public domain, creative commons
Source: public domain, creative commons

Reading, writing, arithmetic . . . and American Exceptionalism?

It seems that some educators believe it is their duty to instill students with a belief that the United States is superior to all other countries, as if such a claim is an objective fact that can hardly be disputed. Such is the state of American education.

These sentiments were on display this week with a “controversy” that erupted in Florida, when the Santa Rosa County school system reluctantly agreed to post signs, as required by state law, advising kids that the Pledge of Allegiance is optional. The signs don’t discourage kids from participating, but only let them know that participation is not required. They read: “Students are invited to stand and recite the pledge of allegiance to the flag of our country, but they are not required to do so.”

Apparently thinking that kids should be led to believe that they are required to participate, the local school superintendent was sharply critical of the mandatory signs: “I loathe having to tell a student that they don’t have to stand for the Pledge,” said superintendent Tim Wyrosdick in a news report. “It goes against what we teach in the classroom, that America is the greatest country in the world.”

To humanists, a quote like this from an educational leader is very troubling. It’s one thing to promote good citizenship through education—a notion that even the humanist John Dewey understood—but to teach national superiority is another matter entirely. Instilling chauvinism in the minds of impressionable children is manipulative at best and brainwashing at worst. Such subjective opinions, taught as fact, run contrary to the goals of education. Overzealous nationalism rejects the important educational values of critical and independent thinking, while often fanning the flames of militarism. Such a mindset, not from a pandering politician but from an educational administrator, can be seen as yet another sign of rising American anti-intellectualism.

The United States is the only developed nation that expects what amounts to a loyalty oath from its school children each day. For those who are uncomfortable with such a flag-salute exercise, it was some consolation to know that everyone enjoys a constitutional right to opt out if they choose. In practice, however, educators all over the country frequently disregard that right (see the Appignani Humanist Legal Center's web site, which documents numerous schools obstructing kids who have attempted to opt out).

As we see with Wyrosdick, who publicly loathes the very notion that kids might be advised of their right to opt out, the system has become hyper-patriotic and hostile even to respectful, intelligent dissent. From the standpoint of humanists and other concerned citizens, that can’t be a good thing.

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