Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Odessa file

In a comment on an earlier post, someone wrote:
Please read the full report at www.tfn.org to learn why this particular curriculum is bad for our public schools.
People interested in this issue should indeed read the full report. To start with, though, let's keep in mind that this curriculum is not currently for "our public schools." The issue is at hand is for the people of Odessa, Texas. Educational decisions are made at the level of the local school board. Standards and requirements are mandated at the state level. It's not clear why people outside Odessa should make this decision. The Texas Freedom Network should direct their efforts to the people involved.

Dr. Mark A. Chancey, professor of biblical studies at Southern Methodist University, wrote the full report, commissioned by TFN. Upon reading his report several things become apparent:
  1. The curriculum does seem to have defects and biases. Anyone who is remotely familiar high school texts knows that this is not news. Finding a good curriculum in any subject is a challenge.
  2. Chancey is not above using ad hominem criticisms. At the outset we learn that the "Advisory Committee's more than 50 members include many well-known figures associated with the religious right and conservative organizations." This is irrelevant.
  3. Several times Chancey strays from his field (biblical studies) into Constitutional law. One of the endorsers that Chancey dismisses is Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. Rather than a simple endorsement, George has written a legal brief that finds that the curriculum passes constitutional muster. Interested parties are urged to read this as well.
  4. Chancey spends a lot of time criticizing works referred to, even though the curriculum explicitly disavows any claim of accuracy for these works. There's more than a smidgen of guilt by association in the report.
  5. The vast bulk of Chancey's report finds inaccuracies and limitations. Nowhere does he demonstrate religious indoctrination, and he is not an authority on matters of law.
Again, one cannot defend the curriculum without access to it. Professor Chancey, an expert in the field, finds many ways to improve it, and much of what he writes is very pursuasive. The obvious course of action would be to remedy the deficiencies, either by contacting the curriculum's publisher, or by seeking out a superior curriculum with better scholarship. For its part, the publisher, National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools, has published a response to TFN's claims. Why isn't TFN proposing alternative curricula? It seems to be an organization that seeks not to improve the quality of high school Bible studies, but to eradicate it.
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