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Action Alert 

Intended to Unite, Displays of Patriotism Divide Some Schools

12 October 2001

Omaha, Nebraska - A surge of civic pride has pushed patriotic lessons into classrooms across the nation. Older students are writing essays on American freedoms. Little kids are coloring American flags. And in classrooms everywhere, children are standing hand over heart to pledge allegiance.

Now comes the backlash--tentative at first, but getting louder as the shock of Sept. 11 begins to fade.

Rather than drawing all Americans together, the patriotism campaign has proved divisive. A small but staunch minority of parents, teachers and students is standing up to denounce the new boosterism. The pledge of allegiance is alienating, they say. “The Star-Spangled Banner”, too hawkish. And the lessons on America, land of freedom and justice? Jingoism. Propaganda. “I don't think the schools should have any role in teaching patriotism, because everyone defines it differently,” said Phoebe Rosebear, a Wisconsin mother of two.

Much of the ire has focused on the pledge of allegiance, newly prominent in school after school. U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige has called for every student from Maine to Hawaii to say the pledge in unison today. “Join me . . . and other proud Americans across the country in showing our patriotism by reciting the pledge of allegiance,” he urged. Millions will participate, with pride.

But some parents will tell their children to sit out. Some are uneasy about the religious reference in the pledge. Others find the language hypocritical when so many Americans still face discrimination. Still others are troubled mainly by the idea of kids vowing loyalty in lock- step; they would prefer a more reflective approach that lets students come to their own conclusions about whether the country deserves their allegiance.

“Mandating patriotism is a really scary thing. It leads to nationalism and ultimately, to fascism,” said Suzy Grindrod, a first-grade teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, who refuses to lead the pledge in her class.

“It makes our country as bad as Osama bin Laden [by setting up] a war between the believers and the infidels,” added Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of Freethought Today, a monthly newsletter dedicated to the separation of church and state.

Those are the extreme views. Others resisting the patriotic deluge tend to speak with more moderate voices. But they dig in their heels, nonetheless.

Educators Reject Pledge of Allegiance

In North Carolina, elementary school principal Sam Roman-Oertwig argues that community service teaches patriotism better than command- performance pledges do. Her students visit nursing homes, donate gifts to the poor and write letters of support to kids affected by the terrorist assaults on New York. But she will not demand that all her teachers lead the pledge in class, although a vocal group of parents has called for it. “Rote recitation,” she explained, “is not what makes a person a patriot.”

In Vermont too, school board member Ruth Cody has turned back a move to make the pledge mandatory for the 1,500 children of the Springfield School District. She contends that there are other ways to mold good citizens, from holding mock elections on local issues to reading aloud student poetry about America. And she suggests that the pledge may divide, not unite: “I worry about kids getting picked on if they don't want to stand up for it because of religious or moral convictions.” That stance baffles--and infuriates--a great many Americans.

They see the new patriotic zeal as a source of unity in a fractured society, a source of courage in a frightening world. They want more, not less, of it in schools. The pledge may be rote, they say, but it is a symbol that binds Americans together. And in a time of war, especially, they want their children to feel part of a great nation - a nation worth fighting for.

“I guess you'd call it indoctrination,” said Norm Coleman, a sixth-grade teacher here in Omaha. That, to him, is not a scary word: “We're trying to inculcate loyalty.” His colleague, music teacher Deborah Mosier, has every kid in the school singing in high, sweet voices--not only the national anthem, but also “America the Beautiful”, “God Bless the USA”, “Grand Old Flag” and an armed forces medley, complete with marching and mock salutes.

“Can we brainwash the kids?” she pondered. “Well, yeah, we can.” But as long as the pro-America fervor is tempered with respect for the nation's diversity--of races, of religions, of opinions--Mosier figures it's OK.

Second-grade teacher Cheryl Riddle agrees: “At this point, I can't see overdoing it. I really can't.”

Much of the rally-round-America fervor that swept schools after Sept. 11 was a spontaneous, from-the-heart reaction to the terrorist strikes. Teachers collected pennies for the relief effort. Students announced patriotic themes for homecoming. Principals declared red-white-and- blue days. And the pledge made a striking comeback.

Making Patriotism Permanent Policy

As the weeks have rolled by, elected officials at all levels have moved to codify the initial flush of patriotism into permanent policy. Several states are considering new legislation to make the pledge of allegiance mandatory. Alabama lawmakers have called on schools to include more patriotic lessons.

And here in Nebraska, the state board of education dusted off a 1949 law declaring that every school has a duty to “arrange its curriculum in such a way that the love of liberty, justice, democracy and America will be instilled in the hearts and minds of the youth.” The law lays out specific requirements for each grade: To memorize “The Star- Spangled Banner” or read stories about American heroes or study the evils of communism.

“This is just a critical time in our nation,” said Kathy Wilmot, the board member who pushed for the long-forgotten law to be emphasized in new guidelines for district accreditation. “There are enough people out there who always focus on the negative about this country. This is an opportunity to focus on the positive.”

That approach alarms some critics, who worry that blind loyalty may replace objective analysis. Even board member Steven Scherr, who joined the unanimous vote to emphasize the McCarthy-era law, says he worries it could encourage a “flag-waving” approach to education, a reflexive “we're better than everyone else.”

“I hope the good sense of teachers in the classroom,” he said, “will temper whatever jingoistic attitudes there are.”

At Catlin Elementary School, an arts magnet in south Omaha, the new approach to patriotism is proudly on display.

Even before Sept. 11, every class said the pledge of allegiance daily. Since then, Principal Kay Mayberry has added a weekly “patriotic assembly” for songs and stories paying tribute to America. And patriotic themes thread through each day's lessons.

With her class of second-graders, Riddle spent a half-hour one recent day reviewing the pledge word by word. “Indivisible,” she wrote on the board. “What do you suppose that means?”

“It means invisible!” Jacob shouted. “You can't see it.” “It means we can never be beat?” Tyler suggested. “It means we can't be divided,” Riddle explained. “No one can come in and make us fight each other.”

Across the hall, first-grade teacher Christie Miller was reading the pledge aloud from a book glowing with photographs of American flags and landmarks. On the blackboard behind her, she had written the class news: “It is a cloudy, cool rainy day. . . . We have a new student. . . . It is patriotic Wednesday. We love the U.S.A.!” In a sixth-grade class, meanwhile, students were creating poems in which the first word of every line spelled out a patriotic slogan, such as “God Bless America, Land That I Love.” Next door, the fifth-graders had just completed essays on what it means to be an American.

“Maybe it is someone who helps people when they are hurt,” a student named Randy wrote.

“Americans must believe in peace,” Jared proclaimed.

And, from Elyse's essay: “An American would do anything for their country.”

In the patriotic lessons, as in the rest of the curriculum, teachers emphasize multicultural themes. Second-graders are learning the pledge in Spanish, and older kids know the national anthem in sign language. Explaining the word “indivisible”, Miller told her first- grade class: “We don't care what color people's skin is or what color their eyes are. We're all part of America and we all stand together.”

Yet critics are not so sure the new school patriotism is that inclusive. By emphasizing unity, they say, it makes dissenters look like dangerous kooks. The pride-in-America rhetoric tends to close out criticism. And no matter how much individual teachers may praise the value of diversity, said black Democratic Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, “Patriotism always converts into racism and discrimination against people who are not 'Brand A' white Americans.” Or, as Wisconsin educator Gabriel Chavez put it: “Nationalism tends to create that us-vs.-them mentality, no matter how you teach it.”

As acrimony over the pledge spikes around the country, a few voices are urging compromise in the name of patriotism. Perhaps the most poignant comes from a sixth-grader in Chapel Hill, N.C., who has watched in dismay as a nasty debate over mandatory pledges has ripped apart his community.

In a letter to his principal, the child urged everyone to focus on American ideals of freedom, unity and sacrifice for the greater good, rather than squabbling about the best way to teach kids patriotism.

“At such a time in U.S. history,” he wrote, “we need to work together as a team, as a community. But instead, we are breaking apart and losing each other.”

The Pledge of Allegiance

Text: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

History: The pledge of allegiance was written by a socialist minister, Francis Bellamy, in 1892. It has been revised twice since then. In 1923, the phrase “United States of America” was added. (The original pledged allegiance to “my flag.”) And in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the phrase “under God” incorporated. Protocol requires that the pledge be said while standing at attention facing the flag, with the right hand over the heart.

Stephanie Simon.
Published in Los Angeles Times.

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