I was all prepared to criticize a young atheist who refused to read the bible as literature in an English class.
Newton South High School officials dropped a requirement to read excerpts from the Bible for one student last month, after he refused to read the Biblical passages as a literature assignment because he is an atheist.
Jack Summers, a 15-year-old sophomore, said he objected to reading the religious text as part of an honors English class that also includes writings by William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, among others.
“This is the word of God. People take this literally … I don’t want to read about what they believe to be true,” said Summers, who described himself as an atheist.
That is so wrong. We are immersed in a culture that believes this nonsense is true, so we should read about it, the better to oppose it. It’s also a simple fact that, wrong as it is, that bible has been a major literary and cultural influence on the West…and it should be read critically for that reason alone. I think it’s a good idea for our schools to discuss these kinds of important influences, and I’m also in favor of teaching comparative religion in the public schools.
But then I read further and changed my mind.
South’s freshman curriculum lists the Book of Genesis from the Bible as a required academic subject in ninth-grade English courses, alongside “Lord of the Flies,” “Catcher in the Rye” and “House on Mango Street,” plus passages from “Romeo and Juliet.”
Whoa, hang on there: they want to teach the bible as literature, but their choice of an excerpt is the Book of Genesis? They pick one of the parts that purports to be a scientific and historical account of the world, that is cheesy, badly written, and wrong? Why not pick Revelation and really mess with their heads?
There are excellent parts to the bible, chapters that are not only beautifully written, but also would make students think: try Ecclesiastes, or even the book of Job, for dog’s sake, where everyone could chew over the ideas without inviting an intelligent teacher to have to help them understand all the elements of the story that are flat-out wrong. You cannot responsibly teach Genesis to 21st century students without explaining that it is not science, and that if you try to squeeze it into a literal, accurate description of our origins, you are both defying the evidence and buggering up the literature; and that all the accounts therein of the Chosen People’s tribulations and triumphs are utterly bogus tribal propaganda.
I am not sufficiently delusional that I would believe a public high school could actually teach Genesis critically, not without bringing down fierce parental wrath. That leads me to suspect that what the students would get is faith-affirming pablum, a survey of the book that would gloss over minor little problems, like that it is a frickin’ myth that contradicts reality.
So, while I think Jack Summers is wrong in principle in rejecting an education that makes him uncomfortable (I’ve said it over and over again, that that is what a good education should do), I’m suspicious of the school and the teacher, and don’t trust their motives at all. Why that book? How would they approach the material? Are they going to encourage criticism of its content?
I’m also even more suspicious because of this line.
JC Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the state has a suggested book list that includes religious texts such as the Bible, the Koran and Buddhist scriptures, but local districts decide which books to use in classrooms.
Hmmm. So the local school board decided to include only religious material out of several choices that happened to coincide with the majority beliefs in the area? Apparently, the only people who get to be made uncomfortable in the classrooms are the ones who aren’t Jewish or Christian. If they genuinely wanted a compromise that would still show a little integrity, they should have included a chapter of the Koran to be discussed — and make everyone think.
The story has a poll associated with it, too.
Should the Bible be part of the 10th grade English literature curriculum?
Of course. It’s among the world’s most famous books 42%
No. It’s not fair to those who don’t believe in the Bible’s teachings. 20%
Are you kidding? This is a phony controversy started by a kid who was too lazy to do his homework. 38%
I hate all three choices. Yes, it’s one of the world’s most famous books; it’s also 90% crap, and the school district picked one of the crappy parts. The second choice is the only one that criticizes the choice, and does so for the wrong reason: it’s because they can’t include a religious book without encouraging students to criticize it, not because non-believers will be annoyed. And that third question is just slimy and loaded. I ended up voting “no” just because I think the poll sucks and the school district is dishonest.
I have been assured by quite a few people who have more direct knowledge of the Newton school district that they actually do teach Genesis critically, which removes most of my objections to their handling of the issue. I’m left with my first impression, which is that the student was out of line — he shouldn’t be avoiding instruction in material which makes him uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, I am not a resident of liberal Massachusetts. Out here in the rural midwest, a class in Genesis would mostly be a whitewash used to make excuses for fundamentalist beliefs. May the spirit of Newton spread a bit further westward!