ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Brighton Central School District Superintendent Kevin McGowan is defending a primary school’s decision to drop secular holiday classic “Jingle Bells” from its curriculum.
On Dec. 23, the Rochester Beacon reported on the move to stop using and teaching the song, based in part on an article by professor Kyna Hamill, director of Boston University’s Core Curriculum, stating that the first public performance of “Jingle Bells” may have occurred in 1857 at a minstrel show in Boston.
The story quoted the primary school, Council Rock, principal Matt Tappon as saying the song had been replaced with other songs that didn’t have “the potential to be controversial or offensive.”
When told by the Beacon of school’s decision, Hamill expressed shock, saying she does not connect its first performance by white actors in blackface with the current Christmas tradition of singing the song, that she “in no way recommended it stop being sung by children” and that she thinks it “should very much be sung and enjoyed and perhaps discussed.”
The Beacon story went viral, sparking widespread social media backlash. In response, on Tuesday, McGowan posted a statement to the district’s website fully supporting the change, which was not based on a complaint, but as part of an effort to “review curriculum with a diversity/equity lens.”
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‘Not an attempt to push an agenda’
In his message to the Brighton school community, he wrote that “it may seem silly to some, but the fact that ‘Jingle Bells’ was first performed in minstrel shows where white actors performed in blackface does actually matter when it comes to questions of what we use as material in school. I’m glad that our staff paused when learning of this, reflected, and decided to use different material to accomplish the same objective in class.”
McGowan also noted that the song is closely tied to Christmas, a religious holiday that is not celebrated by everyone in the community, so it “was not likely a song that we would have wanted as part of the school curriculum in the first place. Our staff found that their simple objective could be accomplished by singing any one of many songs in class and therefore they chose to simply choose other songs.”
“This wasn’t ‘liberalism gone amok’ or ‘cancel culture at its finest’ as some have suggested,” he continued.
“Nobody has said you shouldn’t sing ‘Jingle Bells’ or ever in any way suggested that to your children. I can assure you that this situation is not an attempt to push an agenda.”
He said Council Rock teachers are not “discussing politics about the song or anything regarding its history” with the school’s students, who are in kindergarten through second grade. “This is not a political situation, it was a simple, thoughtful curricular decision,” he said.
“Finally,” McGowan asked, “if there is ever a question as to whether or not something might be experienced differently by someone else, shouldn’t we be respectful of that? … If many, many songs are available to accomplish the same objective, then why wouldn’t we use those songs? I think our teachers answered that question very thoughtfully and I’m proud of their work.”