Let’s not teach that patriotism, dissent are mutually exclusive

Sunday, April 13, 2003

What does America stand for?

That’s the question on the streets of Baghdad this week as Iraqis celebrate their first taste of freedom – and look with a mixture of hope and anxiety to the “nation-building” that now begins.

And that’s also the question on the home front as Americans work to heal the divisions and anger triggered by debate over the war.

Of course, the answer should be (in both places) that America stands for freedom – including the freedom to dissent.

But since the war began, many Americans seem to confuse patriotism with jingoism, attacking all dissent as somehow “un-American.” What’s particularly disturbing is how much this confusion permeates some public schools – the very places founded to teach American principles of democratic freedom.

Almost as soon as the bombs began to fall on Iraq last month, stories of censorship and intimidation began cropping up in school districts around the nation:

  • High school students were suspended in Michigan and Virginia for wearing anti-war T-shirts.
  • Students in Bellingham, Mass., who dared to protest by refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance got a letter sent home to their parents.
  • Two teachers in Albuquerque, N.M., were taken out of the classroom for refusing to take down student artwork with war-related themes.

Shutting down protest and dissent may pass for patriotism in some parts of the world, but it should be considered downright unpatriotic in the United States. From the “patriots of seventy-six” (as Lincoln called the Founders) to Martin Luther King, protest and patriotism have been deeply linked in American history.

As King explained in one of his last speeches, when those students in 1960 sat in at lunch counters they were really standing up for America, “taking the whole nation back to the great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

Fortunately, some school officials make the connection. Consider the high school in Hudson, Mass.

When the war broke out, administrators and teachers gave students on both sides an opportunity to demonstrate peacefully for and against the conflict. There was no name-calling or yelling at the parallel lunchtime rallies – just honest, open debate about the conflict.

Wartime isn’t the only time Hudson students get to speak out. They exercise their rights (with responsibility) daily – by participating in school governance, running the school television station and helping solve problems in their community. Hudson takes the First Amendment seriously.

Hudson isn’t alone. A growing number of schools recognize that patriotism can’t be instilled by insisting on conformity or stifling dissent. American patriotism requires a commitment to American principles of liberty and justice – principles that should be taught and modeled in every public school.

That’s exactly what’s happening at Fairview Elementary School in Modesto, Calif. – another “First Amendment school.” Last month, for example, students were asked to weigh in on a proposed uniform policy.

The entire student body heard from a teacher, parent and student on both sides of the debate (moderated by the fifth-grade vice president). Although parents have the major say, the principal promises that the student vote will influence the outcome. In this and in many other ways, students at Fairview – some of them our nation’s newest arrivals – are learning what it means to be an American by living American principles.

What does America stand for? At home and abroad, America should be another name for freedom.

And how do we teach this in our schools? Through rote patriotic exercises with little toleration for dissent? Or through real opportunities to experience and practice democratic freedom?

The answer, like our nation’s guiding principles, should be self-evident.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22314. E-mail address: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

Tags: , , , ,