The holidays are here, which means public school teachers across America are presenting "winter programs" with music selected to challenge students and delight parents, but too often sacrificing artistic merit to avoid singing of the Bethlehem Babe.
One program I attended featured songs about Santa, chimneys, and reindeer, plus five Hanukkah tunes and one Kwanzaa melody – even though the school had only one (nonpracticing) Jewish family, and not a single African-American. Ninety musical minutes with nary a note about Jesus.
I know Christianity will survive whether censored out of public schools or not, but that's not the point. Why bend over backward to acknowledge religious minorities while singling out Christianity for exclusion?
I don't blame teachers or principals; they feel paralyzed by the threat of parental complaints or lawsuits, and by the purging of Christmas from the public square and workplace. Like deer caught in headlights, some seem unsure which way to proceed. But proceed they must, so they tread cautiously – planning programs based less on musical merit than on playing it safe.
One 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?"
Oh! There was the deer in headlights.
"You know, I understand we're trying for multiculturalism," I suggested gently. "Aren't we part of the mix?"
I understand the skittishness behind excluding references to what some of us still call "the reason for the season" – just a few generations ago, public schools subjected Roman Catholics, Jews, and other minorities to Protestant prayers and Bible readings. Yet I also know that there's no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. In 1995, President Clinton – concerned that some educators and community members had incorrectly assumed that schools must be religion-free zones – asked US 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" (http://www.ed.gov/Speeches/08-1995/religion.html).
Now each fall, with these principles in hand, I initiate a conversation with whichever 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. The result is a winter program that has meaning for my family, too, – even though I still feel like the Dutch boy sticking his finger in the hole in the dike.
Indeed, the tide of political correctness has spread even to rural Virginia, where we moved from California in 2002. One of my kids' music teachers, a Christian, told me 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 smidgen 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 teaching music or raising political consciousness? I give credit to 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, and I only teach the best."
Now there's an idea whose time has come. What if music teachers threw out the tyranny of the unbalanced multicultural agenda and simply went back to teaching kids to sing?