I teach at a university that requires its students to take Bible courses. We’re a Christian university, and the tradition of our religious heritage has placed a very high value on biblical literacy. I am a fully-vested and dues-paying member of that club with all the rights and privileges pertaining there unto; I have always appreciated our longstanding emphasis on biblical literacy, and would expect that it continue for generations to come.
But there’s a problem.
Definitions of what is “rigorous” are starting to shift. This evolution is driven in part by a difference in the degree of biblical literacy our students bring to the campus – and to their Bible classes – in comparison to our previous student-bodies. In the past, our university drew most of its student body from one religious tradition; students came to the university with an often exhaustive knowledge – sometimes even to the point of trivial absurdity – of biblical texts. Our Bible courses were designed to challenge those students to “excel still more,” and think critically and deeply about the implications of narratives and textual units with which students already had a long-standing familiarity.
As our student body has evolved into new directions, they have come our classrooms with a less homogeneous set of literacies and familiarities. We keep discovering ways that a growing number of our students really need a basic understanding of the two universes of old and new testaments. It is not proper to assume that students know the jargon of navigating “verses” and “chapters” and “books.” They are less likely to realize that Jesus and Moses are separated by at least as many years as we are from the Viking raids in England – and maybe as many years as we are from Christ himself.
It is difficult to imagine, then, that the curriculum needs to become “less rigorous.” Instead, we think about how to bring students into alignment with where our previous generations of students had been.
Rudolph (1990) described the significant shift in the kinds of literacies students brought to the American college in the late 19th century. As a greater number of students came to the colleges with non-classical educations, “before long the universities and colleges were accepting for admission credit subjects that went beyond the traditional lethal doses of Latin, Greek, and arithmetic” (p. 285). This shift had major impacts upon the ways that in many ways operationalized some of the criticisms of Francis Wayland’s Report to the Corporation of Brown University on Changes in the System of Collegiate Education in 1850; the university had to change because the needs – whether of society or of the students themselves – changed. Perhaps the faculty of the Yale Report* would be disgusted by the fact that I have a Ph.D. having only learned Greek by accident of a major and remaining entirely illiterate in Latin; but I’m in pretty consistent company.
“Rigor” is not effectively defined positivistically. It is defined through social agreements. I am taking a hard look at the assumptions I make of students entering my courses, and asking whether and how those definitions of rigor need to be adjusted. I don’t have direct responsibility for our Bible curriculum; but what would happen if we asked the same questions about students’ quantitative literacies, or awareness of narrowly defined canons, or the ability to recite specific groups of facts?
I am – in short – growing very unsettled about the ways in which we throw the word “rigor” around; it is far too easy to measure this against the traditions of our curricula instead of the experiences and literacies of our students.
Rudolph, F. (1990). The American college and university: A history. University of Georgia Press.
*The title for this post is one of the funniest quotes of allll of higher education history; “The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge.” The Yale Report of 1828. (n.d.). Keithbuhler.Com. Retrieved February 4, 2021, from https://www.keithbuhler.com/yalereport