Willful Ignorance: Should Students Be Able 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 imprisons.

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.


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Janine Hofmann
Janine H6 years ago

It does not seem wrong to get some common education, knowing something about science, literature, religion (especially that religion which is "at home" in the country where someone lives), etc. And it should not be forgotten to mention, what is still theory and what has true evidences, or clear hints in many sources, for example the flooding which is in the Bible, and also in many (all?) legends around the world.

Ruby W.
Ruby W7 years ago

I think people (teens are people too) should certainly get to choose some areas of learning over others. There was no use in me taking higher math and chemistry classes. What I managed to learn was immediately forgotten. If I could have dispensed with them I could have spent more time on Latin, German and world history where I was excited and happy to be there. Many folks would make the opposite choice. I suspect they don't remember any of what they learned in such classes either. After 8th or maybe even 6th grade, learning should be self-propelled, based on interest.

bob m.
bob m7 years ago

Would have liked to have responded in latin Harry but whatever.
As to religious institutions; I would have thought the Hoy Spirit might have something to say about the meaning of things .
A bit of Love goes a long ways.
Let her go; she will not return without promise fulfilled.
She does poorly in whitewashed sepulchurs.

John T.
John T7 years ago

"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?"

The article doesn't make it clear but, by this description, I get the feeling the author is referring to a particular version of the bible, to wit, the King James version.
Does the class restrict the reading material to the King James version?
If the focus is on literary construction I would think an unaltered Shakespearean piece could be substituted for a King James bible. Given that there is at least controversy that both pieces of literature have a common author, Bacon, what is the purpose of using the bible exclusively as opposed to the other, similar, works?

joanna e.
joanna e7 years ago

The bible has two parts..one is the oral tradition of a people and its values, the other is the biography of God/a human being and his teachings. Who will decide where the most value is?
In education we are supposed to be educated to a certain level about the world and what we need to be successful in it. At each level an amount of skills have to be mastered before a new level is offered.
Maybe the study of the oral tradition and values might be useful for education, but one wonders about the acceptance of God as portrayed by Jesus would be a worthwhile study as a short overview of his life. I don't think so.

Harry Coverston
Harry Coverston7 years ago

Seems to me that this article conflates two very different questions.

The first is in the title: "Willful Ignorance: Should Students Be Able to Choose What Not to Study?" The answer here is generally no. Students do choose the classes they wish to take starting in middle school. So they do have some level of choosing which ignorance they will endure if not embrace and which they will address. But that's a very different story from deciding what material in a class they have chosen to take that they will actually engage. That's a decision made by someone with more experience and expertise than a student. And, as I have noted elsewhere, this argument smacks of an inappropriate intrusion of consumerism into the educational enterprise. It confuses what people like with what they need to know. They are rarely the same.

The second question is about the appropriateness of religious texts in educational materials. In a world as rapidly globalizing as our own, the answer must be that it is inevitably a good thing to be aware of all religious thought. One simply cannot understand western culture without knowing about the Bible. Where it becomes qusetionable is when the approach to the material is devotional or dogmatic rather than critical or literary. Students do need to know what the texts say. But they should NEVER be required to hold any given understanding of what it means or how it should be seen. Ultimately, that is the role of religious institutions, not the school.

Hailey Wohlwend
Hailey Wohlwend7 years ago

this post made no sense, and how did it get turned into yet another religious smackdown? i thought this was about giving kids the freedom to choose what they care about.

Kathryn J.
Kathryn J.7 years ago

I can't believe you're serious. The Bible should never be a part of a literature class. If the high school is offering an elective class on world religions, then it would be appropriate. In a regular literature class, there is more really well-written literature available for study than the Bible. This assumes, also, that no teacher would dare impose his/her views during the readings. As a classroom teacher, I know there are plenty of teachers that routinely ignore the law of separation of church and state. I think the parent should have pushed the issue higher in the courts.

bob m.
bob m7 years ago

I finally realize the mystery of the giant Kangaroo.
It was of course hinted at in the looney..toones of my distant youth.But now I see...brilliant.
The Mouse ....liberated by the magnetic reversal in downunderland has infact grown to immense degrees......yes indeed.
As to the consumption of beer...well I should think that given the
amount times the mass to the second bottle times 3; You would think that the fluids would run up and out the nostrils

bob m.
bob m7 years ago

Soitenly; as long as they are given supportive selection and are not manipulated by backdoor suggestion as in the title and cover picture which leads them to close doors which are meant to enrich.
Students are learnng and growing constantly.
I would not necessarily say I know what a certain food is until I taste It.
I think it equally interesting that some might seek to opine the integrity of Christ to the trash heaps without having a good look in the mirror oneself.