I don’t often agree with Susan Jacoby, but I come pretty close to agreeing with this column , where she argues that we shouldn’t ask public schools to redress the lack of religious knowledge documented in this survey .

My first thought as I was reading her piece was “of course, the majority of Americans who identify with a particular faith tradition don’t know much about it; they’re the product of public schools,” where (of course) religion is rarely, if ever, taught.  But Jacoby is probably right when she says that it’s too much to ask of  a run-of-the-mill teacher to remedy this ignorance:

How on earth — for public schools are not situated on some heavenly plane — can an ordinary teacher be expected to explain the vast and subtle differences, both within and between faith communities, about the role of religion in American history?

But if we can’t expect them to do an adequate job with these matters, can we really expect them to do an adequate job with anything that requires great subtlety or insight?  Religious literacy is hardly the only form of literacy with respect to which we’re found wanting .

On one level, her solution—drawn from her own upbringing—is admirably modest:

Religious literacy was up to our parents, who didn’t deliver perorations about the need for “religion in the public square,” but sent us for private instruction in our respective faiths. I was raised a Catholic in a small town with few Jews, but I always knew the Jewish Sabbath began on Friday night. How? Because I read books, and in some of those books, Jewish characters observed the Sabbath. If public schools fulfill their core tasks of instilling literacy and intellectual curiosity — the remedy for all forms of cultural ignorance — the rest will follow.

Would that public schools could “instill intellectual curiosity”!

My own view is that our reliance on public schools (I’m tempted to say schools in general) tends to lead us not to live up to our own responsibilities as parents.  We “outsource” too much of the instruction we owe our children, which may indicate to them that we don’t really value it.  And if we don’t obviously value it, why should they?  And if they don’t value it, they’re not very likely to retain it, even if they, er, “learn” it.

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg

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