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I Pledge Allegiance?

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Pledging Allegiance

Pledging Allegiance by Joel Westheimer

Who is a patriot? To exactly what do so many children pledge? Does our country mean our land, a value, maybe both? More than 30 authors, from Howard Zinn and Bill Ayers to Gloria Ladson-Billings, Cindy Sheehan and Maxine Greene, try to answer these questions in Pledging Allegiance: The Politics of Patriotism in America's Schools, a new book from Teachers College Press edited by Joel Westheimer, University Research Chair in Democracy and Education at the University of Ottawa (and son of TC alumna "Dr. Ruth" Westheimer).

"Patriotism and what it is to be patriotic are becoming increasingly narrowed in our schools," Westheimer said in early March when he and five of the book's contributors convened at TC to discuss these questions and others. "Patriotism is becoming a symbol of authoritarianism, or blind patriotism." Westheimer said that around the country, teachers and students are being suspended or fired for "unpatriotic" expressions. He cited the example of Allen Cooper, a teacher at Highland High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was suspended for declining to remove war-related student posters from his classroom. The posters resulted from an assignment in which students were asked to use international newspaper clippings to express their personal feelings about the war. (With the ACLU's help, Cooper got his job back.)

In contrast, Westheimer views patriotism as a commitment to involvement, in a variety of ways, in the political process. The discussion at TC, like the book itself, brought together divergent voices to discuss the meaning of patriotism and its implications. Speakers included Greene, TC's Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Education; Hctor Caldern, Principal of El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn; Bobby Cohen, NYU Chair, Department of Teaching and Learning; NYU's Deborah Meier, regarded as the mother of the small schools movement; and Pedro Noguera, Director of NYU's Center for Research on Urban Schools and Globalization.

In order to connect with others, we need to share their suffering, Greene said; only then can students look critically "to see democracy as an open possibility, always in the future. Patriotism may become a dimension of learning, directed toward what might be, what should be, rather than the fixed, the unshakable -'is'."

Cohen said that students need to know about competing historical sources and should be asked to critically interrogate the past. "Students need to engage in the controversy, to know the history," Cohen said. "They need to know they belong to something, to something beyond themselves," in order to "have patriotism not to a land, but toward a democratic ideal."

Meier asserted that "kids love an argument, so teachers need to ask -'What do we want our kids to be patriotic toward? Our schools? To be loyal?'" In answer, Meier offered a nuanced take on the concept of "My country, right or wrong," adding that while she agrees with the statement, she wants "our kids to feel-'that our faults are our faults and they want to do something about it."

Caldern said that "doing something about it" was the founding ethos of El Puente. The creation of the school stemmed from the grass roots effort of a community that wanted something more for its children, including the ability to think for themselves, he said. And so, "we have to pose ideas, not impose, otherwise students will not be able to defend their values. Blind patriotism becomes indoctrination."

Patriotism is a passionate issue in the school, particularly because it is in a lower income area that is heavily targeted by military recruiters. Believing that the students get sufficiently recruited at the local McDonalds and music store, Caldern made El Puente a No Military Recruitment Zone, and neighboring schools have joined in the movement.

It is not an easy stand to take. "For many kids, the military is often a better option," Noguera said. "We have to deal with the class implications of this. There is a poverty draft in this country." The military might be safer than some of the communities where these kids live, and the military offers a full-time job with a steady paycheck, he said.

"It is amazing there's not an outcry on this, but there's no outcry because of who's targeted," Noguera continued. A "blue-state" audience discussing these issues within the safe confines of Teachers College can't begin to understand "the climate of fear that makes speaking out so difficult in the rest of the country," he said. "The problem is that there is too much talking to ourselves and not enough talking to the people we need to persuade."

"Schools are a community construction. Young people should be the subject of attention, not the object of our attention," concluded Caldern.
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