by David Safier
[NOTE: In the original version of this post, I ventured into the question of whether there was an actual historical Jesus. That was an error on my part. Though some people debate that issue, it's not relevant to the point I'm making about the K12 Inc. material discussed in the post. Since I don't believe in removing anything I've written, I crossed out those passages and added wording that more accurately reflects my views.]
In January, Greg Cochran enrolled his 7th grade son in Agora Cyber Charter School, Pennsylvania's online school run by the for-profit company K12 Inc. When his son complained that his history textbook was teaching religious beliefs, Greg looked through the textbook and the online materials and agreed. He decided to email me because of what I've written about K12 Inc. in the past. He wrote,
I read the chapter on Jesus Christ which referred to Jesus in the factual sense as if it were a provable fact that Jesus “Said,” “Did,” etc. It was . . . clearly written with a Christian perspective.
Greg sent me copies of Agora Cyber's online materials which included maps taken straight from Christian websites as well as links directing students to other Christian websites. The material treats Jesus as a historical figure without any mention of the scholarly questions about the existence of a historical Jesus. The material treats the specific details about Jesus' life described in the New Testament as historically accurate. Worse, the material fails to create a clear distinction between "biographical" and religious information. Greg also sent me the textbook his son was using.
Agora Cyber, like K12 Inc's online schools across the country (including Arizona Virtual Academy), is a publicly funded charter school. As is true with other public schools, it is required to draw a bright line when it comes to religious instruction; it can teach, but not preach. The K12 Inc. materials cross that line over and over again.
The hard-cover history text used by 7th graders is "The Human Odyssey, Vol. 1: Prehistory Through the Middle Ages." It was written specifically for K12 Inc. and is one of a number of textbooks the company has published. Chapters 8 and 9 are headed: "Judea and the Rise of Christianity" and "The Spread of Christianity." I read the chapters and gave the rest of the textbook a careful once-over. In general, I found it to be a satisfactory textbook with lots of information about a number of ancient cultures, including respectful treatments of other religions and belief systems from the Middle East and the Far East. In that context, the space given to Christianity was not excessive. The main concern with the textbook's presentation is that Jesus is treated as a historical figure.The main concern with the textbook's presentation is it treats the specifics about Jesus' life as they are portrayed in the New Testament as historically accurate.The chapters state as fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, began his religious teaching at 30, was crucified at 33 and so on. The main concern with the textbook's presentation is it treats the specifics about Jesus' life as they are portrayed in the New Testament as historical truth rather than part of a religious narrative. However, the book is careful to say "According to the Gospels" when it writes about miracles or other purely religious matters. Because the textbook gives a generally balanced presentation of other cultures and religions -- and because I've seen all manner of problems with textbooks during my teaching career -- I wouldn't have been overly concerned about what I read in the textbook if that is all I had in my hands. (I should mention that Greg Cochran disagrees with me and finds the chapters in the textbook about Christianity objectionable because they assume the existence of a historical Jesus.)
The online materials, on the other hand, contain a great deal of religious content that goes far beyond what any public school should include in its curriculum. And since so much of Agora's teaching is done online, that religiously charged material is central to the students' educations.
Before students read the chapters in their textbooks, they go online together with other students and listen to a teacher use a PowerPoint presentation to give an overview of the material. (What this teacher mainly did was prompt students to read the bullet points on a page, then reread them herself. "Facilitator" would be a better word to describe her than "teacher.")
One of the PowerPoint slides is titled "Map of the Judea."
The map comes from the website "Daily Bible Study: www.keyway.ca," as is indicated in the map's lower right hand corner. The URL takes you to the home page of "The Church of God Daily Bible Study: A Ministry of God's Pure Word." The map used in the slide is on another page, where the word Decapolis is defined and the New Testament descriptions of the miracles Jesus performed in those areas are presented as fact. At the bottom of the map page is a bonus "Fact."
Fact Finder: Should Christians fear demons, or should demons fear Christians?
See Why Demons Are Afraid Of You
Another slide in the PowerPoint presentation is titled "Map of Jesus' Teachings."
The slide doesn't indicate the source of the map, but it comes from the website, Generation Word, A Bible Teaching Ministry, which describes itself as "an online Bible School that teaches the Word of God."
Once the students begin reading the chapters in the textbook, Agora Cyber provides online links to other web pages to help students through the material. Here's one link:
The Resources link to a "Chronology of Apostle Paul's Journeys and Epistles" takes students to a page on the website, Wielding the Sword of the Spirit. Here's a typical sample from the website's home page:
How to be Saved: Do you know if you are going to heaven? Here is the Roman Road to Salvation.
What happened to us when we believed the Gospel? Understanding our assured salvation and position in Christ: crucified with Him, buried with Him, raised from the dead with Him, baptized into Him, seated in heaven with Him, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and chosen before the foundation of the world.
This is a link from another supplemental page:
I want to expose you and everyone else to the Glorious Church: the gathered people of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Along with those links are a number of statements that should not be included in a public school curriculum. The PowerPoint presentation assumes the biographical details about Jesus in the New Testament are factual. That would be of less concern if it weren't for the religious teaching included in the unit, but when the two are combined, they compound the religious teachings in the lesson.
Here is the first slide from the PowerPoint Presentation introducing the unit:
All statements except the one defining the word "Gospels" portray biographical information about Jesus from the New Testament as fact.
The one slide that talks about scholarly questions concerning Jesus' life begins with the assumption that Jesus is a historical figure and wonders about what happened during his "Missing Years." the biographical information about Jesus in the New Testament is accurate and the only question is what happened in the parts of Jesus' life that aren't discussed.
The story of Jesus' baptism by "his cousin, John" is also treated as history, not material from a religious text:
The same is true of the Biblical description of Jesus' time in Jerusalem:
Starting with the "Jesus in Jerusalem" slide above and continuing onto the bullet points on the "Crucifixion" slide, the material comes dangerously close to perpetuating the "Jews killed Jesus" story which has been one of the many pretexts used to justify centuries of antisemitism and persecution of Jews.
The summary slide at the end of the lesson titled, "So what did we learn today" gets closest to a genuinely antisemitic statement in the presentation. It ignores the Biblical descriptions of Roman concerns about Jesus and simply asks students to "Summarize the conflicts between Jesus and Jewish leaders and the events that resulted."
The clear implication is that it was Jesus' conflicts with "Jewish leaders" and not the threat he posed to Roman authority that led to his crucifixion.
Included in the supplemental online materials for students to view as they read the chapters about Jesus and Christianity is a two minute video about the life of Jesus. K12 Inc. may have created the video, but its production is so shoddy, it's hard to believe a multimillion dollar corporation like K12 Inc. would make something so amateurish. I suspect it's a low budget video created by someone at a Christian website with minimal filmmaking skills, though I can't be certain. Here is the narration.
"Most of what we know about Jesus comes from the Gospels, 4 books of the Bible that tell us about his life. When Jesus was about 30, he was ready to start doing God's work. First, he spent 40 days in the desert without food or water, preparing for what lay ahead. Jesus spent the next 3 years traveling around the countryside teaching people about God. He made friends with all kinds of people, even some that others didn't like. Before long, great crowds were coming to hear him speak. At that time, Jewish people were waiting for a messiah, a special messenger chosen by God to begin a new kingdom on earth. Many people believed that Jesus was this messiah.
[Religious-sounding music begins] "Jesus had a special group of 12 friends and followers called The Disciples painted here by Leonardo da Vinci [picture of da Vinci's Last Supper]. The Disciples went with Jesus as he met the people and taught them about God. . . .
"The Bible also tells of miracles, many of which took place near the Sea of Galilee. These were amazing, seemingly impossible things that Jesus did, like turning water into wine and healing very sick people. One of the most famous miracles is when Jesus managed to feed 5,000 people with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 small fish. Christians believed Jesus was able to make these miracles happen because he had the power of God. He wanted to show how this power could change people's lives. [boldface added for emphasis]
After students finish the chapter unit, they are supposed to complete a Lesson Assessment. Number 3 on the assessment asks students to mark each statement that "is related to the causes and results of the problems between Jesus and Jewish leaders."
While any one of the blatantly religious items could be explained away if it stood by itself, the sheer volume of this type of material in the unit indicates a conscious effort to give the 7th grade students a Sunday school lesson in Christianity. While this would be perfectly acceptable at a private school, taxpayer funded public charter schools have the same restrictions against religious instruction as any other public school. This kind of religiously-based instruction is unacceptable and very possibly a violation of court rulings about separation of church and state in public schools.