Of Tolstoy and Textbooks: Religion and Irreligion in the Schools

Twice in this century, conflicts between scientists and religionists have gained national attention in trials focusing on public-school policy. The first instance was the Scopes trial in 1925 over the teaching of Darwinian evolution in Tennessee. The second occurred in the so-called Scopes II Trial of 1982 over the teaching of creationism in Arkansas. Many Americans, vaguely sensing that the expulsion of religion from the public schools has left a terrible void filled largely by drugs, promiscuity, and vandalism, felt some sympathy for the intentions of the evangelical fundamentalists defeated in the more recent instance. Yet a number of those observers still found the creationist initiative to be misguided, one failing to address a deeper problem. For it is clear that the religious values now expelled from the schools were never scientific in the first place, and the attempt to reintroduce them through the science classroom correspondingly foredoomed. During the course of the Scopes II Trial, the lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union gleefully humiliated their devout adversaries by publicly exposing the technical inadequacy of their arguments and the disingenuity of their tactics. The outcome was never in doubt.

Because the epistemology of science is addressed primarily to the hows of the universe while religion is concerned chiefly with the whys, such legal clashes are invariably mismatches which do not pose truly difficult church-state questions. Nor do they illuminate the critical questions concerning possible relationships between state-mandated secularism and educational decline. So long as science teachers teach scientific theory and empirical fact, and not antireligious naturalism or biblical creationism, the lines between church and state is clear and satisfactory to almost everyone.

First Amendment issues are, however, far more problematic in the teaching of literature, a subject intertwined with religious topics. Unlike science, literature consistently addresses itself to, indeed cannot avoid, the same whys of human life as does religion. Therefore, it must always either reinforce, celebrate, challenge, or displace the answers advanced by religious institutions concerning the nature of man, God’s role in human events, and the meaning of life. The philosopher-kings ruling Plato’s ideal Republic understood this well, excluding from their domain all literature except panegyrics to selected heroes and hymns to their gods. Reexamining Plato’s stance toward literature at the end of the 19th century, Tolstoy reached this conclusion: “The estimation of the value of art (i.e., of the feeling it transmits) depends on men’s perception of the meaning of life, depends on what they consider to be the good and the evil of life. And what is good and what is evil is defined by what are termed religions.” More recently, Yvor Winters has asserted that only a belief in God can make a reasoned and consistent literary criticism possible, while T. S. Eliot has similarly contended that “literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint.”

But in a pluralistic democracy such as the United States, whose ethical and theological standpoint may legitimately govern the way criticism is “completed” in tax-supported literature courses? Who may choose which literary “hymns” to which God or gods find access to the classroom? These are questions which have received relatively little public debate and have never been definitively clarified in the courts. Though difficult to resolve, this is hardly a hypothetical problem. Public school teachers of literature and their administrators must invariably “complete” their literary criticism in some fashion, from some ethical and theological perspective whenever they draw up a curriculum. Should students be required to study Bunyan’s militant affirmation of Protestant faith, or should Stephen Crane’s despairing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs be mandated? What place on a list of required reading does Flannery O’Connor’s intensely Catholic fiction deserve — or Steinbeck’s bleakly deterministic works?

“Time’s winged chariot” races through a high school semester swiftly, usually permitting the study of only eight or nine short stories, twenty or thirty poems, and typically only a single novel. Hence, a very few selections, especially in the case of the novel, may easily tilt the curriculum in favor of the literature of faith or that of unbelief. And once the texts are chosen, the teacher must decide how students will be encouraged, or permitted, to “complete” their criticism of those texts. Will the discussion of Shakespeare emphasize existentialist, Marxist, or Christian scholarship? Will essays evaluating the theological content of Donne fulfill class assignments?

These are questions of a sort never encountered by a science teacher, but they cannot be evaded by those who teach literature, nor can they be as unambiguously resolved as the creationist issue. Whereas the scientific community accepts, virtually unanimously, both a basic paradigm and a means for testing new formulations within that paradigm, no such operational unanimity exists among creative writers or their critics. For centuries, talented believers have celebrated their faith in poetry and prose. Equally talented skeptics have simultaneously articulated their doubts in like forms, while learned critics have made their own divided religious convictions the basis for interminable but inconclusive warfare over the true value and interpretation of the art produced by both groups. To take but one example, what precisely calibrated lab experiment, what field study, or what “unbiased” research will ever bridge the gap between the theists who join Eliot in attacking Thomas Hardy’s fatalistic fiction as “demonic” and those doubters who join Sir Ifor Evans in praising it for a “high seriousness” uniquely fitting for modern man? Similarly impossible of reconciliation is the dispute between the Romantic readers of Milton’s Paradise Lost who invert it by identifying Satan as the hero and their equally erudite foes who insist, with Milton himself, that Satan is a perfidious villain whose attractiveness is a spiritual temptation.

And so it is with scores of other major literary works asserting or denying religious doctrines. Whether it is George Herbert’s verse praising God for “The Sunne arising in the East” on Easter morning or Wallace Steven’s poetry repudiating Christ’s Resurrection and embracing death as the “mother of beauty,” no scanning of lines, no cataloguing of imagery, no identifying of rhyme schemes, no annotating of allusions, in short no mechanically neutral formalism can finally determine the worth and significance of the art for the auditor. And as Plato, Eliot, Tolstoy, and scores of other authors and critics have well understood, that determination will always reflect, at least in part, how well the themes of the work coincide with the reader’s religious convictions.

Junior high and high school students seldom possess well-defined religious convictions, however. Consequently, their evaluation of literature typically entails the unreflective acceptance of the views — including the tacit or explicit religious views — offered by their English teachers, naively viewed as authority figures as unquestionable as science or math instructors. “I believed in God,” one of my freshman students explained in an essay, “until my high school English teacher helped me become smarter.” Numerous other students that I have encountered on the high school and university levels have likewise indicated that their religious outlook was significantly, often decisively, shaped by a literature teacher paid with public revenues.

When skeptical teachers prescribe, as some routinely do, a course including exclusively, or almost exclusively, fiction and poetry written from agnostic and atheistic points of view, they understandably make converts. Similarly, when high school lectures inculcate, as many do, the doctrine that the Judeo-Christian concepts found in literature are part of a “myth” equivalent in every sense with Greek and Roman myths, that, too, is dutifully recorded not only in spiral-bound notebooks, but also in young heads and juvenile sensibilities.

Literature teachers are, of course, quick to affirm their professional credentials and their purely literary objectivity. As already noted, though, this “objectivity” has no firm or accepted basis. In his penetrating study The Social Mission of English Criticism (Clarendon/Oxford University Press, 1983), Chris Baldick has recently demonstrated that, for all his professions of elevated “disinterestedness,” Matthew Arnold was guided by “little more than subjective assertion” when he led the movement to define a place for English literature as a new academic discipline. (As an established part of school curriculums, English literature is a surprisingly new development; no such subject was taught in Shakespeare’s day, nor in Milton’s, nor in Wordsworth’s.) In place of defensible philosophic premises, Arnold’s justification for his tremendously successful effort to give English literature a place in the state schools was his personal desire to see Poetry become the new “religion” of modernity, replacing the “hollowness” of Judeo-Christianity. Given that he considered his own poetry of alienation and dejection to be the best representation of “the main movement of mind” for his age, this was a tremendously self-elevating notion.

But many other writers similarly wished to replace traditional religion with their literature, dismissing orthodox creeds as a combination of “idle dreams” and “pernicious representations.” Shelley sanctified poets as “the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration;” rejecting “the putrid heaps of lies” taught .by the Churches, Carlyle announced that he and other creative writers constituted the “true Church of England” and must be “recognized as such;” disparaging the “blurt . . about virtue and vice” found in Scripture, Whitman offered his Leaves of Grass as “the New Bible,” democratically embracing good and evil. Critics, too, have adopted religious vocabulary. Oxford Professor George Gordon declared that because the churches had “failed,” English literature must “save our souls” by functioning as “a sacrament, a holy remedy, and apparently almost the only sacrament now left.” And in this country, novelist and Princeton academician Joyce Carol Oates has recently sounded the same note, scorning “traditional religion” as “a fantastic spirit-world of wistful and childlike yearnings” while arguing that “for both the collective and individual salvation of the race, art is more important than anything else, and literature most important of all.” It is no wonder that the influential critic T. E. Hulme has found much of modern literature to be “spilt religion.”

Atheistic scientists and popularizers of science have, it is true, at times expressed the desire to establish science as man’s new “religion.” However, it is fairly easy to detach such scientists’ “religious” views from their science per se and to permit only their science to enjoy the benefit of tax support. This is quite impossible in literature, where an author’s opinions animate his art and where even his marginalia is considered pertinent to understanding his work. But any public policy allowing the Carlylean “true Church” of authors to denounce in classrooms the teachings of traditional churches as “putrid heaps of lies,” without also granting a hearing to the literature supporting church doctrines, creates a peculiar “wall” between the statehouse and the chapels.

The “wall” around hundreds of American classrooms where teachers share the faith not of Christian or Jewish parents and taxpayers but rather of Carlyle, Arnold, Gordon, and Oates appears to be of this questionable architecture. Its blueprint regularly appears in books on literature published by state-subsidized presses in which criticism is “completed” from “a definite ethical and theological standpoint” antithetical to millions of those providing the subsidy. Few teachers or critics attack Judeo-Christian beliefs as bluntly as Carlyle, a gruff Scot, but in numerous ways they discredit them as “outdated,” “anachronistic,” “reactionary,” “repressive,” “irrelevant,” “fabulous,” “implausible,” and “merely traditional.” By practicing their own form of censorship, moreover, skeptical literature teachers often keep their students within the literary boundaries of naturalism and existentialism, never permitting them the contrast of the Judeo-Christian themes of some of the most talented writers of this century — Hopkins, Bellow, Waugh, O’Connor, Updike, Greene, Percy — nor of such earlier masters as Milton, Langland, Donne, Vaughan, Herbert, Dryden, Smart, Johnson, or Browning. Nor do such teachers allow their students the option of exploring Judeo-Christianity as a standpoint for “completing” their literary criticism in the manner of C. S. Lewis, Eliot, or the later Coleridge.

This is not to say that all public school teachers of literature impose an antireligious bias upon their students. Many are respectful of religious convictions and help their pupils understand how such convictions may inform literary art and criticism. But the subject, founded and governed as it is by subjective preference, is uniquely liable to personally motivated attacks on religion or, more rarely, to promotion of a teacher’s particular religion. Framers of public policy seem in general not to have realized this, placing far more administrative restraints upon health teachers than upon literature teachers. Consequently, literature teachers wield a remarkably free hand in handling any ethical or religious standpoint not their own.

Seventy years ago, when an essentially Protestant consensus made Pilgrim’s Progress and the advanced McGuffy Readers almost universal standards, the ambiguities of teaching literature in the public school were far less than they are today. Because America’s religious attitudes have fragmented in recent decades, especially in the academic and intellectual community from which literature teachers are drawn, the difficulties of devising a fair and consistent policy for the literature classroom have tremendously compounded. It is even arguable that literature is no longer a teachable subject in America’s public schools and that therefore public English teachers must confine themselves to grammar, literacy, and rhetoric. In private schools, of course, where parental choice is freer, the situation is different. Often governed by a religious or philosophical perspective congenial to the parents who send their children to such schools. The literature courses in these institutions will generally reinforce the convictions of their supporters. If they do not, parents are free to seek some other private school. It is quite probable that such considerations are among those creating the recent upsurge in private schools and the pressure for a voucher system to subsidize them.

But for those who wish neither to abandon the public school system nor impoverish it by excluding all literature, some measures for mediating inevitable differences between teachers’ religious attitudes and parents seem essential. For instance, guidelines requiring literature teachers to consider the various ethical and religious standpoints of their students when framing their curriculum, to disclose the literary and critical content of their courses to students’ parents, and to invite comment from parents on their content might prove feasible. Further, junior high and high school literature curriculums could offer enough options that students could substitute alternative literary works for any that their parents find objectionable on moral or religious grounds. (Between Dante and Hemingway, the world of literature is very broad; flexibility of this sort is quite possible.)

When parent or community groups have occasionally tried in the past to make literature teachers more responsible to them, teachers and administrators have become defensive, denouncing the intrusive parents as “bookburners,” “rednecks,” and “censors,” and refusing to give them a voice in shaping the curriculum. Besides the debatable claims to certified professional objectivity, two reasons — one sensible, one dubious — are typically offered as justification for this refusal to give parents more influence on the literature classroom. The sensible reason is that parental groups are often more zealously didactic than intelligently informed in their literary criticism. The dubious reason is that of the teacher’s alleged “academic freedom.”

Parental criticism of literature does tend to be superficial and often off-target, failing to achieve any meaningful critique of the overall curriculum based upon clearly stated aesthetic, ethical, or theological premises. Thus, for instance, Catcher in the Rye is routinely savaged because of its profanity, Huck Finn ends up in the fire for the word nigger, while the profound attacks upon religion in Hardy’s Return of the Native or A. E. Houseman’s Shropshire Lad go largely unnoticed because neither contains four-letter words, sexual explicitness, or radical epithets. Enthusiastic but naive parents sometimes do not seem to understand that an obscene word, racial slur, or portrayal of an illicit act does not necessarily make an obscene, racist, or salacious book, poem, or short story. In such instances, some literature teachers dismiss the parents with ridicule; others do what they are paid to do — educate. Parents as well as their children can be brought to understand that the significance of any word or act in literature depends entirely upon the philosophical significance the writer gives that word or act in its context. Read properly, Catcher in the Rye opposes obscenity and Huck Finn attacks racism, as most parents can be helped to see. However, a parent who understands both novels but still questions their nontheistic basis may have a less resolvable quarrel with the literature teacher.

Indeed it is precisely when perceptive and intelligent parents do articulate informed objections to particular works or entire curriculums that literature teachers often invoke their second defensive strategy, that of asserting their “academic freedom.” Any property-tax payer knows, however, that academia is not free. Teacher salaries and book purchases cost millions in annual revenues, and to the degree that those teachers and books promote ethical and theological standards and not scholarly skills, no one should be surprised if those who supply the revenues feel offended when the ethical and religious standards promoted are not compatible with their own. In the celebrated Parson’s Cause of 1763, Patrick Henry successfully asserted the American colonists’ freedom from supporting Anglican clergymen unless they freely chose to accept the doctrines they taught; a corollary principle would appear applicable in the literature classroom.

When literature teachers define “academic freedom” to include the prerogative of using the classroom to oppose specific religious views, students and parents who profess those views may well decide to seek curbs upon that freedom through school boards, state legislators, and perhaps the courts. In a “Parson’s Cause II” focused on the literature classroom, traditional religionists could conceivably enjoy a far greater legitimacy and therefore a far greater chance of success than did the fundamentalists of Scopes II. Even if the courts are not persuaded to grant a place, albeit a literary rather than a scientific one, for traditional religion in the schools, they might nonetheless feel compelled to erect legal shields for each faith against subjective literary and critical attacks.

Nonetheless, whether before the bench, the school board, or the state legislature, any effort to promote the public presence of Judeo-Christianity or to restrain publicly funded irreligion will probably fail, if its spokesmen represent their views with vehement narrowness, waving and quoting their Bibles as they call down fire and brimstone on the ungodly. Such an approach inevitably creates the false impression in the media and in the public mind that no natural relationship exists between religion and literature and that the only ones positing such a relationship • are unread puritans. More likely to foster a public policy giving parents greater control over the religious content of literature classes would be a moderate and articulate public presentation of the views of Plato, Eliot, Tolstoy, Winters, Lewis, Hulme, and other acknowledged literary figures who recognized both the need for a theological element in any thoroughgoing literary criticism and the impossibility of deriving that element from the methodology of criticism itself.

Such an argument is, unlike “creationist science,” simply unanswerable. As the leading critic Edmund Gosse candidly admitted, the “Empire” of academic literary study is a fragile structure, “built of carven ice” and kept intact “by an effort of bluff on the part of a small influential class.” Any widespread perception that religious attitudes are being promulgated by this small influential class within their Empire that are at odds with those of the larger community who pay them can only make this bluff more difficult to maintain. The danger that exposure to the hot breath of public opinion might reduce the “carven ice” of literary curriculums to shallow puddles of water and amorphous steam, as Gosse feared, is real. But if modulated within new channels for the governance of the literature classroom, then perhaps such public pressure would instead merely melt a door into the classroom for literary art reflecting parental convictions. For many teachers, such a door would probably be an unwelcome breach in their autonomy. But for many parents and students, such a door may provide the only safeguard for assuring that the obligatory literature class is not a frigid experience that, to borrow a line from Shakespeare, “has no relish of salvation in’t.”


  • Bryce J. Christensen

    Bryce J. Christensen teaches composition and literature at Southern Utah University. He is the author of Divided We Fall: Family Discord and the Fracturing of America (2005) and Utopia Against the Family (1990). He earned his doctorate in English literature at Marquette University in 1984.

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