And That’s Why They’re Going to Hell: Teaching Literature in Bobby Jindal’s Louisana

April 21, 2013

In an interview with NBC’s Hoda Kotb on April 12, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal defended two anti-education elements of Louisiana’s education system: the Louisiana Science Education Act and the Louisiana voucher program. Asked if he thought it was acceptable to teach creationism in public schools, Jindal responded:

We have what’s called the Science Education Act that says that if a teacher wants to supplement those materials, if the school board is okay with that, if the state school board is okay with that, they can supplement those materials. … Let’s teach them — I’ve got no problem if a school board, a local school board, says we want to teach our kids about creationism, that people, some people, have these beliefs as well, let’s teach them about “intelligent design”…. What are we scared of?”

The Louisiana Science Education Act allows teachers to bring in supplemental reading materials to critique controversial scientific theories, such as evolution, the origins of life and global warming. In practice, this act allows teachers in public schools to counter approved science textbooks with anti-science and to present creationism as a viable alternative to evolution by natural selection.

The voucher program allows funds set aside for public education to pay for students to attend private, religiously-based schools. In November a state judge ruled the voucher program unconstitutional, but did not end or suspend the program. This issue is now before the state Supreme Court.

Last year, Mother Jones compiled a list of “facts” included in textbooks that are used by some of the schools receiving public funds from the voucher program. Among those facts: dinosaurs and humans co-existed; fire-breathing dragons may have been real; slavery and the KKK weren’t that bad.

I purchased copies of two of the books Mother Jones listed: Life Science 3rd ed. by Brad R. Batdorf and Thomas E. Porch, published by Bob Jones University Press, and the teacher’s edition of Elements of Literature for Christian Schools by Ronald A Horton, Ph.D., Donnalynn Hess, M.A. and Steven N. Skaggs, also published by BJU Press.

The life science textbook is as horrible as you would expect, but I am going to focus on the literature textbook. It is intended for high school freshmen and sophomores, and it isn’t really about literature: it’s about the bible. Oh, other literary works are included, but they’re really only there to shed light on the Bible.

In the “To the Teacher” section, the authors state:

The serious study of imaginative literature opens the door to a vast new realm of reading comprehension and pleasure. All artful writing takes on greater richness and breadth of significance. Improved Bible study will be an inevitable benefit of developing these skills. Students will be sensitive and responsive to meanings in the Scriptures…that were beyond them before. Students will be aware of the beauty and power of Biblical expression and understand how artistry clarifies and reinforces meaning. For sheer variety and magnificence of artistic effects and structural finesse, the Bible is incomparable. It supernaturally excels in artistry of form as well in truth of content.

Every section begins with a selection from the Bible which exemplifies whatever literary device is being discussed. Then other selections are introduced. In this way, say the authors, “the students are learning that they may take the Bible as their standard in every area of their experience–that it should, in fact, be the center of their entire mental and emotional world.”

Of course, in juxtaposing the Bible with other works of literature, there is a danger that students might come to see the Bible as being simply literature: a collections of stories using metaphor, allegory, symbolism and other literary devices, little different from the works of Shakespeare or Edgar Allan Poe.

No fear. As the authors explain:

[T]his book is careful to maintain the distinction between the Bible and other literature. The Christian teacher of literature cannot afford to leave any doubt about his belief in the uniqueness of the divinely inspired writings of Scripture. The study of Biblical metaphors, allegory, irony, allusions, and themes can otherwise be construed to imply that the Bible is only a work of man and differs from other human writings only in degree. Secular courses in “the Bible as literature” raise doubt about the supernatural nature of Scripture simply by ignoring it. If the artistry of Scripture and its divine origin are disregarded, literary analysis can promote unbelief.  Just as it degrades the character of Christ to speak of Him simply as a great man (although He was that), so it degrades the nature of the scriptures to speak of them as simply great literature (although they are that). For this reason, [this book] continually points out the supportiveness of Biblical artistry to the Biblical message and to its intentions concerning the reader or hearer. It also makes frequent reference to the supernatural origin and character of the Scriptures.

Much of this is repeated verbatim in the introduction to the student edition.

The teacher’s edition includes suggestions for class activities and warnings of “potential problems.” These warnings sometimes involve terms or ideas that students may find confusing, but often they are warnings about moral dangers. For instance, in discussion of a passage from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, the authors warn teachers, “You may wish to caution your students about indiscriminate reading of Twain’s works….Several of Twain’s works would be considered inappropriate for recreational reading.” Because, you know, you wouldn’t want to encourage indiscriminate reading in a literature course.

The text itself included biographies of many of the authors whose works appear in the book. These bios always end with a moral and religious assessment of the author. I find it helps to mentally add the words “and that’s why the author is going to hell” to the end of these bios.

John Ruskin:

“Ruskin’s personal religion emphasized a love for beauty and goodness and a thorough knowledge of the English Bible. However, his writings also show that he espoused empiricism, a philosophy which teaches that knowledge stems directly from man’s experience. According to this dangerous doctrine, we can only trust what is felt or seen.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

James Joyce:

“Although a comprehensive knowledge of Joyce’s writing is not a necessary or even a healthy goal, a general awareness of his literary impact helps us better understand contemporary trends in literature…. [M]ost of [his] works hold little ideological value. Joyce’s use of cryptic allusions and veiled obscenities as well as his inflated sense of self-importance…preview both the style and attitude of many twentieth-century writers.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

John Updike:

[A recurring theme in Updike’s work] “concedes that man must possess the hope of immortality and a cosmic design. Unfortunately, his observations…fail to acknowledge God’s provision of salvation through Christ and man’s individual responsibility to accept what God has graciously provided through His Son.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

Walt Whitman:

“Although we can appreciate the literary quality of many Whitman poems, we must, of course, be careful to evaluate their message in light of Scriptural standards. Unlike Whitman, we as Christians recognize that ‘there is a way which seemeth right unto man, but the end thereof are the ways of death’ (Proverbs 14:12).” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

Emily Dickinson:

“Dickinson’s year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary further shaped her ‘religious’ views. During her stay at the school, she learned of Christ but wrote of her inability to make a decision for Him. She could not settle ‘the one thing needful.’ A thorough study of Dickinson’s works indicates that she never did make that needful decision. Several of her poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.” And that’s why she’s going to hell.

The condemnation of Twain is too lengthy to quote in full, but it concludes:

“Twain’s outlook was both self-centered and ultimately hopeless. Denying that he was created in the image of God, Twain was able to rid himself of feeling any responsibility to his Creator. At the same time, however, he defiantly cut himself off from God’s love. Twain’s skepticism was clearly not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth but the deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

To be fair, some authors, such as poet John Greenleaf Whittier, squeak by without condemnation, but all authors and their works must be assessed according to moral and religious worth, and the primary purpose of literature is to better understand the Bible.

The pedagogic material in the book and in the teacher’s section is designed to guide students to a particular interpretation of individual works of literature. It is overtly intended to further inculcate a narrow religious view of the world. This approach is antithetical to what a good literature course should do. There are many valid interpretations of any literary work: students should be encouraged to think for themselves, to provide an interpretation supported by evidence from the text. They should also be encouraged to read great literature as indiscriminately as they wish, not merely those bits that are deemed biblically inoffensive according to a very narrow definition.

ES

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