October 25, 2019
RECENTLY, the Philippines has been making headlines in Paris. And, alas, this time, it has not been to pardon our President’s French.
Some two weeks ago, House Minority Leader Bienvenido Abante Jr. filed House Bill 2069 seeking to make the Holy Bible a mandatory read in elementary and secondary schools across the nation, starting in 2020. Not surprisingly, especially given the reignited public fervor honoring the demise of the critic of Catholicism, Carlos Celdran, Abante’s suggestion has not been well received. Even a ranking bishop at the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines viewed the measure as rather draconian. “It will not be right to make bible-reading mandatory for students in public schools, who are Muslims, Buddhists or animists,” insisted Bishop Pablo David. In Abante’s defense, he includes a provision for teaching the Quran in lieu of the Bible for Muslim students, for instance. No matter, the Bible bill is not popular.
The Bible has long been tried in the court of the secular. Catholicism has had a long tumultuous history. The French, of course, with their unique brand of laïcité (secularism), separating public institutions — especially schools — from the influence of the Catholic Church, have been the most perturbed by this proposal. It is the French, after all, who sought to ban the hijab from public life, not because of disdain for Islam, but of disdain for religion. But the French can afford to ban the Bible: they have a rich intellectual tradition. We do not.
Thomas Aquinas began his career in Paris. It is there where he wrote his Summa Theologiae, the underpinnings of all theological pedagogy in the Catholic Church. It is there where he and his colleagues debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. If the French scoff at incorporating the Bible into the curriculum, it is because they have a wealth of intellectual traditions and texts to fashion the moral and ethical character and to develop the mental infrastructure and faculties of its citizens. We, alas, do not.
It is true that we must be wary of what reading the Bible can bring. Naively, Abante is of the belief that “if only the Bible is read, proclaimed, obeyed and practiced, the Philippines, our beloved and only country, would be a much better place to live in, and our government would be a government of honesty, righteousness and order.” That is a tall order — and quite unrealistic.
The intent to include the Bible in the curriculum must not be to proselytize, though that would be the temptation. With that in mind, it could easily be viewed as indoctrination and achieve the opposite effect on an already obstinate generation.
Rather, we must remember that the Bible, too, is a literary text and divinity the basis of the scholarly traditions where universities, such as Harvard, emerged.
The close reading of texts to parse out the intent and context of the author, or, in other words, exegesis, emerges from biblical traditions. So, too, does eisegesis, or placing one’s self into the cosmos of the text itself. These are the skills a good education hopes to impart and the skills sorely needed by our education system.
The Bible is not the only text for this — this is true. We could incorporate Shakespeare, Plato or Rousseau. But, the Bible is the most readily accessible to our populace for it is a text with which most students are already familiar.
The mythos of the Bible teaches not just morals that Abante hopes will ameliorate our character, but it educates its readers through its literary devices. In the olden days of empire, military officers, especially the highest-ranking ones were taught Latin — not to be able to converse in the language, but rather, for the kind of strategic thinking the skill taught the brain. This, too, is what close readings of the Bible can teach: deeper intellectual inquiry.
Filipino schoolchildren can stand to benefit from figurative textual reading, inter-textuality and having a shared mythology with their peers. Not all schools, after all, teach The Odyssey or The Republic, or The Taming of the Shrew. For others, the Bible will have to suffice.
In France, citizens can divest themselves of the vestiges of religious character for so entrenched is the Catholic faith in systems of law, society and intellectual inquiry. Here, however, we do not yet have those luxuries of intellection. And so, we must build it.
At my undergraduate introduction to theology class at Georgetown titled, “The Problem of God,” my professor, Fr. Maher, used to always say of hell that we need to believe that it exists as a concept and as an entity, but need not believe that anyone there resides. I am not too sure I buy that, but the same is true of teaching the Bible: we need not necessarily, especially for atheists and agnostics, believe all its teachings, but we need to believe they do exist.
I have often insisted, in Tocqueville’s words, that we must pay heed to public policy not for what it does, but for what it causes to be done. Teaching the Bible in schools does not convert all citizens to Catholicism, nor insist it be the only path to salvation. Rather, it endows citizens a rather obscure text that can open Filipinos to provocations of thought.
A country, after all, is only the strength of its curriculum. And adding the Bible to the roster fortifies that curriculum, indeed.
Katrina Lirio Quirolgico is an economist who holds master’s degrees in government and international history from the London School of Economics, and a bachelor’s degree (magna cum laude) in international politics from Georgetown University. She has trained at Harvard University on international education and admissions.
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