Dead Souls in the Classroom

"Thanatology" or "death education" now competes with driver's ed and "social problems" for the attention of the nation's high schoolers. First introduced on America's college campuses in the 1960's by such luminaries as Edgar Jackson, Richard Kalish, Robert Kastenbaum, and Herman Feifel, death education has, like many other dubious pedagogical experiments, trickled down to the secondary and even elementary schools. Some states now require instruction on "death and dying" as part of the health curriculum for the public schools.

But what do sophomores learn from their solicitous death instructors? Daniel Leviton, professor of health science at the University of Maryland and one of the founders of the discipline, has provided a revealing outline of the "goals for death education." First in his list of 12 objectives is the educator's task of "remov[ing] the taboo aspect of death language so students can read and discourse upon death rationally without becoming anxious." If nothing else, the jargon tells us that we have indeed wandered into a world of death, a region of credentialed corpses and academic putrefaction. It gets worse. Leviton declares that death educators "promote comfortable and intelligent interaction with the dying as human beings." Children are to learn the medical physiology of death so that they will "grow up with a minimum of death-related anxieties....

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