Religious (Il)Literacy

Religious Literacy
Kelly Baker

Since this is the first week of classes for me, my mind is a jumble of syllabi, additional readings, and learning names that are attached to new faces in my classrooms. To begin the semester for my World Religions course, I decided to give the religious literacy quiz from Stephen Prothero’s newest book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't. I did this last semester as well to allow my students to gauge their own literacy. Bald Blogger used this quiz in his American Religious History course, and he commented:

Having recently read Stephen Prothero's newest book on religious literacy, and being more or less convinced of his arguments, I set out to (unscientifically) test his thesis by giving my students the first night of class his suggested religious literacy quiz. Students seemed to know more than I expected, but some of the things I thought they'd know they didn't. It was an interesting exercise, and prompted much fruitful discussion. Before taking the quiz, I had students read his Christian Science Monitor essay and then I spoke briefly about the book.

This quiz also serves as a sneaky way to sell the value of the course by demonstrating to students that they need this literacy. Thus, they should take the course to gain valuable understanding, not just because they need to fill the ever-elusive humanities credit. It seems to work, and it is helpful to figure how much base knowledge the students bring with them.

My “other hat” (the cranky historian), however, remains curious about how folks who “do” religion in American history feel about the text. Susan Jacoby, the author of Free Thinkers: The Rise of American Secularism, has an interesting review in the Washington Post in which she confirms the rise of religious illiteracy but questions his description of religion’s influence in schooling in the nineteenth century and seeming lack of explanation of how the shift from print to video culture in the mid-twentieth century impacted religious literacy. (Jacoby noted this shift is known to have eroded cultural literacy.) She is most critical of his solution to this illiteracy. She writes:

The weakest part of this otherwise excellent book is Prothero's proposed remedy: high school and college courses dealing with the historical and cultural role of religion. As the author rightly notes, teaching about religion -- as distinct from preaching religion -- is not prohibited by the First Amendment's ban on "an establishment of religion." But given the failure of so many schools to inculcate the most elementary facts about American history, it is hard to imagine that most teachers would be up to the task of explaining, say, the subtleties of biblical arguments for and against slavery. Furthermore, a curriculum that would meet with the approval of Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and nonreligious parents would probably be a worthless set of platitudes.

I guess I am wondering how historians have received the book as well as the thoughts from our readers about their view of the work. Any commentary or links would be much appreciated as I continue to mull the applicability of this book for my teaching and the larger field.


Amy at: August 31, 2007 at 7:24 AM said...

I participated in a summer seminar for high school teachers on American history and diversity. My day was religious history since the 1960s. I started the day off with Prothero's quiz and I was surprised by how poorly they scored. But I was not surprised by how nervous they were about including discussions of contemporary religious groups and people in their high school classrooms.

It's a funny bind. They want to include information about religious groups and people, but they feel unqualified to do it and worried about the politics of the classroom. The solution? Guest lecturer! Hence, my new part time job. It reminds me of the "woman" solution of one day on women's issue in American History by a "specialist" in the field.

What to do? It is complicated in the public high schools. If only the literacy quiz could find its way to the AP exam, then things would change!

Edward Blum at: August 31, 2007 at 10:02 AM said...

here is my question for Prothero and the bunch. ... was the United States a better place when people were religiously literate? It didn't seem to stop slavery or genocide or misogyny or imperialism or the ku klux klan. It didn't seem to stop Protestant folks from damning Muslims or Jews or Buddhists. Just thinking out loud.

jfahler at: September 3, 2007 at 12:31 PM said...

My biggest fear of "religious illiteracy" relates moreso to the intersection of religion and government than anything else. Perhaps the best indicator of this is what might be _Pandas and People_ for the historians and religious studies people: a new textbook titled _Never Before in History: America's Inspired Birth_ which seeks to "[help] students dispel the common misconception that our founding principles came primarily from Greek, Roman, and Enlightenment thinkers."


Oh... and sorry for the lack of insight in the last part of my post... that's all that came to mind.

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