The New Common Core Standards and Understanding the Bible

By Kersley Fitzgerald

Dev and I stood in the well-appointed middle school library while the principal pointed out the features. We were taking a tour of the school where we wanted JT to go after his school closed down. In between showing us the various computer labs and the tutoring rooms, the principal said, "And we'll be moving on to the new national education standard. We'll be de-emphasizing classic literature, and focusing more on non-fiction reading such as technical information."

She was referring to the Common Core State Standards Initiative which has been ratified by all but four states. Apparently, the issue was that although American students could read literature well enough, they were falling behind in more technical reading. The standards recommend that high school reading should be comprised of 30% literature and 70% informational. [1] This would help students in the job market and make sure America stays competitive internationally.

I think she expected us to be enthusiatic about the change. But despite the fact that I have a degree in a technical field and work for an organization that specializes in non-fiction articles, I believe that a background in literature is…if not essential, then really really important to understanding the Bible.

We get a lot of questions from people who are puzzled by the Bible. The latest, heard just this week, was "How can God say He was going to scatter the Jews to the four corners of the world? Does that mean the Bible says the Earth is flat?"

As Dev often says to JT: "Really? Really?"

I remember this one high school English class. We had to read George Herbert's poem "The Collar." It talked a lot about the struggles with farming. We then had a multiple-choice quiz on it, mostly asking us what each line was about. One girl got most of them right. I got about half right. Everyone else said it was about farming, completely missing the metaphor—it was about a priest.

It took me a long time to be able to see metaphor in literature. Like, 30 years. It was also a challenge for me to follow a long, complicated story. Have you actually read The Hobbit? By the time you get to the end, you've forgotten the beginning. And the middle. I had the early stages of Sesame Street-brain; everything worth knowing comes in 3-minute sound bites—despite the fact I was a voracious reader. Between Facebook and Twitter and such, it's even worse, now. JT's downstairs watching Phineas and Ferb. It's a cute show, but they have two stories every half-hour. Take out commercials, and you're talking 9 minutes per story.

Friends of ours told their kids they couldn't watch The Lord of the Rings movies until they read the books. I knew if we did that, JT would never see the movies. But we did make him read most of the Harry Potter books. He did well. And then went back to graphic novels and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid."

Most of the graphic novels we have are adaptations of Bible stories. He's been going to Sunday School for over ten years, now, and he's just now pulling things out of those stories. The Bible mini-series was good, too. He's used to gleaning information from a screen.

But JT, like so many people who write in to us, is going to have a hard time with the Bible, itself. He's going to have a hard time following a disjointed story with strange language and a bunch of symbolism. And it will be worse if he doesn't have to struggle through classic literature. His sense of story will come from movies and TV shows, not Dickens. His interpretive skills will be more literal, and he'll completely miss out on how a priest can be like a farmer. Or even how Jesus can be both a lamb and a lion. I'm concerned that the Common Core Standards won't help.

Jesus said that He talked in parables so that only the devoted would understand Him (Matthew 13:10-13). To others, He was a stumbling block—an annoyance that tripped them up and made them go a different direction (1 Corinthians 1:23). I suppose every generation has some characteristic thing that makes it hard to understand Him.

Ironically, a switch from classic literature to non-fiction articles would be great for GotQuestions. Informational writing is what we do. And many of those articles are on metaphors in the Bible. But will people understand our explanations of the metaphors if they don't understand what a metaphor is? Fortunately, part of the Common Core reading standard states:

The standards mandate certain critical types of content for all students, including classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare. The standards appropriately defer the many remaining decisions about what and how to teach to states, districts, and schools. [2]

I hope this is true and schools won't back away from literature so thoroughly. It's hard to understand a story told over 4000 years in 66 books when you can't even get through To Kill a Mockingbird.

1. Patty Barthe; "The Common Core Standards: Truths, Untruths, and Ambiguities"
2. Common Core Standards: Key Points in English Language Arts
For more, see: English Language Arts Standards

Image Credit: Yoel Ben-Avraham; "JewishBooks"; Creative Commons

TagsChristian-Life  | Controversial-Issues  | Current-Issues  | Family-Life  | Got-Questions?

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Published 5-24-13