Must you spend an equal amount of time teaching about the holidays of all world religions in order to be fair? I hear this question quite a bit from educators, because we’re used to talking to kids about being fair. It just doesn’t seem fair if we talk more about Christmas and Easter than we talk about other religious holidays in the classroom. If we talk about America’s Christian heritage at Thanksgiving, shouldn’t we give equal class time to other religions’ festivals?
This comes from a false assumption about fairness. The false assumption is that “fairness” always means “equal.” We’ve all learned to share and share alike – meaning, everyone gets an equal portion of something.
However, there is another way to look at fairness. Fairness sometimes meaning proportional, not equal. Our system of representation in Congress is an example of the two definitions of fairness. In the U.S. Senate, fair means equal. It doesn’t matter whether you live in Texas and California, or Rhode Island and Wyoming, you get two Senators. In the Senate, fair means equal.
However, in the House of Representatives, our definition of fairness changes. Fair there means proportional to a state’s population. States like Texas, California, and New York have a much greater representation than small states, because it’s proportional, not equal. Yet, it is considered fair.
Another example would be teachers’ pay. A first-year teacher and a twenty-year veteran are going to teach the same students, the same topics, and grade the same papers. But they do not get equal pay for equal work. They get paid proportional to their years of service, and everybody (except maybe the rookie) calls that fair.
A buffet dinner is another example. A 300-pound linebacker and his model-thin wife will both be charged the same amount. But the linebacker is going to eat a lot more than his wife. They are going to eat proportional to their capacity. Even though the price was the same for both, it is considered fair.
When using religious holidays as opportunities to teach about culture, I recommend teachers ask themselves three guiding questions to determine appropriate proportionality:
- What is the predominant religion in America and what holidays will help my students understand something about that religion? Learning about America’s Christian traditions is appropriate for all students as a way of understanding much of American culture.
- What other religions have a significant impact in my community and what holidays will help my students understand those religions? Students should understand the various religious traditions proportional to their actual influence the community.
- What religions are represented in my classroom and how can I help my students understand each other? Proportional to the religious make-up of the class, acknowledgment of minority religions helps build understanding and appreciation.
Eric Buehrer is the president of Gateways to Better Education and author of the professional development seminar, Faith, Freedom & Public Schools: Addressing the Bible and Christianity without Mixing Church and State.
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