The purging of Christmas from the public square, workplace, and shopping center has produced a weird paralysis among those special gatekeepers of culture: public school music teachers. Like deer caught in headlights, some seem unsure which way to proceed. But proceed they must and so they tread cautiously — planning “winter programs” based less on musical merit than on sticking close to safety.
Believe me, I’ve seen my share. With five kids currently in public schools and seven graduates, I figure I’ve sat through at least 50 concerts — and it would have been more if not for some intervening homeschooling years.
In fact it was my first “winter program” after eight years of homeschool that sounded an early alarm: songs of Santa, chimneys, and reindeer, plus three Chanukah and one Kwanzaa — the latter though the school boasted only one Jewish family (non-practicing) and not a single African-American. Ninety musical minutes with nary a note about Jesus.
Of course, I know Christianity will survive whether censored out of public schools or not, but that’s not the point. The obvious question — like the headlight glare — is this: why bend over backwards to acknowledge religious minorities while singling out Christianity for exclusion?
That first year, when I asked the principal why no Christmas carols had been included, she said, “Well, there were — ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘Jolly Old Saint Nicholas’ …”
“But those aren’t Christmas carols,” I said. “What about the birth of Jesus?”
Deer in headlights.
“You know, I understand we’re trying for multiculturalism,” I suggested gently. “Aren’t we part of the mix?”
While I understand the skittishness behind excluding references to what some of us still call “the reason for the season,” I also know that there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In 1995, President Clinton — concerned that some educators and community members had incorrectly assumed that schools must be religion-free zones — asked U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley to issue guidelines. The result is a remarkably concise, clear, and sensible document titled “Religious Expression in Public Schools: A Statement of Principles.”
Now each fall, with these in hand, I initiate a conversation with whatever music teachers are new to us and explain why sacred music is supposed to be included in music education. While I risk looking presumptuous or silly because most teachers already know this, the risk is worth it when I run across one who doesn’t and who is glad — regardless of individual beliefs or lack thereof — to learn that they may select music based on artistic merit rather than tiptoeing around trying not to offend.
So it was that with just a little effort I was able to feel like the “winter program” had meaning for my family too — all the while feeling a tad like the Dutch boy sticking his finger in the hole in the dike.
Though I thought when we moved from California to Virginia in 2002 we could relax, that has not been the case at all. Each music teacher still picks his or her program based on individual prejudices and/or fears. One of my kids’ music teachers, a self-identified Christian, told me later she didn’t include Christmas music “because the kids get enough of that in church.” Huh?
That spring, she devoted a whole music program to a dramatization of Aztec beliefs and customs. Not a smidge of material for balance — and of course, the Aztec culture was sanitized of the curious custom of infant sacrifice.
Why? Are today’s music teachers music teachers or political consciousness-raisers? Is the purpose of music education to teach an appreciation of great music? Or is it to level the cultural playing field by disqualifying the best in Western music and inflicting irrelevant and/or bland non-offensive compositions on students and their families?
I’m reminded of Dr. Laura Schlessinger snapping at a non-practicing Jewish woman who called to kvetch about Christmas music in department stores — something along these lines: Why, when you hold nothing dear, would you begrudge those who do hold their faith dear the right to listen to their music? And besides, they have the best music, anyway; I like to hum along myself!
Her sentiment was echoed by a high school teacher I know whose response to complaints about the lack of diversity in a program of medieval sacred music was: “When they write other music that’s any good, I’ll use it. My job is to teach music, period.”
Now there’s an idea whose time has come. What if music teachers threw off the tyranny of the unbalanced multicultural agenda and simply went back to teaching kids to sing?