| The Providence Journal
When I was 10, the teacher in the Reform Jewish Sunday school I attended until I opted out of Judaism two years later asked each student which Bible character he or she most wanted to emulate. The boys were split among Moses, Abraham, and King Solomon, although one boy picked David on the grounds that he already was a David. The Old Testament was much skimpier on inspirational female characters, so it was hardly surprising when almost all the girls picked Queen Esther. I was the exception. I picked Methuselah.
I didn’t see anything funny about wanting to emulate the person who had lived to be 969, but it didn’t bother me that the class laughed. I liked the idea that I had perked up a dull lesson. Nowadays, however, a student who made such a choice might get slated for remedial death education.
What is death education?
In a 2017 New York Times column, Jessica Nutik Zitter says, “I am a passionate advocate for educating teenagers to be responsible about their sexuality. And I believe it is past time for us to educate them also about death, an equally important stage of life, and one for which the consequences of poor preparedness are as bad, arguably worse. Ideally this education would come early, well before it’s likely to be needed.”
Why is death education needed? Because, according to Dr. Zitter, “Too many of our patients die in overmedicalized conditions, where treatments and technologies are used by default, even when they are unlikely to help.”
This statement suggests another way in which death education resembles sex education: it is apt to be ideological, aiming at least as much at inculcating attitudes as imparting information. Sex education comes in a wide variety of ideologies, ranging from abstinence education to much more liberal approaches. Death education is more monolithic. The Wikipedia entry on the goals of death education begins, “Death is no enemy of life; it restores our sense of the value of living. Illness restores the sense of proportion that is lost when we take life for granted. To learn about value and proportion we need to honor illness, and ultimately to honor death.”
Wikipedia’s one-size-fits-all account doesn’t mention Dylan Thomas’s exhortation, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Neither does Zitter’s column. Both also ignore some studies finding that many patients side with Thomas. For example, one study found that most of a group of 244 patients with various serious illnesses “wanted to receive a life-sustaining treatment if it would prolong life” for even as little as a week. Another study found that cancer patients “are much more likely to opt for radical treatment with minimal chance of benefit than people who do not have cancer, including medical and nursing professionals.”
Death education is monolithic, but patients’ attitudes are diverse. True education about death would honor this diversity by introducing students to attitudes ranging from seeing death as something to be staved off as long as possible to Dr. Zitter’s view of death as something to be accepted as “a natural part of life.”
True education would encourage each student to develop his or her own view. A program designed to get students to accept death rather than stave it off is no more deserving of the term “education” than a civics course designed to make students Republicans would be.
Felicia Nimue Ackerman, a monthly contributor, is a professor of philosophy at Brown University.