Primary Level Education and the Making of Biblical Interpreters

By Beth M. Sheppard
Duke University Divinity School
Durham, NC
January 2014

The lunchroom poster in my elementary school in the 1970’s featured the phrase “You are what you eat” and depicted a monkey sitting on top of a food pyramid while nibbling a banana. The poster was mystifying since I don’t believe that a single banana was ever served in our cafeteria. Though as I reflect generally on the primary school experience from the perspective of several advanced degrees and several years of classroom experience teaching in undergraduate and graduate settings, I am convinced that my own research agenda, and even those of today’s students in Bible, were and are subtly formed by what takes place in early education. In other words, “You research what you learn.”

Now, I’m not talking about the lacunae in early education that we professors battle on behalf of our students –such as the gaps in knowledge of grammar and cursive handwriting of which we are all painfully aware. Regarding the first, there is little doubt that the grammar drills that were still present in primary education in the United States in the years that the Bee Gees topped the record charts and the average home cost $49,3001 seem to have fallen by the wayside. The evidence is clearly visible in the surprising number of the students who gamely write exegesis papers and willingly learn to use gospel parallels, online concordances, and in some cases even tackle Greek or Hebrew, but nonetheless only have the slightest clue about when to employ “who” verses “whom”, boldly split infinitives and dangle prepositions.—At this point if you are reading this piece and have found a solution for this great grammar deficiency, please do share it. For my part, I require students to turn in draft copies of their exegesis papers that I use as vehicles for instruction in basic grammar and composition before grading final versions.

In any case, the second weakness, the one related to cursive handwriting, is a bit less noticeable at the graduate level. Sadly, though, increasing numbers of younger students in Bible classes confess that since keyboarding has become the focus of primary school skill development they are unable to write in cursive beyond signing their name. Some are not able to read it.2 Naturally, this too has an impact on college and graduate level teaching techniques because those of us who were educated in the era before computers were ubiquitous now must be careful to print when using white boards in class and also when making handwritten comments on the rare occasion an essay is submitted in hardcopy rather than electronically. This absence of the ability to comprehend cursive on the part of students likely will not influence biblical interpretation unduly unless it is in the arena of the history of interpretation. To be specific, it is possible that in a few more years archival work related to the manuscript copies and research notes of the great biblical interpreters from the twentieth century will require researchers to undertake remedial instruction in 20th century handwriting much like the courses in Greek paleography that are offered to upper division students at the present time.

The key impact that elementary school has on Biblical Studies, however, is not caused by what is no longer present in the primary school curriculum, but by how elementary school instructors and state boards of education envision the subject of history for students at that level. Without a doubt standards change from decade to decade. In my case (in the mid 1970’s) fourth grade was a watershed year at the small, rural elementary school that I attended. For one thing, history dropped out of the curriculum altogether and social studies was introduced. For another, this was the year that the students received brand new, hot off the presses social studies texts along with media kits for instructors. I don’t recall the author or title of the book, but the treat of having a current text was as memorable as was its bright orange cover, the exciting new concepts it contained, and the colorful photographs on nearly every page that could rival anything in National Geographic.

With the adoption of this curriculum in the school system the practice of memorizing dates, battles and details about famous persons went out of fashion. Instead we learned about participant and nonparticipant observers of current cultures and read wild descriptions of the everyday lives of the Tobriand Islanders (the PG version). We had supplemental lectures on the Korowai Tribe in Paupua Indonesia (which was at the time just recently discovered) and even played a board game in which various game pieces represented European countries which, with a roll of the dice, were racing to colonize Africa (where the colonizers stomped out local cultures while the United States remained smugly aloof from the rampant imperialism—OK, no one ever claimed textbooks were unbiased3). This was the highpoint of an undertaking in United States elementary school curriculum reform called the “New Social Studies Movement.” School districts that were converts to the movement eliminated both history and the traditional citizenship based social studies classes and replaced them with a straight dose of anthropology and ethnography spiced with international studies.4 Furthermore, the very concepts learned in in the classroom were, at least in my generation, reinforced when we got home to turn on the TV only to watch after school reruns in which the multicultural/multiracial crew of the Star Trek’s spaceship Enterprise discovered new races and planets that they were under orders not to contaminate unduly with external cultural influences.

So, how does this play out today in biblical interpretation? Quite simply it creates an affinity for cultural history and ethnohistory. These were methodologies that began to bloom in university history departments in the 1950’s and which are popular even today. As a consequence, a New Testament monograph like Jodi Magness’ Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2011), which was recently featured by the publisher at the 2013 Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Baltimore and was discussed on the Bible and Interpretation site a year ago by Mark Eliott and Kevin Kilty, is eye catching and strikes a chord.5 Perhaps that text is a foretaste of a methodological craze in our field that is just starting to gain momentum. Oddly, enough, Richard A. Burridge once wrote that getting shifts to occur in New Testament scholarship “…is a bit like getting an oil tanker to turn right in twenty-five miles time by pulling on the steering wheel now!”6 Maybe, when it comes to newer trends in biblical interpretation, the wheel was turned decades ago when some of us were in primary school.


1 That same year the typical residence in Britain went for £13,600. Stephen Pearson, “The Year 1977” from The People History

2 I first noticed the difficulty with reading cursive when teaching at the undergraduate level in Kansas. An informal poll of the students in my courses in 2004 revealed that approximately one third of the students, if they had even learned cursive in third grade, had no follow-up in the upper grades and hence both the ability to read and write cursive was quickly forgotten. The debate on the role of cursive in Kansas education continues. See “Kansas Education Board Approves Handwriting Standards Urging Use of Cursive,” Kansas City Star December 10, 2013.

3 See Eugene F. Provenzo Jr, Annis N. Shaver and Manuel Bello The Textbook as Discourse: Sociocultural Dimensions of American Schoolbooks, (New York: Routledge, 2011) as well as the article by Jean Anyon “Ideology and United States History Textbooks,” Harvard Educational Review 49.3 (1979): 351-386.

4 A good description of how this played out in upper level grades may be found in James M. Oswald, “The Social Studies Curriculum Revolution: 1960-1975,” The Social Studies 84.1 (January/February 1993): 14-19.

5 Magness’ chief focus and archeological background aligns her work a bit more closely with ethnohistory while cultural historians would rely more heavily on narrative evidence. Magness’ title recalls the naming convention for works in this methodological vein popularized by Marvin Harris’ landmark work, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture (London: Hutchinson, 1975).

6 Richard A. Burridge “Response to Louise Lawrence,” Conversations in Religion and Theology 8.1 (2010): 22-23.

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