At what point does cultural sensitivity compromise standards? That's the question recently faced in St. Paul, Minnesota, by Higher Ground Academy, a charter school that has a 70 percent Muslim population. As many Westerners are now aware, visual depictions of Muhammad are strictly forbidden in Islam, and among more-traditional Muslims, the ban extends to all humans and animals. So how, the principal wondered, could the school teach art without offending the values of many of its families? He consulted with the local imam and hired a nonprofit arts group, ArtStart, to solve the problem. The state requires that K-3 students "understand the elements of visual art, including color, line, shape, form, texture, and space." So out went figure drawings, masks, and puppets, and in came landscapes and geometric patterns. Parents and students appear content. Is this a triumph of market-based education reform, with a savvy principal giving his customers what they want? Or is it a capitulation of the common school ideal, the first step toward the Balkanization of American schools?
"The Art of Compromise," by Doug Belden, St. Paul Pioneer Press, February 17, 2006