Surge of patriotism in schools leads to questions about right to dissent
By The Associated Press
Before the terrorist attacks, 7-year-old Jacqueline Zobel wasn't sure what it meant to be patriotic.
Since then, she's been wearing red, white and blue to school, learning to sing "God Bless America," raising relief money at her lemonade stand and starting to grasp the concept.
"It means you're a good person and you live in America," says the second-grader from Plantation, Fla. She was among thousands of students nationwide who stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance simultaneously on Oct. 12.
Many Americans, including Jacqueline's parents, are thrilled at schools' heightened emphasis on national pride since the attacks. But others are worried that an unchecked wave of patriotism might quash some basic U.S. traditions such as the right to question and the separation of church and state.
"Right now, it's a lot of rote memorization," says Cecilia O'Leary, an associate professor of history at California State University, Monterey Bay, and author of To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism.
"If you leave it at that, we're just marching lock step wherever the flag is taken right or wrong."
There is little doubt that Americans, overall, have been feeling more patriotic lately. A University of Michigan survey taken after Sept. 11 found that 90% of those questioned felt proud to be Americans.
That sense has driven the push for a show of patriotism in schools.
Earlier this month, the Nebraska state Board of Education voted unanimously to endorse a 1949 state law that requires schools to teach lyrics to patriotic songs, reverence for the flag and the dangers of communism.
Officials at an elementary school in Rocklin, Calif., declined to remove a "God Bless America" sign after the American Civil Liberties Union complained that it violates the separation of church and state. Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives gave its blessing to "God Bless America" Oct. 16, urging public schools to display the expression as a show of support for the nation. The nonbinding resolution passed 404-0.
Private organizations also have gotten involved. This week, the Family Research Council, a conservative, Washington-based lobbying group, began offering patriotic book covers on its Web site with the Pledge of Allegiance on one side and two verses of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the other.
"This is an important statement of American unity," says Jennifer Marshall, who oversees the group's work on education. "Students need to understand what we are at war to protect."
All the flag-waving has left some wondering if there's much room for dissent.
Jane Bluestein, a teacher and school consultant based in Albuquerque, N.M., says her research has found that even before Sept. 11, many students did not feel safe expressing their own opinions at school.
"If that's going to be the case, what's going to happen to the kid who's a pacifist?" asks Bluestein, author of the new book Creating Emotionally Safe Schools: A Guide For Educators and Parents.
But some students say they do feel free to express their opinions.
"The teachers aren't telling us what to think they're getting our thoughts on it," says Jennifer Ewa, a sophomore at Walter Payton College Prep High School in Chicago, who opposes bombing Afghanistan. "They're really telling us to think for ourselves."
Kajal Alemo agrees that students need a safe space to air their views. One good place for him is the daily discussion of current events in his history class at Episcopal Academy, a private high school in Merion, Pa.
"It's helped everyone calm down a lot," the 10th-grader says.
Other students, including eighth-graders at Liberty Junior High School in Liberty, Mo., have taken their opinions including support and a mix of advice all the way to the top, by writing letters to President Bush.
In Virginia Beach, Va., the attacks have sparked an unprecedented interest in voting. Organizers of a Kids Voting USA project say they've been overwhelmed with students who want to staff practice voting booths for young people in the general election.
And even if children don't understand all the words, Kathy Hoveland, a second-grade teacher in Madison, Wis., thinks the pledge has been a comfort to them. At home, some of her students have been sneaking downstairs to sleep, where they feel safer.
Says Hoveland: "We have kids who are clinging to anything to feel better."
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