RELIGIOUS MUSIC AND MULTICULTURAL EDUCATION: A REVIEW
by Justin Miera
This review is in response to the author's interests in both music education and theological studies. In preparation for this paper articles were sought dealing with the role of sacred music in a secular classroom. Issues related to diverse sacred music and the appropriateness of its use with regards to the practitioners of the religion were of great interest. Unfortunately, the academic articles that were found only explored multicultural religious issues through the lense of our dominent religious paradigm, Christianity. Finally, the article by Iris M. Yob, Religious Music and Multicultural Education, was chosen because it referenced authors that could be used for future resources.
Yob explored several issues regarding religion and multicultural education. She emphasized the need for religious musical study, the process for finding appropriate multicultural materials and the importance of discourse surrounding the exploration of these materials and ideas. She supports religious, multicultural, musical study by emphasizing its effect on "the personal (an appreciation of one's own cultural heritage), the social (learning to live harmoniously with people of different faiths), and the political (participation in a democracy that is characterized by religious freedom)" (p. 71).
Religion, Art and Culture
Yob contends that art is a natural expression of religion. She illustrates this through a short list of religious, artistic activities by Australian aborigines, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. She then notes how some religious prohibitions have forbade certain artistic activities. This superficial survey is then followed by an in depth exploration of religious art by several scholars and artists including Frederick Menelson, William James, Horace Bushnell and Paul Tillich. It is interesting that these four White, Euro-centric men were the extent of her sources for religious expressions of art. This is not to diminish their insight, for each has a unique aesthetic perspective.
Mendelson's quotes are reminiscent of the Romantic Expressionism of his time. James was described as tending to "depreciate the cognitive value of religious symbols" (p. 73) while emphasizing their psychological strength. Bushnell's bias and Yob's analysis were more Christian specific by relating the poetic expression of the "Word" (ibid). Yob never explains her use of the Word leaving the assumptive impression that this is a reference to the New Testament. Tillich's existentialist views are discussed. Particularly the notion that all art is an extension of the "ultimate concern," or of "religious (broadly defined) self understanding" (ibid).
Yob uses Tillich as a reference on how to choose cultural materials for educational application. Tillich advocates the use of "good" (p. 74) music as the most significant representation of a culture. Good music supposedly translates the depth of a religious belief. The converse is that "bad" (ibid) popular music is less penetrating and therefore less representative of religious/cultural identity. However, Yob points out, through Cobb (ibid), that the products of a popular culture also illustrate the ultimate concerns of its religious beliefs and therefore should be used in an exploration of that culture. Yob concludes that when choosing materials educators need to make judgments about the worth of the cultural content. She also states that the "cultural style" (ibid) needs to be broad and that material should contain a notion of ultimate concern.
Yob uses one example of religious music, Bach's St John Passion, to illustrate the necessity for making careful judgments about choosing materials. In her example Jewish students at Swarthmore College refused to perform the Bach because of perceived anti-Semitism in the text. She contends that the piece should be used because educators can not hide from divisive issues: "...to avoid dissent may amount to losing the opportunity to discover what cultural difference can really mean" (p.78). However, Yob ignores that it was not the choral director that raised the issue of anti-Semitism for cultural discussion. In fact, her defense is that the "...director could not be reasonably expected to know beforehand what his students would do..." (ibid). This seems to contradict her call for a "greater tolerance of religious ideas and a deeper understanding of others' positions" (p.74). What of the Jewish students' position? Why should this professor of higher education be exempt from understanding the texts of his materials? Once the text and perspectives are clear is it still "appropriate" (p.76) to continue with this material?
Yob refers to Horace Mann regarding the treatment of controversial issues. Her summary of one Mann position is to "take a middle course" (p. 77) that is neither consumed by, nor devoid of religious discussion. When invoking theological references Yob supports Noddings' notion of "life-affirming inquiry" (p.78). Overall, Yob appears to prefer the discussion of dissenting views and not the "retreat-avoidance" (ibid) approach of Mann-Farber.
The question returns now to the Swarthmore/Bach issue. If through a dissenting discussion information is revealed about distasteful content should the original belief, or action, be continually supported? Yob acknowledges that the content of John refers to Jews as "a common enemy" (p.76). The students apparently, vigorously expressed their discomfort with the content of this particular piece. Is it then ethical, or republican, to continue with mandated participation?
The ethical test requires quantifying a benefit to the greatest number of people while preserving an individual's ability to freely choose. If a majority of citizens are Christian then it may benefit them to mandate Christian content. However, if a minority refuses to participate it would be unethical to force compliance. Likewise, a democracy, in a crude definition, is majority rule while a republic preserves the rights of individuals over the will of the majority (e.g. nine people can not vote to steal from one person). Yob quotes Mann's insightful words to "Teach those 'articles in the creed of republicanism'" (p. 77).
It seems then that discourse is beneficial, but the application of some materials can be harmful. To elaborate on this perspective examine the use of other religious establishments in a similar setting. Should students be taught meditative visualization and Hindu mantras in order to appreciate Indian culture? If popular culture contains elements of the "ultimate concern," and a Satanist is concerned with self indulgence, should students be encouraged to transcribe and recite lyrics to Ronny James Dio? Djimbe drumming is used in Caribbean Santeria to communicate with the spirits of the dead. Should students be taught these rhythms and chants to invoke their grandparents for an assembly?
All of these examples contain significant, religious, cultural content concerned with the ultimate. All of these examples would be controversial and promote inquiry and discussion. Are these then appropriate for use in a pre, elementary, secondary or post-secondary classroom?
This exploration is further muddled by the postponed explanation that Swarthmore is a private, not a public institution (p.76). Prior to this revelation Yob includes the "counterbalanced" (ibid) views of the First Amendment's establishment and free exercise clauses. Still, she does not acknowledge how the establishment clause is relevant to the role of public educators in the light of their salaries coming directly and indirectly from Congress. Her exact quote from p. 75 states that "it is not clear why "religious content" should be downplayed or even excluded from consideration...". Yet, if a government employee, while on the job, espouses, and encourages others to believe, that Jesus was the Christ it seems that they are establishing a religion. Would Yob be equally supportive of establishing the religious content of a Wiccan coven or using a Lakota song that speaks directly to the Creator, acknowledging no intermediaries or saviors?
Religion and the exploration of the unseen do permeate all aspects of a society through its arts. Sometimes the ultimate concern appears in the overt, concrete statement of a name, or the sculpting of an image. Other times it is transparent like a selfish lyric or an obscene gesture. In every case it is ultimately the responsibility of the individual to choose their expression and modality. Sometimes this choice takes the form of non-participation. When a government, or its agents, attempt to coerce or compel participation then there is no longer free exercise; instead there is tyranny. It is a powerful and beautiful scene when people gather to marvel at the diversity of beliefs. However, if one of these people is forced to endure offensive words and actions then the scene is transformed into a binding nightmare.
Schools are a place of both inquiry and protection. They inspire us to explore creation while sheltering us from inappropriate confrontations. If we, as teachers, choose to use this sacred trust for the exploration of religion we need to use the utmost respect to all personal, social and political concerns, for the Great Mystery is revealed to each of us individually.
Yob, Iris M. (1995). Religious music and multicultural education. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 3 (2), 69-82.
A review of literature in partial fulfillment of the course Multicultural and Ethical Perspectives in Education, MLS 654 H, Course Consultant is Pam Newman, Ph.D.
February 27, 1998
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