Those three words were tethered by Miss Avery to something concrete that stood right before us every day: the flag of the United States of America. She was constantly telling each of us, "This is your country." She took pains to explain to us what the word "democracy" meant, what America's founding fathers had in mind when they fought for independence. We were only 9 years old, but she wanted us to understand what we one day would inherit - a sovereign privilege and responsibility to vote, the bedrock of our participation in a larger community.
Not that she wanted us to ignore historical wrongdoing and close our eyes to the mistakes that had been made and the many injustices that were committed over the generations. Quite the contrary. She especially loved Abraham Lincoln, and we spent a lot of time learning about his life. And in so doing, we spent a lot of time learning about slavery and the long struggle of Negroes (the word we used then) for their rights. Indeed, 20 years before the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, Miss Avery was reminding the 25 or so of us that "equal justice under the law," those words embedded in the marble of the Supreme Court building, amounted not to a description of what is, but a call to what ought to be, hence, a call to action. Nor did the fate of Native Americans, called "Indians" by us then, get overlooked in her elementary school classroom. She used pictures and narrative accounts of life among the tribes of the Midwest and the Southwest, which she read with obvious feeling, in order to let us know about blemishes and worse in our country's rise to political, industrial and agricultural might.
Nevertheless, every day we sang our national anthem, and every day we saluted our nation's flag. Every day, too, we had a history lesson right after that exercise in allegiance. And it was then that a thoughtful and original-minded teacher made us turn from a glib recital of loyalty and a smug nationalist pride to quite something else. She asked that we put ourselves in the shoes of the presidents and generals whose achievements (and misdeeds) we were reading about. We were asked to take sides and to argue one or another point of view before our classmates. We were asked to consider who took what position and why - with respect, say, to the Revolutionary War (the Tories versus the Concord and Lexington farmers who stood up to the British), the Civil War (the South's planters versus the abolitionists of New England), up to the 20th century (those who favored intervention in European struggles and those who opposed it).
Such assignments, inevitably, split us up - we were youngsters, after all, and we became quite immersed in our arguments. Yet, we were also breathing life into a subject called history by being asked to look inward and think about what is right and what is wrong, and how we ought to live our lives - a leap of the moral imagination. "History is taking place right now," Miss Avery kept telling us. And as Adolf Hitler's screaming, hate-filled voice could be heard on our radios at home, she courageously had us argue even that contemporary issue - some of us advocating "isolationism" (that America stay clear of foreign entanglements) and some of us upholding an "interventionist" posture (that America was part of a community of nations, and so had to take certain stands, some moral in nature, some based on self-interest). Such discussions prodded us to consider, inevitably, the very notion of nationality: How completely should a nation command our loyalties - and what if one disagrees with the foreign policy of one's own country?
We were getting, I now realize, a moral education, a civic education, all through an examination of America, its history, its political and economic and social and cultural evolution. We were being asked to reflect upon our own lives as they would soon enough develop. What did we owe ourselves and what did we owe others, the community, the neighborhood where we lived - and by extension, the sum of all those communities and neighborhoods that constitute a nation? Such a question, which prompted in us energetic, searching inquiry, was a tribute, really, to the determination of a particular, boldly independent-minded teacher that we celebrate our national loyalty not solely through the recital of pieties, so easily forgotten seconds later, but through a candid look at events in America's past and present life.
Even now I often find myself wondering how to talk about America, how to ask my own children or my students to think about their native land. In school after school, these days, I notice classrooms without the American flag; and teachers again and again tell me that the salute to the flag never takes place, even in assemblies, held in auditoriums where the flag often is at least present. Some teachers are pleased at such a development: They tell me they abhor what one of them called "reflexive patriotism," meaning a compliant, unqualified hurrah to a nation. It is a good thing, they assert, that both the Bible and the flag have taken leave of the classroom.
I respect a certain skepticism of unblinking, pietistic avowals, be they directed at the flag or elsewhere. Children need encouragement to sift and sort, to be wary of what strikes them as phony or hypocritical. But children also need convictions - something (and someone) to trust, to hold up as worthy of admiration. Moreover, we are all Americans. This is our country, and there is much in its history for us, most of us, to be contemplated with a good deal of pride: the sanctuary, for instance, offered to untold millions over centuries of time, orphans from various storms who have found here so very much that is sustaining. Sure, some paid a heavy price for this achievement - the Native Americans who were relentlessly conquered, the blacks who were forcibly brought here. Yet, as Miss Avery did with us in our fifth-grade classroom, there is a way for teachers and students to pay homage to a country, while at the same time reserving the right to make objections, to register strenuous disapproval, even to cry out in anguish and outrage at various kinds of perceived wrongdoing.
When we fifth graders saluted the flag and spoke of "liberty and justice for all," Miss Avery was quick to remind us of the difference between an idealized statement and the social, legal and racial reality for too many Americans. No question, I have been in particular classrooms, in entire schools, where no such ironies are allowed acknowledgment - where salutes to the flag and florid statements of American moral excellence are in no way modified by any educational inclination to poke below the surface of things and take a hard and close look at what really goes on in the everyday life of millions of American citizens. Still, at the other extreme, I have sat in schoolrooms where the national values and principles - the very things that enable the full and free discussion that is taking place - are willfully ignored, as if the Bill of Rights in all its glory is to be as overlooked as the flag.
What about the flag? What about the national anthem? What about America's historic achievements? What about pride of country? How might all of that (ought all of that) be integrated into the school life of our children, and thereby, into their personal lives? I believe a nation's values come to bear on the moral life of its young citizens - for, without question, boys and girls at 5, never mind 10 or 15, know whether they are reasonably free to express themselves, to be critical of established authority, to worship as they please, to go about their ordinary way without constant surveillance and interference from the police or the army. Interestingly, I learned this not here in the United States but abroad - in South Africa and Brazil and Nicaragua and Poland, where even preschool children knew political fear and anxiety and understood their possible jeopardy at the hands of a nation's political and military authorities. I remember a white South African girl, from Cape Town, only 5, telling me, "You're not supposed to be friendly with `the colored.' " I asked her why. She said, "The government doesn't like it." I asked her what her parents thought. She replied, unforgettably, that her parent told her, "The law is the law."
We are lucky, of course, to live in a country in which political indoctrination and political power that is beyond challenge are unthinkable, and where dissent is no life-threatening step. It is important that we remind ourselves and our children that such is the case; it is important that we keep in mind not only the errors made in our nation's past, the missteps and misdeeds and worse, but the social, economic and racial struggles that have been waged with some considerable success that have meant, in their sum, a decent and free life for millions of us. We have good reason, all of us, to want our children to appreciate this country, hail the flag as its symbol, sing the anthem as a gesture of affiliation and affection - even as we expect them to become citizens of a kind Lincoln knew to be so necessary, citizens unafraid to look squarely at what still needs to be done if a nation's ideals are to become its everyday reality.
(Robert Coles is a contributing editor to Family Life Magazine. This article originally appeared in the July/August issue.)
Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.
Robert Coles, MD