contempt for the historical value of the Bible itself. If the book were used for what it certainly is, one of the most important of all our sources of knowledge of ancient history, it could hardly fail to command an attention and respect which too many of us can testify is now wanting.

My second suggestion has to do with the use of the Biblical text itself. The telling of Bible stories to the young in other than the language of the Bible seems to me a waste and a wrong. It is a waste because the text is already a classic of the highest order, and needs only the custom of hearing in order to be understood even by the very young. It is a wrong because it should be a part of the educational birthright of every English-speaking child to become intimate with the style and form of the authorized version of King James, which, as Cardinal Newman, himself a Catholic, has said, can never be replaced in the affections of the English-speaking world by any other version.

If each teacher in the grade schools were to make it a custom to read daily chapters or passages of the authorized version to the school, omitting comment, I cannot perceive that public objection could attach to the custom, while, in the way of gain, not a child who had passed through a series of years under the influence of such readings but would have acquired ineradicable impressions of the highest value for the development of both his intellectual and his moral character.