Notes from the Perimeter

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Willful Ignorance: Should Students Be Allowed to Choose What Not to Study?

Jack Summers, a Newton, MA, tenth-grader, might not know everything but he definitely knows what he doesn’t want to know. Jack, a self-proclaimed atheist, objected to an assignment in his mandatory English class: to read a section of the Bible as an example of literature. Initially school administrators baulked; eventually, as one of the local papers described, they ‘caved’ and while Jack still was forced to read the Bible assignment (meaning, presumably, that he would have failed the class otherwise) he was exempted from taking two related quizzes and completing a paper about the reading. (Of course, the first thing that comes to my mind is: how do we know that Jack did indeed read the assigned portion of the Bible? Did the atheist code of conduct prevent him from simply saying he’d done so since he was not required to demonstrate any knowledge or reflection?)

A further oddity (in my mind) is that Jack’s mother, Majorie Summers, in supporting her son, questioned in a letter to the editor why her son wasn’t given the chance (apparently the original accommodation) to read a secularized summary of the Biblical passage and respond to that: “Jack did indeed have to read the Bible after the school failed to provide him with a secular analysis of the biblical assignments, as had been agreed at our meeting with the Newton South team. We were also surprised when Jack was told by his teacher that his two quiz grades would be dropped, instead of retaken after a review of the secular material.”

The assignment was to explore the Bible as a piece of literature. Is Summers advocating a sort of Cliff Notes of the Bible, in which all of its literary qualities, everything that makes it literature – use of language and imagery, rhythm, poetic construction, character description, narrative power – are eliminated and only the religious message remain? Isn’t that exactly what the Summerses say they want to avoid?

It’s far too simplistic to deny that we choose every day what we want to learn and what we (regrettably or with relief) forgo. While some new learning is mandatory (revised procedures at work, changes in the tax code, relevant current events, etc.) much is discretionary due to the fact that we can process only so much information at any given time. In my case, the list of languages unexamined, places unvisited, software uninstalled, books unread, disciplines unexplored is full to overflowing. The only reason I can think of for wanting to prolong my lifespan is so that I’ll have time to learn Italian and the techniques of Chinese cooking. However, this incident brings up a larger question: What does it mean, especially for a kid, to choose willful ignorance about something with the kind of historical and cultural impact as the Bible?

The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1963, in the case of School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, that schools can include the Bible and other religious texts as examples of literature and in cultural studies – they just cannot use those works in a religious context, for proselytizing or promoting a particular religious viewpoint. The decision reads in part: “[It] might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities…as part of a secular program of education.”

A few of Jack’s comments about his position are unintentionally funny. In an interview with the press, he referred to the Bible as “the word of God” and a “holy text.” I fear that Jack hasn’t quite grasped the concept of atheism – simply put, an atheist does not believe in the existence of deities. Clearly Jack does believe that God and holiness exist – he just doesn’t want to be confronted with them.

Herein, for me lies the rub: the fear that new knowledge, especially knowledge that might challenge comfortable assumptions or beliefs, is somehow contagious, able to transform attitudes against the person’s will. Debates about such diverse subjects as evolution, climate change and homosexuality often have this fear as subtext: if I learn about Judaism, I might change my mind about it – OMG!

The most fundamental point of education is to provide the framework for more choices, not fewer. The central premise of education is that knowledge expands and frees, not constricts and restricts.

It’s fully appropriate that no religious text – the Bible, the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad Gita nor any other – be taught in a public school as religious ‘truth.’ However, for students to explore these masterworks as literature, as hallmarks of culture, as intrinsic aspects of the development of civilization is not only a good idea: it’s a necessary one. And if in the process, a student discovers something that feels truthful, then that becomes a choice for that student to make, a choice that a willful stance of ignorance can’t offer.

first published on 12-20-09 on


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