In 1991, nearly 30 years after I had graduated from high school, my twin sons, then 12 years old and seventh graders at a Pittsburgh public school, read an interesting story in their language arts class. A young teacher, admired and respected by her students, refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance to the flag. For this act of conscience she was fired by the local school board. She filed suit, charging a violation of her First Amendment right of free speech. The court ordered her reinstatement, but in the end she decided not to return to her old job. After reading the story, the class discussed it with their teacher. He was of the view that it was wrong for the teacher not to stand because this was disrespectful to the beliefs of others. One of my sons agreed with the teacher in the story, arguing that no one should have to stand. Besides, he said, there was not “liberty and justice for all” in the United States, so the pledge was a lie. My son’s comments were met with stern criticism by his teacher who quickly shut off further discussion.
A few days later, my wife and I met with our son’s team of teachers. We mentioned the flag salute story to the language arts teacher and expressed our disappointment with his reaction to it. Wouldn’t this have been a great opportunity to strengthen the students’ understanding of the importance of free speech in a democracy? The teacher, bearded and casually dressed, tried to disarm us. He was a product of the sixties, he said, and did not personally care if the students said the pledge or not. But out of respect for the beliefs of others, the students had to stand. My wife disagreed; standing was the same thing as saying the words. She told him that our son had, in fact, been refusing to stand for the pledge in his home room and that we had sent the required note to the school stating that we did not object to his actions. The teacher said that this would be unacceptable in his home room; had our son been his charge, he would have had to stand in the hall during the pledge. My wife told him that if that had happened, the teacher would have faced a lawsuit, at which point the conversation ended.
For two weeks our son sat quietly at his desk during the pledge. Then we received a phone call from his teacher-team leader who left a message for us to contact her about a problem with our son. We could not reach her that day, and she did not return our calls. We worried about what our son had done. When he came home, he told us that his team leader was angry that he would not stand for the pledge. She had walked by his home room, seen that he was not standing, marched in and confronted him. When he refused to stand, she grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out of the room. I was so incensed that I ranted for three days, but we let it go because she did not do it again. Then, she called a second time. Could I speak with my son about his refusal to stand? He was setting a bad example for the other students. I asked her if maybe my son wasn’t setting a good example by showing his classmates that we live in a free country, where people must respect differences. I told her that one of the reasons that we sent our children to the urban public schools was so that they would get to know children of different racial and cultural backgrounds and respect differences. If the teachers themselves did not respect differences among their students, then weren’t we all in a lot of trouble? Finally, I reminded her that my son could not be legally required to stand for the pledge. In a distant voice, she said, Okay, she’d let it drop. I said goodbye, and she said, “Have a nice day.”
Our other son, then fifteen, was a sophomore in a city high school. He wouldn’t stand for the pledge either, and he too was hassled by his teachers. During his freshman year, his home room teacher insisted that he stand and when he refused, we got a phone call. After some discussion, his teacher said that we would have to write a letter giving our approval for our son’s behavior. We refused to do this; our son continued to sit, and nothing happened. Until, that is, a substitute teacher confronted him and publicly berated him for insulting his country. Didn’t he realize that the city’s taxpayers were paying for his education? He told her that he had a job and paid taxes too. She persisted. Why wouldn’t he stand? He just did not want to. Eventually he explained that he had moral reasons for not standing, and she gave up. But during the next year, this substitute became his regular home room teacher, and we went through another round. This time she pulled out all the stops to pressure us to get him to stand. She kept asking if he had a religious reason for not standing, implying that this would be acceptable. We told her that his reasons were moral, but she did not appear able to grasp this. Finally, she aimed her big gun by hinting that other students were harassing him, and there was a chance that he would be physically harmed. We advised her that she had better see to it that this did not happen, perhaps by explaining to the class that no one had to stand for the pledge. Our fears were allayed when our son told us that he had never been threatened and what the teacher really feared was that other students would refuse to stand.
We wasted a lot of energy trying to uphold our sons’ right to peacefully refuse to salute a flag in a public school classroom. We were surprised by the persistence of the teachers, and amazed and saddened by the ironies which abound here. Our younger son’s antagonist was a black woman teaching in a school which had an overwhelmingly black student body. Their parents were, for the most part, poor, and they lived in neighborhoods ravaged by underemployment, substandard housing, drugs, gangs, and the highest rates of infant mortality in the nation. They faced the same brutal discrimination faced by all black persons, and their prospects were bleak. Would it been too much to expect her to have seen the hypocrisy of the pledge of allegiance with its propaganda of “liberty and justice for all”? How could any black person believe this, let alone pledge allegiance to it?
All of the teacher-patriots are members of the powerful Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Through aggressive organizing and bargaining, punctuated in the early years by long strikes and defiance of court injunctions, this union has won contracts which are the envy of teachers across the state. City teachers are among the highest paid wage earners in the area; salaries in excess of $60,000 per year are common. An excellent grievance procedure and system of local union stewards have practically eliminated the power of the School Board and the administration to arbitrarily discipline teachers. In other words, the union has secured the civil liberties of its members, their right to act as independent, self-respecting professionals. One would think, therefore, that the teachers would appreciate the importance of civil liberties. Yet this is far from being the case. It is fine for the teachers to stand up to their employers and demand that their rights be respected. Yet let a student demand the same and the teachers become as authoritarian as the steel moguls who once made their parents beg for their supper.
So, what is going on here? Why, in situations which must have been common knowledge in the two schools, did not a single teacher offer my sons support? Why had seemingly liberal and progressive teachers, loyal union members all, made such an issue out of what was essentially a mindless act of obedience to the state?
Several explanations might be offered. When teachers do things which students do not like, the teachers often try to pass the blame along to the administration. It is hard to see, however, how administrators could have punished a teacher whose students exercised their legal right not to salute the flag. If a teacher had been disciplined, the union would surely have filed and won a grievance. A second excuse might be that parents would have caused trouble if they had found out that students refused to say the pledge. Other students besides my sons had refused to stand for the pledge, but after receiving a call from a teacher, their parents ordered them to stand and they did. Teachers might have faced some parental anger, but teachers did not mind angry parents when they struck to benefit themselves. Besides, parents cannot do much to teachers so strongly protected by union contract. And, in any case, is it not the job of teachers to challenge their students to think critically about all issues, to be leaders who develop new ideas rather than just followers of old ones? If teachers never step outside conventional beliefs, they might not face parental antagonisms, but they also will not help their students to develop the imaginations necessary to solve the world’s endless list of problems.
Another possible explanation might be that the teachers were, themselves, unaware or unwilling to exercise their duty to promote critical thinking. As a college teacher for the past 29 years, I can attest to the worthlessness of much of what passes for teacher education. Somehow it is imagined that a student who does not major in a subject area will know enough about a subject to teach it to others. The ignorance of education majors in a wide variety of subjects is legendary, yet they all manage to get A’s in their education classes. The person who taught my sons history or economics may never have taken an advanced course in these fields. Public school teachers are unlikely to have had a critical education or to have mastered a subject area, so it is little wonder that they might be incapable of making a critical analysis or instilling in their students the importance of civil liberties
Still, blaming the teachers begs a question: why are teachers so often lacking in critical intelligence? Why are they “trained” in what appears to be such a thoughtless manner? If, as our leaders keep telling us, our young people are inadequately educated, then why do our schools tread along the same tired paths? The time wasted trying to make my sons conform could have been spent teaching them to think for themselves.
To know why teachers expended such extraordinary effort to get my children to salute the flag, we have to ask what it is that schools are all about. In my view, schools are essentially purveyors of misinformation and promoters of behavior consistent with the requirements of the economic system. Most students are going to be workers someday. They will be expected to work hard at jobs requiring limited skills and to obey orders. Political and business leaders argue that the education system is failing because it is not producing people literate enough to do the work which will help the United States to compete with our economic rivals. But this is largely propaganda, which we can see clearly when these same critics also propose a return to the “basics” and renewed emphasis on discipline, the very things which are least likely to produce an educated citizenry. The truth is that the number of jobs requiring extensive technical, scientific, or literary skills is shrinking as a percentage of total employment. Our schools have always produced enough workers to fill these slots, and if they do not today, it is because the good students now want to make as much money as they can with as little effort as possible. Is there a shortage of lawyers or bond brokers or accountants? Would none of these people have been capable of becoming scientists or engineers?
No, what the schools are expected to do is churn out people who will do what they are told and not expect too much in return. What business leaders want is people who will work harder for less money and keep their mouths shut. They do not want liberally educated, critical thinkers, precisely because such people will ask questions and insist on their rights. It is one thing to get a few future lawyers to become scientists instead, but it is quite another to encourage people to develop themselves as fully as possible.
Flag saluting and the nationalism of which it is a vital part are perfect vehicles to produce the docile persons the system needs. They teach that obedience is more important than thinking. Someday students will have to obey their employers. Someday they will have to march off to war. What better way to get them ready than to make them pray to the flag everyday?
When we examine the so-called education crisis with a critical eye, we see that the schools have not failed. They are doing what they have always done, preparing people for a lifetime of thoughtless work and consumption. During the Gulf War, principals gave teachers yellow ribbons to pass out to their classes. The teachers did it. The students wore them and wrote letters to the troops. Critical thinking, much less opposition, were virtually nonexistent. If actual death and destruction cannot elicit thought, economic warfare won’t either.
All of this is not to say that there is no disaster in the public schools. There is, but it has little to do with the inability of our students to read and write. Our education crisis is a reflection of a deepening social malaise. Our society has become more polarized, with a small stratum of wealthy people confronting a mass of wealthless people facing grim futures. The poor, largely minority, students in our urban schools have little to look forward to; there is not and will not be meaningful work for them to do.
Teachers face sullen and unhappy young people, products of severe social dysfunction, and instead of trying to liberate them, they make them salute flags. This is not likely to work, so they will turn the screws tighter. The schools will become more prison-like. After all, more black men of college age are in prison than in college. It is an insidious system and likely to become more so.
Michael Yates lives in New York City. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.