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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 12/24/2010

The line between sacred and secular in school

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Nancy Flanagan, an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership. She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She writes for her blog "Teacher in a Strange Land" for Education week, and her work is featured on the Web site Teachers Lead.

By Nancy Flanagan
Time for mistletoe and holly. Also, the perennial Music Teacher Question: What about Santa?

How to handle holiday performances and musical literature with nominally religious origins is one of those evergreen topics for the Music Educators National Conference.

The MENC has produced some very useful guidelines for incorporating music with religious origins (which includes a very large percentage of music written before 1800 --and many landmark works across musical history). I particularly like this quote, from the MENC guidelines:

If it is possible to study Communism without indoctrination or to examine the ills of contemporary society without promoting the seeds of revolution, then it must also be possible to study sacred music (with performance-related activities) without parochialistic attitudes and sectarian points of view.

Just because the MENC has a scholarly, legally defensible template for selecting school music materials doesn't mean that music teachers are off the hook. This is clearly a local issue--although figuring out how to handle it equitably and peacefully may be a taxing exercise in democratic citizenship.

This is, however, why we have schools boards in America, and why we might consider being cautious before endorsing a national curriculum, in a country as huge and diverse as ours.

In my first year as a music teacher, a colleague told me that she felt that any hint of the holidays in my December concert was "illegal" and inappropriate. Warned, I stuck to neutral, non-Christmas music, closing with a halting rendition of Sleigh Ride. (I am profoundly grateful that all recordings of my first efforts as a middle school band director were done on reel-to-reel and are probably in a landfill somewhere.) After the concert, what I heard from parents was "I wish there had been more Christmas music!"

I taught in a place where I could wind up my December concerts with the Rockettes and a live nativity scene and the crowd would eat it up. It took some time to develop a rich repertoire of music, appropriate for the season, that lent itself to teaching important musical concepts and sent our audiences home satisfied.

What I am endorsing is not majority rule, a situation where a predominance of Christians (or Jews, or Muslims) in a school would open the gates for sacred concerts in public schools. Only this: human beings everywhere celebrate seasonal, national and religious holidays, and leeching the study of these traditions and cultural markers out of school curricula can make schooling even less relevant and flavorless than it already is.

I admit that this is a tricky business. In the solutions that music teachers devise to skirt music with sacred origins in December, however, many opportunities for teaching worthy musical content and cultural context are lost.

It is ironic that in a month when you can hear For Unto Us a Child is Born in the dog food aisle of the supermarket, we are worrying about whether it's okay to be roasting chestnuts over an open fire in the school gymnasium.

The line between sacred and secular gets very blurry here. Music teachers who resort to Jolly Old Saint Nicholas (a musically lame little six-note tune) thinking they're safe by avoiding What Child Is This? (an opportunity to teach modal tonalities, as well as a lesson on how tunes are sometimes connected to lyrics centuries after they're created) may not be doing their students any favors.

And wasn't Saint Nicholas a saint?

Thoughtful teachers express empathy for children whose family culture or religious traditions are in the minority. I believe it is the dominant culture's responsibility in a democracy to show respect for other belief systems, rather than ignoring the fact that our culture is saturated in a commercialism that has little to do with redemption or piety.

Teachers can model this cautious cultural exploration and help kids understand where the music that drenches the airwaves this time of year comes from--and why music has been so important to all people, in all times.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 24, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  christmas music, christmas music and school, music in school, sacred music and school, santa claus and school  
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Next: The history of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer


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Posted by: jamieetan | December 24, 2010 5:52 AM | Report abuse

Excellent post. As a 35 year veteran music teacher, I've always followed the criteria set by the Lemon test as determined by the Supreme Court:

The Court's decision in this case established the "Lemon test", which details the requirements for legislation concerning religion. It consists of three prongs:

1. The government's action must have a secular legislative purpose;
2. The government's action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion;
3. The government's action must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religion.

If any of these 3 prongs are violated, the government's action is deemed unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The use of sacred music for a secular purpose, in this case the teaching of a particular musical or historical concept, is appropriate. One must still use basic decency in determining balance in a diverse population. I often find the students are fascinated by music from other cultures that deal with customs and holidays with which they are unfamiliar.

Posted by: musiclady | December 24, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

While working in very politically aware schools, I had the same difficulties described above when faced with adorning the halls of schools with student artwork during the holiday seasons. It would get very depressing trying to figure out how many different ways we could do snow scenes (some people live in the tropics, right?) and manage to avoid referencing religious themes.

To proselytize in a public school, of course, ignores separation of church and state; but to ignore the fact that humanity throughout time has needed some version of faith just to get through life is also a lie of sorts. It's also a problem for the arts, in particular, because so many arts have been sustained by various religious beliefs.

Like musiclady, I would sometimes get around the issue by presenting the art in terms of an historic lesson (such as Native American beliefs and symbolism) or simply offer the students a holiday theme and allow them the choice of depicting the holiday in the manner of their choosing.

The whole issue is something akin to the elephant in the room; you don't have to promote the elephant by admitting it's there, and perhaps considering its characteristics and why it needs to be in the room - or not.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 24, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Just get over the incessant hypocrisy and double-speak.

Wall Street and our financial sector are the most generously subsidized, socialized aspects of our society and yet they scream protect capitalism all the way to the bank as they deposit taxpayer contributions to cover their unending gambling errors and criminal acts.

Our Constitution and statues don't say no religious references but rather Congress shall pass no law establishing and official religion. This doesn't mean we have to be solemnly, stultifyingly, hypocritically just means no official religion.

Posted by: aes7 | December 24, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

As long as you aren't Congress making laws respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion, then you are free to play any music you would like. There is no such thing as a "separation of church and state" in our Constitution--I've read it many times and cannot find that phrase or concept in there, anywhere. Until we fight this idea that somehow a school is "Congress making laws," this false notion will continue to thrive. A kretch in the town square is not "Congress making laws," positing the Ten Commandments in the courthouse is not "Congress making laws," and playing or singing religious music in school, or anywhrere else, is NOT "Congress making laws." It really is as simple as that.

Posted by: demathis | December 24, 2010 5:34 PM | Report abuse

The author's comments merely highlight the urgent need for total separation of school and state. It is absurd to think that education can occur in an environment in which the most important questions are illegal. There is no place for government-run schools in 21st Century America. Confiscating the resources of middle-class families to perpetuate these useless, wasteful relics is immoral.

Posted by: thebump | December 25, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

May I suggest anything but English toons! For example, Gregorian chants are cool and of course Der Ring des Nibelungen! Its the raving, raging evangelical stuff that drives us batty and of course the pure advertising hokum of American Solstice junk like chattering chipmunks!

Posted by: CHAOTICIAN101 | December 25, 2010 7:10 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for informing me that the study of sacred (Christian) music is like studying Communism. How well educated you are! Well a Merry Christmas to you on this December 25th...oops, sorry if I offended you. Happy Holidays, instead. The Post's ultra-secularism runs so deep that it cannot even comprehend when it offends Christians and even on Christmas Day. Oh, let us get the Atheists view about this. Geez Louise!

Posted by: maxpDC | December 25, 2010 9:40 PM | Report abuse

One email received was a singing group of mostly white males with one African-American and one Jew. Started out with Christmas songs, then went to Jewish Hannuka (sp) and then a Happy Kwanza (sp) - got it all-in-one with laughter and fun.

Posted by: Utahreb | December 26, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for highlighting this blog. As author of the piece, it's always interesting to see what Washington Post readers take away from a simple column about the dilemma faced by public school music teachers during the holiday season: A detailed lesson on constitutional government, a couple of inadvertent homophones, plus a display of misplaced rage and false conclusion-drawing.

For the record, I don't consider the study of sacred music as remotely like an investigation of Communism (nor does the MENC, from whose guidelines I lifted the quote)--only in the sense that studying a complex topic does not imply advocacy or belief. There's an undertone of "there are more of us, so we get to make the rules" that I'm not comfortable with here--but hey! It's Christmas, and I'm feeling like we need some peace on earth and goodwill to men.

I'm with aes7 -- it is hypocritical to be conspicuously areligious, and as long as we're not endorsing a particular religion or set of beliefs, there's a great deal of quality music out there that would benefit students and enhance their learning. Unfortunately, I wouldn't put "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in that category.

Warm seasonal wishes to all--and thanks for reading.

Posted by: nflanagan2 | December 26, 2010 8:20 PM | Report abuse

First of all, demathis should study more history; over the years the Supreme Court has interpreted the Bill of Rights as restricting ALL government in this country. If nothing else, the 14th Amendment restricts all states from violating citizens’ rights. (He, or she, also needs to learn how to spell “creche.”)

Second, it is perfectly legal to teach about religion, about the history of religion, about the various beliefs of different religions, the literary content and value of the Bible, and about the religion backgrounds of various holidays. (Although Christmas, like Easter and Halloween, features Christian justifications for much older pagan rites. The 4th century church chose Dec. 25 as Christ’s birth simply because there was already a winter solstice holiday then.)

Then why the controversy? Because it is clearly illegal to proselytize or present religious beliefs as facts—and many believers, both teachers and fellow students, are unable to accept this and insist on making non-believing students uncomfortable. And because many schools don’t “teach” about the holiday; they just observe it and assume all the students are equally conversant with the traditions. I vividly remember my uneasiness as a first grader when I seemed to be the only student who didn’t know the Christmas carols we were supposed to be singing and I had never heard. Finally, because teachers and administrators don’t know the applicable law. The guidelines are available from several sources, and they are clear and easy to understand, with plenty of examples. Yet school authorities consistently make rulings that misquote the law.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | December 27, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

HI, great article, Nancy - just want to clarify - the statement about communism is NOT in the MENC guidelines. It is a quote from an article in the Journal of Research in Music Education (an MENC publication). Contact if you'd like more info on that article.

The MENC Position statement on Sacred music in the public schools starts with: It is the position of MENC: The National Association for Music Education that the study and performance of religious music within an educational context is a vital and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education. The omission of sacred music from the school curriculum would result in an incomplete educational experience.

The First Amendment...
The First Amendment does not forbid all mention of religion in the public schools; it prohibits the advancement or inhibition of religion by the state. A second clause in the First Amendment prohibits the infringement of religious beliefs. The public schools are not required to delete from the curriculum all materials that may offend any religious sensitivity. For instance, the study of art history would be incomplete without reference to the Sistine Chapel, and the study of architecture requires an examination of Renaissance cathedrals. Likewise, a comprehensive study of music includes an obligation to become familiar with choral music set to religious texts.

The chorales of J. S. Bach, the "Hallelujah Chorus" from George Frideric Handel's Messiah, spirituals, and Ernest Bloch's Sacred Service all have an important place in the development of a student's musical understanding and knowledge.

In order to ensure that any music class or program is conforming to the constitutional standards .......

It goes on. See, ABOUT, POSITION STATEMENTS, for the complete statement. Thank you!

Posted by: angelika2 | December 27, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

P.S. Just to mention that the above post (by Angelika) was posted by MENC National headquarters staff. Please contact for any questions, or if you'd like further information. Happy New Year!

Posted by: angelika2 | December 30, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Angelika2--Thanks for the clarification, and expanded illustration of the concepts. Was the article by Charles Haynes?

Posted by: nflanagan2 | December 31, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

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