Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Mandatory Patriotism Is Always A Bad Idea

Mandatory patriotism is never a good idea. This sign I passed today announces that school children in the district where I pay property taxes to support education were not in classes learning to read, write or think mathematically on Tuesday at 1:30pm. Instead, they were being told to thank veterans while listening to feeble-minded platitudes such as “they gave us our freedom.”

A poor substitute for actually studying our Constitution, the Bill of Rights or the Magna Carta.

This year November 10 was the day prior to what used to be Armistice Day, marking the ceasefire negotiated on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, ending European combat and, ultimately, World War I. My father’s father was wounded on that day and it was a long time before he made it home again, his health permanently broken. He told his only son, “Don’t believe them when they tell you the next war is a good one. There is no such thing.”

When I reflect on what I studied as a history major and continue to study as a teacher of history, enforced patriotism at the taxpayers’ expense targeting children who have not yet attained the age of reason makes me feel like weeping. It’s nearly always practiced by aggressive, warrior nation-states and it nearly always ends badly.

Shutting down critical thinking by silencing questioners and dissenters by mandatory displays of chauvinism is a recipe for a dumb populace easily enlisted as cannon fodder.

I stayed at a friend’s house last night and she told me of her friend whose son had refused, in around 2006, to stand for the pledge of allegiance in homeroom. He was threatened with suspension eventually and when his mother protested she was told that the mandatory pledge of allegiance was “school policy.” She didn’t think that school policy trumped the 1st amendment, and she took the case all the way to the superintendent and the school board. They agreed with her, but meanwhile the football coach had told the boy that if he didn’t stand for the pledge he was off the team. The boy knuckled under.

My friend said she was most appalled by the fact that no teachers in this public high school in a university town in the western mountains of Maine stood up for the boy’s rights. Only one teacher told the mother that he agreed the boy had the right not to stand, but said he didn’t dare speak openly about it for fear of losing his job. Everyone else was either mute or vocally agreed with the mandatory pledge of allegiance. By teenagers who had not even reached adulthood. In what sense is such a pledge even valid?

One of the arguments the boy had heard was that he was a hypocrite because he would sing the national anthem before football games. The student tried to argue that pledging allegiance to a nation was quite a different matter from singing a patriot song. I give him an A+ for critical thinking on that one.

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