Another ponderable: Are public elementary schools becoming less secular?

Way back in the last millennium, when I was in a public elementary school in northern New Jersey (approximately 1974-1980), our school had holiday-themed classroom activities and music performances that were mostly secular. Snowmen and sleigh rides and reindeer featured heavily, and for every song or activity that made explicit mention of Christmas, there would be one that made explicit mention of Hanukkah (you know, for balance). It was pretty clear to us students, though, that serious effort was being made to keep holiday-themed stuff at our elementary school as secular as possible ... because that's what was appropriate in a public school (where kids had to be there whether or not they worshipped in a particular way, or at all).

More recently (approximately 2004-present), I have been the parent of students in a public elementary school in northern California where the holiday-themed classroom activities and music performances have been decidedly less secular. There has been an overabundance of straightforward Christmas carols (complete with verses with religious content), weak attempts to recognize the existence of Hanukkah by singing that one dreidel song, and no apparent effort to recognize the existence of (let alone incorporate in activities, performances, or celebrations) the seasonal celebrations of other religious traditions (e.g., Diwali). And, this convergence of "winter holidays" towards Christmas in the public elementary school has been happening despite a significant population of kids in the classroom who are not Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim.

All this leaves me wondering: Were serious efforts to keep religion from encroaching on our public school activities an East Coast Thing? Were they a late 20th Century thing? How is it that the adults running things in a significantly less diverse school district some 40 years ago were better at acknowledging that their student population might not all believe the same thing or partake of the same religious or cultural traditions than are the adults running things in our wildly diverse school district here in California?

Honestly, it's all pretty weird, and I'd like to understand the source of this receding commitment to secularism better.

14 responses so far

  • Madhusudan says:

    My only experience of public schools in the US is through my children, also here in California, so I can't comment on whether schools have become less secular. But I've seen similar things in my daughters' schools as well. Although some of the teachers here have invited parents of Indian kids (like us) to share Diwali, and a Pakistani friend to talk about Eid, to make sure their child didn't feel excluded. Maybe we just got lucky with a school with at least a handful of teachers who do care about diversity.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    Our school has certainly had some parents-coming-in-sharing-other-traditions instances, in a fairly haphazard way, but it definitely reads as an afterthought, and there is the clear impression that there's nothing wrong with a heavy tilt towards Christian traditions in a slew of activities and events that kids cannot avoid participating in because it's part of the school day.

    I'm kind of surprised that the families whose traditions are being ignored/drowned out by the dominant Christian spin haven't made a fuss about it, but maybe they're busy dealing with other stuff, or they reckon that it's somehow useful for their kids to understand the hegemonic power of the dominant culture that they'll be swimming against, or something.

  • Cathy says:

    I was a student in northern California public elementary schools from 1968 to 1975, so I'm just a few years older than you. I remember learning "Away in a Manger" and singing it in a choral performance, but we also sang about Rudolph and Frosty and Santa. Crafts were always secular -- snow flakes, snow men, etc (the only snow most of us ever saw, except for the freak storm when I was in 3rd grade).

    I don't think we ever talked about the religious meaning of Christmas, other than singing the occasional traditional carol, and I'm sure we never heard about any other faith's holiday. My sister teaches K in a public school in the East Bay, and it sounds like they spend a lot more time on holidays than we did. Her curriculum covers everyone's holidays, so perhaps it's just your district that's focusing on Christmas?

  • yellowfish says:

    I was a product of California public elementary school, and we never had Christmas stuff- we made snowflake crafts and things and had a "Winter Solstice" party in our classroom. Maybe it is a new thing...

  • idlemind says:

    At my son's school in Santa Clara -- just North of you -- they celebrated Diwali, and even Mexican Day of the Dead. Of course, a significant part of the school population was Indian- and Mexican-American. Christmas was understated and secular. They actually had someone come into the classroom to explain Chanukah one year and made dreidels. It sounds a lot like what Cathy described for the school her sister teaches in.

    I don't know how much autonomy the teachers or principal have in the Santa Clara district -- it may well be that other schools had more "traditional" Christmases. But I don't think what you've observed is universally true in Northern California.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    Yeah, I wouldn't want to posit that the drift from secular school-day content is the norm in Bay Area public schools.

    But, I am struck by how much worse our current school district (which has serious student diversity on many, many axes, including religious background or lack thereof) does on this than my pretty darned white-bread NJ school district back in the '70s. That's the context that makes the creeping Christianity all the more surprising.

  • Kati says:

    Our daughter's public elementary school, also located in California, will sing on a couple Hanukkah songs, as well as one Kwanzaa song. Otherwise, it's Christmas, Christmas, Christmas...

  • Stentor says:

    My anecdata, FWIW -- in my rural Pennsylvania public school in the late 1980s, our holiday celebrations were explicitly and overtly Christian. In 3rd (?) grade, our whole class did a big public nativity play, complete with Bible verse readings.

  • whizbang says:

    Growing up in the Bible Belt, my elementary school did full-on Christmas stuff, even though it was a lab school run by the state university. Every invocation at events began and ended with a string of terms referring to Jesus. I always felt weird, knowing that Jewish kids had to stand and look respectful during these things. Couldn't they just appeal to god for a safe game or event and let it go at that?

    My kids in public schools in Omaha had winter break. Calling it Christmas break got a rapid correction from any administrator in earshot. Invocations were carefully crafted to avoid anything but the most generic appeal to a higher power. December concerts included Christmas songs, generally of the secular variety (my daughter was in swing choir, so lots of Santa Baby sorts of stuff).

    I have no reason to attend a school event in my new home town, but I suspect the OKC area is a lot like where I grew up. I still squirm when overtly Christian blessings are said at dinners I attend, even when they are delivered in English and Choctaw.

  • becca says:

    I went to public school in Chicago suburbs, late eighties and early nineties- we had mostly non-religious fare, but not distinctly multicultural. I do know we sang Silent Night (or rather, I think it was the featured solo in chorus, being a song that requires more vocal talent than some), but that was as Jesus-y as it got. There was lots more attention to the Jingle Bells and O Tannenbaum stuff. I was always terribly disappointed that as the token Jewlike representative, we didn't "do" Haunakah at home, though I got asked about it at school. There was a tiny bit of Kwanzaa (if they were catering our school's demographics, there'd have been more Kwanzaa stuff, but Kwanzaa tends to elicit a kind of "oh yeah! Kwanzaa! That's a Thing. Don't know anyone who celebrates it" kind of response from people I know).
    I get the feeling things are much more Christy around me nowadays, but I attributed it to being in Pennsyltucky rather than a generational shift.

  • Monisha says:

    Because I live in Utah, the public schools are majority Mormon, with some predictable overflow to school practices. (I ended up going with private school for my kids after trying public school, but the decision was not related to religious issues, rather more to Utah's status as 49th or 50th in funding for public schools).
    BUT, that said, in our three years in the public system here, what struck me, related to my Ohio childhood, is an overwhelming and, in my view, stupid emphasis on ALL holidays - including class parties and school parties that create stress and press on teachers, parents, and kids alike, and take away from classroom time. I don't know if others have noticed that trend - and it does not seem intrinsically religious, but i would definitely be interested to know if others have noticed it.

  • Scientistmother says:

    The idea that non-Christian parents need to come in to educate pisses me off to no end. I have no problem with monkey learning about snowmen and Santa etc. however if teachers are taking the time to plan these activities, they damn well can take the time to learn and teach other activities.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    Yeah, I'm with you, Scientistmother (though goodness knows that volunteer labor seems to be take for granted as necessary to keep schools going through inadequate budgets, even on the core stuff that must be important because there are associated standardized tests). If it's too much trouble to learn enough to teach about other religious traditions, maybe the solution is ... to leave religious traditions out of the lesson altogether?

  • Carrie says:

    I think it's a result of CHRISTMAS (not Christianity) taking over all of December. As Christmas has become more and more secular, morphing from a religious holiday into a commercial secular 'event' that "everyone" celebrates, things like carols and overt Christmas symbols spill into public schools and organizers don't give it much thought, just because 'it' is all over the place. When I was a kid (in CA, public schools, 1974-1987), Christmas was celebrated mostly at home and in church. Public stuff was snowmen and snowflakes (though like the other poster we never HAD snow, ever).

    I think that Christmas has lost it's religion, and I find that really sad. We've (even those of us who are NOT Christian and yet celebrate it) lost the meaning behind Joy and Wonder and Gratitude and yes, even miracles.

    To address your question specifically: my kids are in public school in Hawaii and every year I cringe at the "holiday" concert, where holiday=Christmas unapologetically. And we're as ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse as I'm sure you are in NorCal.