December's dilemma

Some schools ignore religious celebrations. Others blithely blend trees and menorahs and stars on hall bulletin boards. The struggle to balance diverse interests is all part of ...

Each year at this time, the challenge for many teachers is not trying to cover the fall of Rome before the end of the month. Instead, they're focused on minimizing calls from parents upset by how holiday celebrations play out in their child's classroom.

The conundrums are endless: Can I have a tree? How about Santas? If we sing the dreidl song, can we slip in "The First Noel"? What about Kwanzaa, Ramadan, and Chinese New Year?

It can seem as if all teacher training should include a review of key legal decisions on the First Amendment.

The intersection of schools and religion has been territory for both acrimony and hope. Complaints from parents that a school is promoting - or belittling - religious belief haven't disappeared. But some observers see greater willingness to embrace the holidays as "teachable moments" that educate children about the diversity of faith and tradition coursing about them.

The Learning section this week offers several scholars' and chaplains' views on this often-fractious topic, not only in K-12 classrooms but on college campuses as well. Campus chaplains also weigh in on students' interests at a time of year that often stirs questions about religious faith.

Despite recent progress toward treating holidays thoughtfully, many public schools still struggle with rancor in the season of "peace on earth." Often the battles are over seemingly minor points - but to many, they are symbolic of much deeper issues.

"Outsiders wonder why this is a big deal," says Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va. "It's not about the tree - it's about 'Whose schools are these?' and 'Whose nation is this?' It triggers deep emotions because public schools have been a place where we define ourselves as a people."

He says many schools are still confused about what to do in December. Some pursue quick-fix solutions - leaving religious music out of the winter concert altogether, or blithely mixing trees and menorahs in school halls. Such efforts often inspire the most discontent, in part because all constituencies end up feeling their traditions are only superficially acknowledged.

"We have a problem with taking religion seriously," Mr. Haynes says. "We know it's constitutional and kids should learn something to be educated. But helping kids see and understand how religions view the world - that we still don't do much of."

A positive development, he notes, has been a focus since the mid- to late 1980s on the key role of religion in American life - and by extension, to all the traditions meeting under the roof of the public school. Schools now have clearly defined standards for teaching about religion, typically through history courses. Legal concerns are better understood as well, and the reemergence of religious discussion in American public life has made many people more comfortable with the topic.

Haynes says Americans face a historic opportunity - and challenge - in confronting the issue in education. "For the first time, we have a widely shared consensus that teaching about religion is important and constitutional," he says. "We could do it like so many things in education, and treat it superficially." But if that's the approach, "we will lose support for public schools."

The issue, of course, goes beyond maintaining a constituency for public schools.

"In the 21st century, one of the great challenges that is often ignored is how we will live with these religious differences," he adds. "How are we going to negotiate these differences if we don't understand one another?"

The trend is in the right direction, Haynes says. "We have more examples around the country of people doing a good job, crafting approaches that are more balanced, fair, and educational," he notes.

"People are not spinning their wheels. They have wonderful examples that say, 'We've changed.' "

George Marsden History Professor University of Notre Dame, Indiana

By Mark Clayton Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Can the personal religious views of professors and students reasonably inform intellectual debate in the college classroom?

George Marsden thinks so - a perspective that puts him at the center of one of the hottest debates in higher education during the past decade and today. In his 1997 book "The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship," the Notre Dame history professor proposes that "mainstream American higher education be more open to explicit discussion of the relationship of religious faith to learning."

In a recent interview, he expanded on this topic:

Must the origins of Christianity - and specifically the birth of Christ - be taught in a certain way in order to be valid?

The crucial question is self-identification, so that one is not posing as a neutral observer - because no one is neutral on those types of questions.

The problem is that, often, people will talk about the origins of Christianity as if they are neutral observers, whereas people either think it's true or not. But they're not neutral parties. You have to identify where you're coming from. That's only fair in a class where some are believers and some are not.

Another principle, I think, is the principle of civility with those with whom you differ. In a pluralistic setting, you get to express your views - but you have to respect others' views, recognizing that you can't oblige everyone to agree with you. If you're not a believer there's the same thing: You can't impose your view as though every rational person has to think the way you do about it.

Can Christian scholars teach about Christianity and be taken seriously?

As a scholar, you have to present arguments and evidence for views that you want to defend. You have to be prepared to say, "This is why I can believe this."

It's not necessary to present all your arguments for everything you believe, every time you present your religious faith. But you have to provide some intellectual accountability for why you believe what you believe. It can't be a situation where anything goes.

Is the teaching of Christian history today what it should be, or has an anti-Christian tilt among higher-education scholars made its debate and teaching skewed?

The situation is about the same as it's been. There's more recognition now of the need for varieties of perspective, including religious perspectives. So there's been some success in getting that to be recognized.... A better way to talk about it is that "faith based," not just Christian perspectives, need to be recognized in the classroom.

The only reason I talk about Christian scholarship in the title of my book is that I happen to be Christian, but what I am arguing really applies to any faith-based point of view.

What do you mean by Christian scholarship?

"Christian" is an ambiguous word because there are so many varieties of Christianity. So it needs other qualifiers. When talking about scholarship, one needs other adjectives, like conservative Catholic, or liberal Protestant, or others. All are particular subtypes.

What else should a professor with a private religious viewpoint bring to a classroom discussion on religion?

It might help to explain how your religious perspective shapes other perspectives you have. Let's say someone's a Mennonite and a pacifist. For that reason, he might explain that as the source of his belief in pacifism. One's view on marriage and the family might be shaped by some religious perspective or another. There's a whole series of things that might be impacted by your religious beliefs. It's not that your judgments might be unique to your religion, but that they might be the source.

If I'm teaching about Christmas from a Christian perspective, I might decry the commercialism of Christmas, because I might see it as antithetical to the real spirit of Christianity - so there are implications that go with particular religious perspectives. Another might decry materialism, but from a different sort of basis.

There are all sorts of people in academia, including many very religious people. All I'm saying is, just be upfront about that.

More often than not, people in academia will be skeptical of more-typical religious claims - and they're free to do that. Others with more traditional religious views should be free to do the same thing. I do think there's some prejudice against religion among some academics - and that it's good to be aware of that.

James Fraser Professor of History and Education Dean of the School of Education at Northeastern University, Boston.

By Marjorie Coeyman Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the 30 years he's been teaching on college campuses, James Fraser says he's never before seen such intense interest in spirituality on campus as he has in the last five years.

"There is a real desire [among students] to understand [religious] traditions and to be in touch with a spiritual core," says Professor Fraser, a professor of history and education and dean of the School of Education at Northeastern University in Boston.

But that desire does not mean that the public expression of thoughts about the religious significance of Christmas extends beyond the enjoyment of the occasional Christmas carol.

"In higher education in general, [the religious significance of Christmas] in general isn't mentioned," says Fraser, who is also the author of "Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America." "Most universities are pretty secular places. About this time of the year, people are either getting ready for exams or on break."

The fact remains, Fraser says, that contemplation of the Christmas story, like most things related to faith and spirituality, is considered a personal matter, something appropriate in a faith-based community, but not in an academic one.

It's a distinction he considers important.

"Universities make a mistake when they try to fill that role," he says. "As a professor and as a practicing Christian, I would not find it comfortable to spend a lot of time in class discussing the birth of Jesus."

Certainly, he says, the birth of Jesus is taught as a historic event, and the life and birth of the Christian movement remain topics entirely appropriate to the classroom. But the biblical story surrounding the birth is not focused on much, he says, in part because there is little historical record surrounding it, apart from the narratives in the books of Matthew and Luke.

And the Christian church itself, he says, did not stress the birth of Jesus much in the first 1,000 years or so of its existence.

In fact, says Fraser, it's a little-noted irony of history that although many today bemoan the loss of the religious sense of Christmas, few remember that celebrating the birth of Jesus was not always part of the Christian tradition - at least, not in a religious sense.

The focus on Christmas really began when the Christian church started reaching out to the pagan world and incorporating some of its customs. Because the winter solstice is a major holiday in paganism, the church turned to the birth of Jesus to create an equivalent winter celebration.

"It was a smart move," Fraser says. "It made it easier for some people to convert."

But for the early Protestants, he points out, the celebration of Christmas was viewed with skepticism. And during the colonial period in the United States, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed by some Puritan settlers.

"In the early history of this country, Christmas was considered a Catholic holiday," Fraser says. "In the colony of Massachusetts, there are records of people who were fined for celebrating it."

While Fraser agrees that a focus on the Christmas story itself is inappropriate in American education, he says he is troubled by how the holidays are treated in many public schools, which often secularize or ignore the holidays out of fear of lawsuits or discord.

It's possible, Fraser says, to impart a sense of the beauty of the various traditions celebrated at the end of the year, including the Christmas tradition, without leaning too heavily on any one tradition, or having an inappropriate religious discussion.

"This can become an opportunity to really celebrate the diversity of our students," he says. "It's a learning opportunity that it's a shame to miss."

The solution to the dilemma of dealing with religious holidays in schools, he says "is not silence."

David Hollinger History professor University of California, Berkeley

By Mark Clayton Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

David Hollinger questions the legitimacy of religion as a basis for intellectual debate in the college classroom.

An intellectual historian who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, he participated in a three-year Lilly Foundation-sponsored seminar on the role of religion in higher education. He is author of a forthcoming article entitled "Enough Already: Universities Do Not Need More Christianity."

In an interview, he talked about religion's growing reemergence into the intellectual stream of the college classroom:

"There are many aspects of religious history that are not taught because of the quaint idea that if you teach religion, you have to believe in it. Religion is much too important to be left in the hands of people that believe in it.

"We've got a certain structure of plausibility that's been established since the Enlightenment about what shall count as evidence and reasoning.

"Insofar as something carries the label of religion - if it can pass muster within that structure of plausibility - fine. The difficulty comes when somebody says this whole structure of plausibility rules out revelation.

"The danger is that you end up saying that something is scientifically true because it is warranted by the Bible, spiritual intuition, what the Pope says, and so on.

"The main line of academic culture since the enlightenment has been to diminish religious authority.

"We now go on the basis of scientific evidence. When we want to know what's true, we do not consult the Bible, we do not consult the Pope, we do not consult any religious authority - even our own religious institutions. We consult scientific evidence."

Jewelnel Davis University Chaplain Columbia University, New York

By Marjorie Coeyman Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Jewelnel Davis offered an invocation at Columbia University's annual Yule log ceremony, she touched lightly on some of the world's major belief systems - Christian, Jewish, Hindu, pagan, Muslim - and found in them all the common theme of light dispelling darkness.

Searching out spiritual connections among different faiths is "how we have to do it" when we celebrate the holidays on today's campus, says Chaplain Davis, who is trained as a Baptist minister. As communities become more sophisticated and diverse, she says, the only way to touch on religious themes and yet remain inclusive is to seek out points of similarity.

The rise in multiculturalism does not make the holidays a time to back away from spiritual questions. On the contrary, she says, the number of students who seek her out for pastoral counseling always increases markedly between Thanksgiving and mid-February.

Holidays bring to the surface unresolved parent-child issues, while for others, any sense of sadness about not belonging to the right family group or romantic twosome becomes more intense.

Often, Davis says, those coming to her for help at this time of year are really looking for spiritual answers. "They move to the existential questions below the emotional issues," she says. "They are really asking, 'What is the purpose of it all?' "

Fundamentally, Davis says, the holidays sound "a very joyous and positive note." This year as she gave the invocation at the Yule log ceremony and consciously reached out to different religious traditions, she says she looked around at the faces of those in the room and felt full of "a sense of joy that we're all in it together."

She likes to focus on a sense of renewal, of "who we are as people in the context of a larger picture." Underneath the different types of celebrations, she says, "I think that's what [the holidays] mean for each religion."

For Jews, she says, at Hanukkah, the question is " 'Is there enough oil?' and the answer to that question is, 'There is always enough oil for God's people.'"

For those who celebrate Kwanzaa, she says, the question might be, 'Can we stand?' and the answer,

'Yes, we can stand because God stands with us.'

In both cases, she says, the real message is sufficiency. "The people are sufficient, the community is sufficient."

On a richly diverse campus like Columbia, the holidays offer an opportunity to be less self-conscious about affirming various religious faiths.

"As much as religion is public, it's also intimate," she says. That can sometimes cause reluctance to ask questions or make reference to the different beliefs of a friend. But opportunities abound to do so in an unobtrusive fashion.

Her own office as chaplain happens to be across the hall from the room where campus Muslims celebrated the breaking of the fast of Ramadan this year.

Many of the celebrants stopped by her office to say happy holidays, and she said she loves having the chance to refer to their celebration and, in a sense, say, "I want to affirm you as a Muslim."

Far from sidestepping religion during the holidays, Davis says, this is "a time when we can be more intentional and deliberate about acknowledging our differences and celebrating the diversity among us."

Jill Kirschner Director of Jewish student life Long Island University, Brookville New York

By Marjorie Coeyman Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At the holiday season, Jill Kirschner sees greater connections - not only between students of similar religious backgrounds, but between students and their own religious traditions.

Still in the first year of her new job as director of Jewish student life at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, she hasn't yet fathomed the interests of all the students she serves. But this month, one attraction has become very clear: The holiday season makes many gravitate toward religion-based gatherings.

"Because the holidays are made into such a big deal," Ms. Kirschner says, "the general population that wouldn't normally get involved with anything religious is suddenly looking to get involved."

From her point of view, "it's a great time to connect with those students who don't normally think of themselves as religious."

Although the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which commemorates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem, is not traditionally one of the major Jewish holidays, its celebration has been heightened by many Western Jews because it coincides with Christmas.

"We do a Hanukkah party and play the traditional games and have the traditional food," she says. "We have a student read the history and the Hanukkah story at the party, and we explain why we celebrate, why we light the menorah, why the traditions exist."

Kirschner says that especially at Christmas time, "the Jewish students wanted something to call their own."

Not all the students Kirschner works with come from strongly religious backgrounds. In fact, she says, they tend to divide into two groups.

One set of Jewish students she sees comes from homes where they received formal religious training and are well tutored in Jewish tradition.

Members of another group, she says, know relatively little about their own religious background.

But the first group, she says, is generally ready and eager to teach the second, and occasions like the Hanukkah party can be ideal moments to do so.

In terms of actual interest in religion itself, Kirschner says the holidays don't create any increased spiritual hunger. The degree of student interest in things spiritual seems to remain constant throughout the school year. In fact, in some ways, the holidays are difficult because they compete with the exam season.

While some students seem eager throughout the year to reach out for religious guidance, others see that as a secondary concern.

"They're thinking first about their careers, their social lives, the role they will play," she says. "Religion may come later."

But even among the Jewish students who may not be particularly religious, Kirschner says she does sense an interest in seeking out a feeling of solidarity - and the desire for that solidarity may well become more intense during the holidays.

"Maybe it's because Jews are a minority," she says, speaking of her campus, where only about 10 percent of the 10,000 undergraduates are Jewish. Or maybe, she says, it's just a normal tendency for any group.

"They are seeking out those who are like them," she adds.

Lewis Barker Psychology Professor Auburn University, Alabama

By Mark Clayton Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Lewis Barker tries to be open-minded about religion in the college classroom. But "what does any of this stuff mean," he wonders, if one is, for example, researching neurotransmitters in the brain?

"I have no problem with people who want to have a discussion about religion - or anything else they want to talk about. If someone wants to integrate faith and learning, that's fine," says Dr. Barker, who teaches psychology at Auburn University.

He recently left Baylor University in Waco, Texas, after nearly three decades, in part because he didn't like the fresh emphasis at the Baptist-affiliated university on integrating faith into the classroom.

"My misgiving is the extent to which it becomes institutional policy to integrate faith and learning.... Universities are always going to change. But this trend toward integration of faith and learning is a different type of change. This is a return to the way universities were at the turn of century ... reclaiming ground lost to a secular century.

"If I was hired at some institutions today, I'd have to write how I would integrate faith and learning. Then that sets the tone for what's important, what you have to do to get tenure. It will impact what we offer in classrooms, the kind of scholarship we're engaged in.

"But it's not clear to me how you take something as secular as science - the neuroscience that I'm involved with - and integrate this with faith issues.... I don't have any inside knowledge that secular universities are the way things should be. I am convinced that I function best within a more pluralistic situation.

"People can integrate faith and learning till the cows come home. But I'm against it being institutional policy. I've had the academic freedom to do what I want to do [at Baylor], to publish secular scientific articles. So I don't want to come across as whining. But in terms of what the university is trying to do - it's going down a track to the 19th century."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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