Toy Soldiers

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franklinquote.jpgEvery morning, I’m usually in the class, setting my board up for my homeroom class, who also happens to be my first period class on Thursdays and Fridays, so it’s almost like having an extended homeroom. The whole school routinely says the US’ Pledge of Allegiance, and the responsibility to recite it over the loudspeaker lands on a lady I’ll call Lady Pledge for purposes of anonymity. She usually starts the pledge at exactly 0805 hrs., so within 5 minutes of the kids making it up the stairs, we start it.

On this particular morning (November 16th, on a Friday no less), she decided to say the allegiance lackadaisically. After her rendition of the pledge that day, I didn’t feel the need to admonish the class for not pledging. To the contrary, I actually just waited it out and gave my announcements like nothing happened. (Secretly, I don’t recite it outside of school in protest of the Iraq War, but that’s besides the point.)

When I decided not to pledge and show the kids we had no reason to pledge that day, it made me wonder in general if we’re training our kids to become drones and servants to a country that’s time and again proven it cares less about urban city children than it does anyone else. It’s general school policy to pledge every morning, and I usually adhere to said policy. After the unenthusiastic rendition, though, it only led me to anarchist thoughts.

Let’s take the pledge of allegiance, for example. It exalts the US as “one nation under God” and promises to stand for “liberty and justice for all.” Now, when I learned social studies, at the very least, I learned how to dissect statements like those, and I had a good understanding of the founders’ point of view. I also had a historical context so I could formulate my opinions. Even if I couldn’t describe my own experience in this country, I at least understood where that came from.

Nowadays, not even that part of American history gets explained clearly enough. Unfortunately, current urban education relegates social studies to the corner with a dunce cap. The school boards don’t care enough about social studies to make our students better informed citizens to this country. I’m not blaming this on history / social studies teachers (some of whom I wish taught me) as I blame the system we’re under. There’s more emphasis on getting kids to pass the ELA and Math tests, and not even well enough so they can read classic literature, dissect opinionated text, understand theorems or write proofs, but just enough to read a menu or punch in a receipt. We’re not even teaching enough to let the children come to their own, fact-based conclusions about the world they live in.

But someone might will argue:

“Mr. V, don’t you have oppressive laws in your class like no chewing gum, no standing up from your seats, no talking, or no talking out of turn? Isn’t that against everything you just said?”

Not unless you forget to explain your reasoning for the rules. The reason why we don’t let kids out of their seats is because it usually means they want to distract someone else like their friends. The reason why they can’t chew gum is because they often leave it in the textbooks or in the desks. That’s not oppression; that’s teaching discipline. But if we don’t make it clear to the kids that we’re showing them discipline, most of them will relegate us to “just another person that really wants nothing to do with us” status. Plus, discipline is the backbone of any movement.

And the suppressive mentality remains rampant amongst too many of us educators. We’re good for extolling the virtues of free thinking, success, and uplifting our children’s intelligence (or so the test scores say). People constantly laud teachers for their valiant efforts, and justifiably so. Yet, we often don’t think of the social ramifications of the messages we send to our children. We also don’t help impart that idealism we entered in with onto our children, and we imply this through our actions and curriculum. Some of us ask them to conform to a certain ideal of success but stripping them of their individual needs, wants, and cultures without even knowing it.

I’m not sure, but I find it somewhat hypocritical of one of the most progressive collectives in the world (teachers) would allow for this kind of indoctrination to happen. Yet, I also see a group of us that can definitely make true change happen. I’m not so much interested in whether my students become conservative or liberal (or insurrectionists for that matter), but they should have choices based on their past experience as well as learning how the systems work.

Then again, I guess liberty and justice aren’t really for all, right? Right.

jose, who wonders whether lady pledge really thinks about the founding forefathers when she recites it …

You say you want a revolution, well, you know, we all want to change the world …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Jose VilsonToy Soldiers

Comments 8

  1. Frumteacher

    First of all, the recitation of the pledge every morning is a bit strange to me. I couldn’t imagine my students get up, salute to the flag and sing the national anthem before school. I’m not necessarily saying that I disagree, but the idea just is a bit foreign to me.
    Do your students ever get to discuss the pledge? Do they learn about its meaning and can they share their feelings about it? A mere mechanical recitation of a text that doesn’t make sense to them seems useless. Through talking about the pledge, your students can stress the points that you make in this point. You can tell them that indeed, no society is perfect, neither is the USA, and it’s ok to be critical about mistakes of the system. On the other hand, I believe you should also stress the wonderful things the USA have offered its residents and the world. How many refugees were able to leave the war-torn continent of Europe and build a new life in the USA? What would have happened had the Americans not liberated Europe from the nazis? The pledge also reflects these heroic deeds.

  2. Kika

    Funny thing about the pledge…it comes on the loudspeaker in the morning, recited by a student..but we never actually do it….there’s no flag in my class and as my students saw I pay it no mind, neither do they..it’s not something i set out to do…just a beautiful coincidence…but maybe its worse…just ignoring it and going on about our day…but that’s generally how we treat the announcements….

  3. Jeff Wasserman

    When the Pledge comes on in my school, it’s literally five seconds after the bell rings to start the first class. So most of the kids are either a) still wandering the halls or b) trying to find their seats, sharpen pencils, etc. Add to the chaos a bunch of teachers up and down the hall yelling “Stand up! Stand up!” and you’ve got a thoroughly inspiring patriotic spectacle.

    I don’t say the Pledge. As soon as I was old enough to figure out what pledging allegiance actually means, I started just mouthing it. Now I just stand off in a corner of the room as my students recite it.

    Do I love this country? Yes, and it makes me sad on a regular basis. Am I psyched about the flag? Not especially. Especially not these days. Patriotism shouldn’t be a matter of just saying a few words or wearing a particular lapel pin. Patriotism is in your actions. [Former] middle school history teachers like me know that the easiest way to explain the American Revolution is that it was about refusing allegiance to the British Crown. [Current] high school English teachers know about parsing phrases, sussing out intent, etc.

  4. Shelly

    Hi Jose,

    The whole Pledge of Allegiance thing fascinates me. What exactly IS the purpose of doing this? Or at least, what is the reasons given by the educational establishment? Is this really intended to instill national pride in young people? Questions I know but I did say I was fascinated!

    The closest parallel I can think of is the way my classmates and I would say the Our Father and Hail Mary in mass like well trained automatons… Having had a catholic education since day one, after a certain point you literally don’t even hear the words coming out of your mouth, let alone realise the meaning behind them. If someone had taken the time to explain – REALLY explain – and allowed for open discussion about what certain things meant, it might have resonated so much more.

    I’m not a teacher but I do think that the way children are educated in the mainstream means that they are often not equipped how to think. How to read, yes. How to memorise, no doubt. But how to consider evidence and formulate coherent arguments? Doubtful! Being in the position you’re in may allow you to open the door to independent thought in these young minds. The “Pledge” could be a perfect place to start with this!

  5. Damian

    I’m another one who hasn’t actually said the Pledge in years (probably since middle or high school). Without discussion and understanding of the words and emotions conveyed, it’s just going through the motions, not a deliberate demonstration of patriotism. My students all stand respectfully (as do I) and say it/mumble through it, but I don’t. Similarly the way we approach it as educators sets the tone for how the kids perceive it (crammed in before the bell, lazily read over the PA, etc.). I’m of the same mind as Jeff and Shelly – there are more meaningful ways to display patriotism (if you feel you have to display it), but these rote demonstrations have become such a part of our American culture that to even question them paints you as suspect (remember Obama refusing to wear his lapel pin?).

    I’d love to do as Shelly suggests and lead a critical reading of the Pledge; I wonder how much fallout it would cause. Once again, those who dare to question are targeted as unpatriotic. To the contrary, I think questioning and thinking critically are patriotic; how else are we to work toward liberty and justice for all?

  6. Hugh O'Donnell aka Repairman

    A daily pledge may be a little over the top. We do it weekly at HSD.

    I believe that the biggest problem with the pledge is that students don’t understand it, and many are not invested in the underlying principles described in the Constitution.

    In any case, here’s another side of the story…

    James Clavell (Shogun) wrote The Children’s Story, which you can order on Amazon. Written in the 1960s, he describes the takeover of the US by another superpower, and the speedy subversion of American youth. You don’t have to agree with Clavell, but he provides that necessary staple, food for thought.

    At least check out some of the reviews.

    http://www.amazon.com/Childrens-Story-James-Clavell/dp/0440204682/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1196656410&sr=1-7

  7. Hugh O'Donnell aka Repairman

    Almost forgot, you can order the motion picture version (of Clavell’s book) called “Twenty-seven Minutes” from your local Education Service District or other film library. It’s a pretty faithful TV adaptation that has been shown in many civics classes, including my own.

  8. LuzMaria

    Knowing the lady who recites the Pledge of Allegiance at your school taints my perspective.
    This has always been an interesting topic of discussion among my peers, both academically and profesionally. At times, i have found myself in quite some heated arguments with both teachers and friends because of our strong beliefs.

    A few years ago when I taught bilingual and SIFE students, the discussion of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance surfaced. There were some colleagues whom believed that the children should not be asked to acknowledge it when it was being recited because our students were not American citizens but rather immigrants. I disagreed with this point-of-view because I did not understand the logic behind the argument. One day the Pledge of Allegiance was being recited and I observed my students’ reactions. Some of them were standing by their lockers and talking to their friends and others were sitting at their desks talking to one another or moving things around in their bookbags. The next day, I heard the following comments coming from the back of the classroom: “Este pais es una mierda.(This country is a piece of shit.) “Que me importa lo que dice esa cosa.” (Who cares about what is being said.) The last straw for me was when a student took a rubber band and began shooting the flag.

    I interrupted my scheduled lesson and had a conversation with my students. When I think about a country’s flag, I always think of this symbol as a representation of many people who “shed” their blood to make this possible. The kids and I discussed our respective country’s history and the various levels of respect and tolerance for people’s differences and traditions. It also made me aware that my particular students needed to have a better understanding of the signifcance of the words spoken. We might not agree with a country’s government and/or policies, but there is a level of respect that it is still warranted. The students and I reached the following compromise: When the Pledge of Allegiance was being recited, the students either sat or stood in silence. They did not have to place their hand over their chest nor attempt to say meaningless words. In order for our classroom to have a fair representation of its occupants, the students brought in their country’s flag and I hung them around the room.

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