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The Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest international scholarly membership organization in the field of biblical studies. Founded in 1880, the Society has grown to over 8,500 international members including teachers, students, religious leaders and individuals from all walks of life who share a mutual interest in the critical investigation of the Bible.
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Geth Allison

Community colleges in the United States provide dynamic educational opportunities for students across the spectrum, from early college programs to adult students and even incarcerated students. Unfortunately, despite their central role in training large segments of the workforce and their relationship to larger public universities, community colleges receive considerably less attention than the more prominent four-year institutions of higher learning. According to Dr. Jill Biden, a community college instructor with seventeen years experience and Second Lady of the United States, these schools are “one of America’s best-kept secrets.” The dramatic downturn in the American economy, however, has brought the community college to center stage as the frontline for economic recovery. And, as Biden stated in her address last October at the White House Summit on Community Colleges, “For more and more people, community colleges are the way to the future.” [1]

President Obama’s spotlighting of the important role of community colleges at the Summit came as a breath of fresh air for many of us who are employed at one of these institutions. He sees these unique colleges as vital to the future of the American economy and way of life. He remarked,

These are places where young people can continue their education without taking on a lot of debt. These are places where workers can gain new skills to move up in their careers. These are places where anyone with a desire to learn and to grow can take a chance on a brighter future for themselves and their families—whether that’s a single mom, or a returning soldier, or an aspiring entrepreneur. [2]
The central role that community colleges are playing is clear and the Summit provides an opportunity to address core issues at stake for those in the guild of biblical scholarship and religious studies.

Education at community colleges is affordable and almost immediately practical. For instance, a certification as an Emergency Medical Technician can be earned in about three months, and the expenses can typically be covered out of pocket, opening up a new career field almost overnight. In just two years a student can gain the skills of a Registered Nurse or Radiology Technician and enter into a career full of opportunities. The affordability and practicality of community colleges are unmatched, but given their economic and industrial focus, what role do the humanities have to do with students pursuing a “practical” education? And why should students bother with biblical studies electives when they are focused on vocational training?

Martha Nussbaum argues that the future of democracy itself hangs in the balance because of the diminishing place of the humanities in modern education. She writes,

Radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.[3]
The threat, which seems especially real for community colleges, is that higher education will simply become an economic instrument instead of serving the holistic development of the student.

While a recent poll conducted by the Associated Press and Stanford University [4] shows that Americans overwhelmingly support community college education and view it as a valuable resource, a growing concern looms over the place of humanities in our modern educational systems, with the recent closing of the philosophy department at Middlesex University in England as a prime example. There is the potential, especially in the midst of an economic crisis, that community colleges will exclusively focus on trade skills and find little need for such obscure humanities like biblical studies.

By comprising the largest educational system in the country with around 8 million students currently enrolled nationwide, community college education is directly influencing the future of our country and it is therefore especially important to heed Nussbaum’s warning. Because biblical studies and religion (and philosophy) courses address the heart of human culture and the whole self, they serve a vital role in the curriculum of our nation’s community colleges.

Just the other night I sat down in the theater to watch a new film, only to have my anticipation quickly disappointed within the first 30 seconds. The film began with a reference to “Peter 5:8” with no indication of the fact that there is more than one Peter! So, how does a multi-million dollar film make it through post-production editing without anyone noticing a conspicuous error in the first image that the audience sees? This commonplace incident is indicative of the increasing biblical illiteracy in our culture today. The finding of the recent Pew U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey “shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions—including their own.” [5] To function in a global market that is so saturated with a diversity of religious views, from the Bible Belt to Hindu India, without a clear and functional knowledge of a particular religious atmosphere is to be a step behind socially and professionally. For the working class students of community colleges to thrive fully as professionals they must have insight and clear-headed knowledge of one of the most core elements in the human psyche—religion. Otherwise, their cultural blind spots will grossly inhibit their ability to succeed in both the domestic and international markets.

If community colleges decide to extract the humanities from their curriculums, then they will cease to be colleges and will simply become trade schools. Education must provide students with tools to understand and interpret the world, not just the skills to produce goods or services.

Biblical studies and religion courses fit into the community college curriculum as electives that can fill a required humanities course. And despite the fact that many students do not necessarily go out of their way to take these classes, the majority of my students have found them surprisingly rewarding. A depth of vision and maturity of thought tends to develop after spending serious time interpreting sacred texts from the world’s religious traditions. I am confident that my students’ education in religion will serve them in a most practical way, namely, by enhancing their own personal maturity and cultural knowledge so that they can operate as informed and critically thinking individuals. Indeed, as a recent Inside Higher Ed article contends, community colleges must do a better job of promoting “deep learning” in the classroom, and education in the humanities—especially in religion and its traditions and texts—is essential to such deep learning.[6] Now, more than ever, it is vital that we maintain the presence of biblical and religious studies at the heart of our nation’s education, the community college classroom.

With this in view, biblical scholars who are on the arduous track of pursuing academic careers should seriously consider opportunities at community colleges. They are a great place for academics with a variety of goals. For those who want to settle down and focus their careers on teaching, then the community college is a wonderful option. Almost all of your energy can be focused on the classroom and many of the distractions of research-driven universities are entirely absent. And although faculty at community colleges are not under pressure to publish original research as at many four-year institutions, this does not mean that research is not valued. In reality, you have a more relaxed atmosphere that can allow you to focus on the quality of your research as opposed to quantity. The teaching load is heavy (often double that of a four-year institution) and includes a broad range (from World Religions to New Testament); however, the pace is a bit more relaxed and much of the political and scholastic stresses of the university are not present.

For those who have their sights set on major universities and research oriented positions, then the community college can provide invaluable experience in teaching and the practical administrative duties of academia. Regardless of the significance of one’s research, teaching is almost always the foundation to any academic career. And unfortunately classroom persona and communication skills are not developed in many doctoral programs, so experience in the community college is an excellent opportunity. In sum, community colleges are a wonderful option for biblical scholars who desire to teach a diverse population of students and make a ground-level contribution to the American future.

Geth Allison, Vance-Granville Community College, Creedmoor, North Carolina

Notes
[1] The proceedings of the Summit and transcript of the remarks are available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/communitycollege.
[2] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/10/05/remarks-president-and-dr-jill-biden-white-house-summit-community-college.
[3] Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010) 2.
[4] Accessible at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/05/americans-support-communi_n_750609.html.
[5] This study is available through the Pew Center at: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1745/religious-knowledge-in-america-survey-atheists-agnostics-score-highest.
[6] David Moltz, “Encouraging Deep Learning,” Inside Higher Ed, n.p. [cited 11 November 2010]. Online: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/11/11/ccsse.

 
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