Thursday, December 15, 2011

What is the difference between teaching religion and teaching diversity?


Today, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher asked me a question that I knew would come eventually: do I want to visit her classroom and show students how to play Dreidel? Dreidel is the “official” game of Chanukah and Jewish parents all over the country are asked to give demonstrations to the younger grades in an effort to “even things out.” Teachers give Christmas assignments but parents have to present the alternatives; I declined the invitation. Adina is not just the only Jewish kid in her class, I’m pretty sure she’s the only one at her school. But I believe that religion shouldn’t be taught in schools and this includes my own religion, not just other people’s. I can’t make an exception just because I agree with myself.

To really understand the situation, I have to give some background. First, let me state unequivocally that I really like Adina’s teacher, both as a person and as an educator. She does her job very well, with professionalism and respect, and all of our interactions have been positive and satisfying. Nothing-- and I mean nothing--in this post should be taken as criticism of her in any way.

Second, the people who claim that there is a “war on Christmas” don’t understand what they’re talking about. What they don’t acknowledge is that in America, at this time of year, Christmas is everywhere – on every television, radio station, newspaper and sign. Even when the word Christmas isn’t being used, red and green, candy canes, and trees with ornaments are ubiquitous. When a person or a business says “Happy Holidays” instead of Merry Christmas, it is a split second of acknowledgement, a half-drop of recognition, in an ocean of isolation. It is just a brief gift that lets non-Christians know that someone, somewhere, regards them with respect.

My objection to celebrating Christmas in school is as much about economics as it is about the separation of church and state. There is the most minimal ethnic diversity in my daughter’s elementary school, but it has the largest income disparity in the city. Keeping Christmas out of the school day is as much about giving the parents who can’t afford the holiday a break from the pressure of purchasing gifts as it is about protecting my own daughter.

So, back to the request: A student’s grandmother is coming to the class to teach the students how to decorate ornaments; she is also providing all the supplies. Adina’s teacher was being considerate and asking whether I wanted my daughter excused from the event. (I said the decision was Adina’s.) In exchange, the teacher offered to have me come in and teach the Dreidel class.

When I said no and explained my reason, the teacher responded that she didn’t see it as teaching religion but as teaching different cultures – she is promoting diversity which is, of course, a good thing. But this is where the philosophical conundrum comes in. On some level, she’s right. Judaism is a different culture and I can talk about Chanukah being the Festival of Lights, and about lighting the menorah, and about spinning the dreidel without a single mention of God. But if I do that, am I really teaching them anything meaningful at all?

Jews don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, but Christmas celebrates it. It is Christ’s mass after all. And while there are plenty of people who give presents and have a Christmas tree referencing Santa and not Jesus, the war on Christmas people have at least one part right: Christmas is, was, and always will be a religious holiday. But again, the issue at hand is how to negotiate my disagreement with Adina’s teacher. Talking about a holiday is surely cultural, and if I don’t tell the kids about Chanukah, who will? On the other hand, if I teach without acknowledging the religious meaning, Judaism becomes incoherent, and kids hate things that don’t make sense. What do I answer if a student asks why our family doesn’t celebrate Christmas or why we have a different religion? My presence is inviting such questions. I certainly can’t tell them not to ask; I'm there to teach. Adina is under strict instructions not to tell her classmates that Santa doesn’t exist. We don’t want her to be the Jewish kid that ruins their childhood dreams. But asking her to explain her religion without acknowledging that hers isn’t theirs, seems to be asking too much of even a six-year old. Or, so it seems to me.

I respect Adina’s teacher enough to agree to disagree and to give her the benefit of the doubt in her classroom. I’m not going to make a stink about the Christmas-oriented lesson and Adina says she wants to make ornaments with her class. She told me that she’s going to give them as gifts to people who celebrate the holiday (she’s a really thoughtful kid.) But I still don’t like the idea of bringing my religion into a situation in which I think no religion should be permitted. Am I wrong and is her teacher right? Is this just diversity, after all, or is it more? I have my conviction but I’m second-guessing myself. [Sigh.] I can’t wait for Christmas to be over.


UPDATE: November 21, 2014.

I had occasion to read this post close to three years later. I edited some typos and added a hyperlink. But in retrospect, while I agree with everything I wrote, I feel as if I missed something important. I neglected to acknowledge that there is no way to teach Judaism without explicitly stating that I believe--that Adina will be raised to understand--that Jesus is not the son of God and that he likely never existed.

One can't understand the difference between Christianity and Judaism without grasping this essential difference. The former is built on Jesus's divinity and the latter denies it. So, before someone asks me to teach Chanukah in their classroom, I would have to ask them, do you want me to tell impressionable school children that their object of worship is a work of fiction? I assume most teachers would not want that and neither would most parents. But when you invite a Jew into a classroom and forbid them from doing this, you are asking them to stop being a Jew. You are giving lip service to diversity, but turning away from it's reality.

This is why I will not teach Chanukah in school. Honesty is way to complicated and, possibly, hurtful. It is best to leave it outside the classroom.

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2 comments:

  1. Remember (a long time ago) when you were surprised by some fact I knew about Chanukah and I told you I learned it from Rugrats as a little kid? Your response was "I don't care where you got your information, as long as you have it." Kids are sponges but they can only absorb information if it is put in front of them. I think your philosophical reservations are correct, but they might be worth setting aside in the hopes of giving those kids what might be one of their only experiences of Judaism. ND is not very diverse which can make it difficult for kids (and adults) to have genuine interactions with other cultures. You have no duty to do anything to correct that problem, but you might be surprised by the impact a simple Dreidel lesson will have on those kids.

    I think Adam Smith would want you to do it...

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  2. Well, if Adam Smith wants me to do it...

    Truthfully, the Rugrats example is helpful. Thanks.

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