Celebrations always have been a means of educating oncoming generations about the history and traditions of their culture. Patriotic and religious holidays have enriched the understanding of youth about the values cherished in the society they will inherit.
The recent conflict in the Mariners Elementary School in Newport Beach brought a problematic aspect of this custom into sharp focus, when a local rabbi and some of his congregation demanded the dismantling of holiday lights put up at the school by a group of parents. Rabbi Mark Miller called the act “provocative,” saying it “disfranchised” non-Christian students.
A Jewish mother, Marisa Levy, has been free to address classrooms of students about Hanukkah. Yet the head of the school’s Parent Foundation, pointing out that colored lights are not inherently Christian, was still required to remove them. One might question, who is being disfranchised here?
But rancorous questions don’t dissolve issues. There are creative alternatives to confrontation and alienation.
Our society is becoming increasingly diverse. On our university campus in Fullerton, more than 60 languages are spoken, and students and faculty represent nearly all of our world’s major religions. Opportunities are almost limitless for cultural exploration and mutual enrichment. The Dalai Lama has been a welcome guest. Conferences on religious diversity have been held, replete with symbols and celebrations.
Public schools would do well to embrace the idea of teaching children about all the world’s people and their value systems. This could be fostered easily through encouraging participation in the many forms of celebrations cherished by their classmates. It needn’t take up already crowded class time, but could include, for example, songs of the many nations and religions in the music curriculum and school concerts. Banners could be made in art classes acknowledging that “this is the season of Ramadan,” or marking the time of the Buddhist Oban, Jewish Passover, Christian Christmas, etc.
In this way, nobody need feel “left out.” Inclusiveness and mutual respect through shared celebrations should become the hallmarks of our educational system.
What about “separation of church and state?” No church is being advocated here, but honoring the faith traditions of all can provide the glue for a new cultural cohesiveness. Besides, no one seems to seriously challenge having a Christmas tree at the White House, or an ordained chaplain opening each session of the U.S. Senate with prayer.
It is often commented that our politicians, raised in American schools, are woefully ignorant of the languages and cultures of nations we have to deal with. Our representatives are unfamiliar with the most elementary symbols of their deepest commitments. Today many of “those people” are “our people.”
Let our public schools become proactive, in the vanguard of teaching about unfamiliar cultures, celebrating the honored traditions of all our people, not regardless of “race, color and creed,” but because that’s who we are. This not only will win greater support and enthusiasm from parents and students alike, but bring the educational experience to a new level of excellence.