Public schools face 'December Dilemma'
Iowa City, Iowa
As their voices ring out at school concerts this December, few children will give a thought to the potential political implications of singing such favorites as ''Away in a Manger'' or ''Silent Night.''Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But what for many Americans is the ''season to be jolly'' is for the nation's public schools increasingly ''the season to be very careful.'' Some call it the annual ''December Dilemma.'' The challenge facing public schools during the Christmas season is how to oblige the Constitution in keeping church and state separate while still carrying on the performance of music that is part of Western culture.
''It's like the irresistible force meeting the immovable object,'' says Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association. ''This issue is perennial, but I think it's probably going to heat up this year more than ever.''
In Iowa City, Northwest Junior High choral director Larry Kelley does not have the pre-Christmas jitters about his students' coming ''winter'' assembly concert. But sitting in his small school office piled high with choral music and orchestra instruments, he readily admits he has some qualms about how the audience may react to the mix of secular and religious songs on the program.
He has reason for concern. A veteran teacher with 12 years in this school system and a conductor whose swing and jazz vocal groups have won statewide honors, Mr. Kelley says that over the last two years he's been asked more and more by the school administration to justify his choice of programs after concert performances. Usually a phone call or two to the superintendent's office prompts the request.
What might have triggered it in the beginning, he says, is the Christmas recording he made with four high school singing groups a few years ago in a local Roman Catholic church. The program included a number of carols and a setting of ''Ave Maria.''
''Maybe some people felt we overemphasized Christmas, and maybe we did,'' he says.
Kelley says he now feels as if he is living in a fishbowl. A citywide junior high concert put the issue into the open again recently, sparking a communitywide debate over the place of religious music in the curriculum. Religious music, including Joyce Eiler's ''Thy Will Be Done'' (a musical setting of the Lord's Prayer) and Kirby Shaw's ''Number One'' (a fundamentalist revival piece), accounted for about one-third of the program - not an unusually high proportion. But those two numbers prompted a few phone calls to local school board members, and spurred a strong letter of complaint to local choir directors from South East Junior High School Principal James E. Ferguson.
Mr. Ferguson said he found it difficult to understand why, with the vast repertoire of music available, it was necessary to include religious songs at all. He vowed that his school would not take part in any future concerts including such music. In an interview later, Ferguson modified that stand, saying that the issue is not religious music per se, but of ''appropriateness.'' His own school has performed many religious numbers by classical composers.
''I'm not sure that the Lord's Prayer is appropriate to sing in a public school,'' he says. ''But what I particularly object to is music that emphasizes the deity of Christ . . . where kids have to stand up and sing, often during four or five weeks of practice, 'Sinners, have you met Jesus yet?' or 'Jesus is number one.' I question whether that's appropriate in a tax-supported institution. You can't say that kids don't pay attention to the lyrics. They do.''
Ferguson says that he has received more than two dozen phone calls from citizens, and most of them support his position.
After the concert, many residents wrote letters to the editor of the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Some complained that the concert's musical quality and degree of diversity was limited. But many strongly supported Kelley's stance on performing religious music. Several writers theorized about the devastating implications for art, literature, history, and the future of music itself if all pieces with religious texts were banned. One writer wrote: ''Art is art and ought not to be confused with that which inspires it - what we ought to ban is junk.''