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Parents of faith whose kids go to hyper-secular universities needn’t always despair. Even in the midst of a faculty and administration that regard instruction in the Bible as a failure of critical thinking or a throwback to theocratic ways, one may find islands of learning that meet academic norms and satisfy the Christian soul.

I refer to the various academic centers and programs that have a more or less independent existence on university campuses. They may borrow instructors from different departments, but they have their own budgets and staff. Some have a separate endowment and private donors. They also enjoy strong demand from undergraduates. The funding and popularity of these programs give staff the freedom to design their own curricula and special events, such as lectures by guest speakers. And those curricula may include biblical materials taught in straightforward lessons that leave attendees more biblically literate than their parents ever expected when writing the annual tuition checks.

One of those havens is the Jefferson Scholars Program at the University of Texas at Austin. I just got back from a day of sitting in on program classes, conversing with staff and the advisory board, and chatting with students over cookies and tea. The program admits some 125 students each year as formal members of the program (non-participants may enroll in courses the program runs). Those students earn a certificate in the program by taking six courses listed under the auspices of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas. 

The first semester of the program goes by the name of “Jerusalem and Athens.” The second course students take is called “The Challenge of the Greeks,” and it presents “the golden age of Greek democracy and Socrates’ insistent questioning.” The first course is on another subject: “The Bible and Its Interpreters,” which highlights “the reverent faith of Abraham and the tradition of the Hebrew prophets.” No cynicism in the presentation, no Voltaire or Nietzsche to tear down the faith, no postmodern irony about Daniel and Ezekiel. Teachers simply impart the content of the Bible and track its major commentators (Augustine, et al.).

To appreciate the value of this program, you have to consider what has happened to general requirements in higher education since the 1960s. Before that time, schools asked freshmen and sophomores to take a dose of Western Civilization before they settled into a major. Stanford, for instance, had a full year of Western Civ and a full year of English composition and literature. The emphasis fell on Great Books and masterpieces, big ideas and pivotal events. The Stanford catalog described those materials in triumphal words, affirming that an educated person must be acquainted with the core heritage of, precisely, Athens and Jerusalem.

The trend since then has been a decentering of the tradition and its replacement with empty categories. Western Civ has given way to a “diversity” requirement that can be fulfilled with dozens of courses scattered across a half-dozen disciplines. Or it has given way to a set of “thinking skills” requirements that break down into categories—“quantitative,” “historical,” etc.—and can likewise be fulfilled by heterogeneous class offerings each semester. No central lineage, no core texts, and no Bible, of course. The rationale for this break-up varied. Sometimes it was multiculturalism, sometimes student choice, sometimes trendy learning theories. In each case, the loss was the same: no more Phaedrus, no more Genesis. To require the Bible or any other creation was prescriptive (a bad word).

For Tom Pangle, Lorraine Pangle, and the rest of the Jefferson Scholars staff to put the Bible at the core of the curriculum is a bold and admirable move. Christian parents who sigh at the nonstop critical theory currents in humanities classrooms can be assured that on one part of the UT Austin campus, the most important book in American history, containing the most influential speech in world history, fills an entire syllabus. Students in the program don’t resent the assignment. They cherish it—they told me so. And the numbers prove it: While the number of humanities majors in the United States is declining, applications to the Jefferson Center and similar programs are rising. We should have programs like this one with a required course in the Bible at every flagship state university in the country. Lots of them already exist. I advise faithful parents to seek them out and support them. 

Mark Bauerlein is contributing editor of First Things.

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Image by Kumar Appaiah licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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