Thou shalt spend your summer … reading the Bible?
It’s not necessarily the directive you’d expect to come from a public school district, but it’s in place for some local high school students to help them prepare for English classes whose source materials include references to religious texts.
The Santa Monica-Malibu school district’s summer reading list includes several Bible passages for seniors who are planning to take Advanced Placement English Literature or the Bible Literature elective this coming school year.
Sections of the Bible have been designated as assigned reading for SMMUSD students for many years, according to district spokeswoman Gail Pinsker.
No parent complaints related to the assignments have been received by Samohi principal Eva Mayoral, English teacher Maria Stevens, district officials in the curriculum department or staffers in Supt. Sandra Lyon’s office, Pinsker said. Neither PTA Council president Rochelle Fanali nor Samohi PTSA president Joan Krenik reported any issues.
The American Civil Liberties Union notes that it is constitutional for public schools to teach children about religion as long as they do not “advance particular religious beliefs.”
“Ultimately,” an ACLU statement reads, “it should be remembered that the promotion of religious faith is the fundamental responsibility of parents, families, and religious communities — not legislatures, government offices, or public schools.”
In the local school district’s AP English Lit course, students analyze landmark works while developing their reading, writing and critical thinking skills. Assignments typically include a paper about Voltaire’s “Candide” and a research project about a poet’s life and works, among others.
The course’s reading list often features “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles, William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”
The AP English Lit exam, administered by the College Board, regularly tests students on their knowledge of biblical texts.
“Because the Bible and Greek and Roman mythology are central to much Western literature, students should have some familiarity with them,” reads a College Board description of the course.
In the district’s Bible Lit class, students are introduced to biblical texts while exploring the forms and motifs that “are instrumental in shaping English and American literature,” according to the course description. The class typically studies the King James version of the Bible as well as John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” which overtly refers to the story of Cain and Abel from the Book of Genesis.
The course also features an existentialism component that challenges students to grapple with questions of life, purpose and meaning. Texts typically include Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” Hermann Hesse’s “Steppenwolf” and Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.”
AP English Lit and Bible Lit students have been asked to read Old Testament portions of Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Ruth, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon and Jonah as well as sections of Matthew, Luke and John in the New Testament.
“We use particular Bible passages because they feature the stories on which most allusions in literature occur,” Samohi officials said. “Students don’t necessarily recognize that if in a book a character is eating an apple while he had an epiphany, the apple is an allusion to a Bible passage. … Knowing these religious allusions adds to the dimensions of them.”
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