ANNAPOLIS – Maryland public school students are free to thank anyone they want while learning about the 17th century celebration of Thanksgiving — as long as it’s not God.
And that is how it should be, administrators say.
Young students across the state read stories about the Pilgrims and Native Americans, simulate Mayflower voyages, hold mock feasts and learn about the famous meal that temporarily allied two very different groups.
But what teachers don’t mention when they describe the feast is that the Pilgrims not only thanked the Native Americans for their peaceful three-day indulgence, but repeatedly thanked God.
“We teach about Thanksgiving from a purely historical perspective, not from a religious perspective,” said Charles Ridgell, St. Mary’s County Public Schools curriculum and instruction director.
School administrators statewide agree, saying religion never coincides with how they teach Thanksgiving to students.
Too much censorship can compromise a strong curriculum, some educators said.
“Schools don’t want to do anything that would influence or act against the religious preferences of their students,” said Lissa Brown, Maryland State Teacher’s Association assistant executive director. “But the whole subject of religious toleration is a part of our history and needs to be taught.”
Brown, a former social studies teacher said she was surprised to hear schools aren’t teaching about the Pilgrims’ faith in God.
Teaching about a secular Thanksgiving counters the holiday’s original premise as stated by George Washington in his Thanksgiving Day proclamation: “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.”
Such omissions also deny the Pilgrims’ religious fervor in the celebration of Thanksgiving, as related by Harry Hornblower, an archaeologist who spent years researching the history of the holiday.
According to the Web site Plimoth.org, dedicated to Hornblower’s research, the Pilgrims, “fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean.”
Thanksgiving, the site said, derived from their belief that “a series of misfortunes meant that God was displeased, and the people should both search for the cause and humble themselves before him. Good fortune, on the other hand, was a sign of God’s mercy and compassion, and therefore he should be thanked and praised.”
But researchers like Hornblower aren’t mentioned in classrooms.
“We don’t focus on religion, because it is not a part of our curriculum,” said Sandra Grulich, Cecil County Schools’ elementary school curriculum coordinator.
Opponents of censorship worry that by omitting such religious material from lesson plans, educators are compromising their students’ education.
“School administrators need to get a backbone,” said Joel Whitehead, president and lawyer at the Rutherford Institute, a constitutional rights defense organization. “We are in real danger of throwing out cultural heritage in our country if we don’t know what Thanksgiving is really about.”
Mentioning that the Pilgrims were Puritan is about as close as most administrators are willing to step to integrate religion into their curriculums.
“We mention they were Puritan but students usually just understand that they had a belief system and not much more than that,” said Carol Williamson, Queen Anne’s County Schools’ associate superintendent.
Thanksgiving is usually taught as a part of social studies and emphasizes cultural immersion.
“The Pilgrim Story is read in Spanish and English,” said Alfreda Adams, principal at Mills-Parole Elementary School in Anne Arundel County where 70 Hispanic students attend. “We make sure that we celebrate all cultures.”
The Mayflower, Pilgrims, Native Americans become enduring symbols to students before the two-day hiatus they are granted each year to spend time with their families.
“In elementary school we learned that the Pilgrims came to the Indians and they all had a feast,” said Emmanuel Cobington, 13, and a seventh-grader at Annapolis Middle School.
Cobington said his teachers never mentioned that the holiday was religious, but learns about different denominations in some of his classes.
“We learn about different religions like Judaism and Christianity in our social studies classes,” said Cobington.
Whitehead advocates for more classes like Cobington’s and says it is harmful to students when administrators censor curriculums for fear of offending someone.
“Education is inevitably going to offend someone,” said Whitehead. “We need to get beyond being politically correct, or everything will be glossed over.”