- - Sunday, October 13, 2013

Last week, the Wausau, Wis., school district announced that its 15 elementary schools decided to cancel all winter concerts as did the high schools’ elite Master Singers’ Christmas program.

Outrage in the community began when music teacher Phil Buch, who has led the school’s choral program since 1981, said district administrators gave music educators at Wausau schools three options for December concerts: (1) choose five secular, or non-religious, songs for each religious song performed; (2) hold a concert and have no holiday music whatsoever; or (3) postpone any concerts in December.

More concerns argose when, in explaining the district’s actions, Wausau School Board President Michelle Schaefer said a 5-1 ratio of secular to religious songs is what she considers balanced. However, on Oct. 7, Wausau School District Superintendent Kathleen Williams tried to calm the local outrage by issuing a statement:

“It is important to note that no set ratio of religious songs versus non-religious songs was established as a part of the committee’s review. Rather, district legal counsel indicated that, if the format were changed to a new theme, it could be possible to include one religiously themed Christmas selection along with four other varied selections, which reflected themes from other religious, secular or cultural traditions. The point of this example was to emphasize the need to make a true change in the theme of the scheduled performances.”

Ms. Williams also clarified that the elementary school holiday concerts were canceled so students could devote time to preparing for and taking state and federally mandated tests, not because of religious songs.

The district’s actions are troubling and deeply antithetical to a well-rounded education. There are two things wrong here. First, the district obviously is very nervous about students’ singing traditionally religious songs at Christmas. Second, the district is sacrificing the elementary school children’s cultural education in the name of testing.

People shouldn’t have to apologize for wanting to hear traditional Christmas songs at a school Christmas concert, and students shouldn’t be made to feel that it is inappropriate to sing those songs.

This overemphasis on the secular gives students the false impression that Christmas is just about consumerism. Having students engage in the centuries’ old traditions of beautiful music tells them that there are deep cultural practices in America and in Western civilization of which they are a part.

But, when all that is eliminated or sidelined, it sends the message that traditions are not important; rather, that Christmas is just a commercial enterprise. Christmas is a real holiday that represents real substance in American culture. Education is about one generation passing on cultural traditions to the next generation. We are in real trouble if our schools now think that they must suck all the substance out of holidays.

If there is a mixture of sacred and secular music, there is no problem legally. In fact, in a precedent-setting case, Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, a federal court ruled in favor of permitting religious music as the advancement of the students’ knowledge of society’s cultural and religious heritage as well as the provision of an opportunity for students to perform a full range of music, poetry, and drama that is likely to be of interest to the students and their audience.

When school officials take actions like this, the problem isn’t legal. It’s a problem with emotions. They fear offending just one person. The irony is, school officials who take such extreme measures ending up offending most people in their communities.

There is a common saying in education: “More is caught than taught.” In situations such as this, students receive the very clear message from school officials: “We don’t want too much religion in our community.” That’s a terrible message.

The National Association for Music Education officially encourages schools to have students sing what it calls “sacred music.” Its policy states, “The study and performance of religious music within an educational context is a vital and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education.”

At its heart, Christmas is a religious holiday. To censor that or reduce it to being irrelevant is simply bad education. It would be like telling teachers that for Martin Luther King Day, they can’t mention that he was black because we don’t want to define people by their race.

Music programs such as those under assault in Wausau are a refreshing contrast with today’s pop-music culture. While lots of teens and preteens look to Miley Cyrus for what is musically valuable, there are educators who want to teach — and students who actually want to perform — culturally uplifting music that has inspired people for centuries. That should be encouraged, not discouraged.

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