Symbols and Public Classroom Displays

A Utah Senate committee recently passed SB 190, which would require all public school classrooms to display the U.S. flag and Constitution, and each school prominently display the national motto (“In God We Trust”).

I very much agree with the stated intent of the bill, as listed in section 1.

The Legislature recognizes that a proper understanding of American history and government is essential to good citizenship, and that the public schools are the primary public institutions charged with responsibility for assisting children and youth in gaining that understanding.

I think that the means described in sections 3-5 by which it is hoped that the bill will help develop that proper understanding are very sensible—if perhaps a bit intrusive on the local school boards. I strongly encourage people to explore the documents by which our nation is governed, the principles upon which the nation was founded, and the words and lives of the men who were essential in establishing those documents and that nation.

But then the Senate committee got to what seems to have been the primary thrust of the bill, with sections 6 and 7 requiring the display of the flag and Constitution.

What, do the Senators believe that the students will absorb patriotism by osmosis? “The latest physics research indicates that the convection and radiation of citizenship from patriotactive materials will increase patriotactivity of all citizens within a forty-foot radius (though it may cause patriotactive poisoning in illegal immigrants).”

I suppose it is a fairly small thing—aside perhaps from the “unfunded mandate” issue (the inability of conservatives like Senator Christensen to distinguish between legitimate dissent over an unjust war perpetrated on false pretenses and a lack of patriotism is another issue altogether). It certainly doesn’t hurt to hang the flag in a classroom. Yet it is indicative of a larger issue among conservatives.

Items like flags are nothing more than symbols. Symbols are very important in the way humans process abstract information. But problems arise when people turn the symbol into a fetish. The Right seems to struggle with this tendency, as indicated by Orrin Hatch’s flag burning amendment, Chris Buttars’ attempt to dictate recitation of the pledge, the email-forward tizzy over Obama’s decision not to cover his heart during the national anthem (as addressed several months back by The Life that I’m Living), and this bill. These conservatives seem to forget that a symbol is only representative of an abstract concept, not an actual manifestation or avatar of that concept. The concept is in no way harmed by neglect of a symbol, or even outright desecration. Symbols are not voodoo dolls.

In fact, principles and concepts aren’t necessarily nurtured by the strict observance and veneration of their symbols. The pharisees very proudly maintained the symbols of their faith/culture/nation, strictly observing the outward rituals associated with those symbols—yet Jesus denounced them as vipers and hypocrites.

I would suggest that many in our history have tarnished the principles of this nation while wearing flag pins, waving the flag, saluting the anthem, and otherwise performing outward rituals of respect. Conservatives must learn that pride is not patriotism. Similarly, many who decline superficial observances have done much to buttress those important principles. External trappings really mean very little.

Hopefully the Utah Legislature as a whole will display a less shallow understanding of patriotism and citizenship, and will look at more meaningful methods by which to promote these virtues.

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6 Responses to “Symbols and Public Classroom Displays”

  1. Obi wan liberali Says:

    As for myself, with the pledge of allegiance, I replace “God” with “reason” and as far as “in God we trust” I would just assume replacing God with “the scientific method”.

    Does that make me less of an American? I have ancestors who fought in the American revoloution. Am I a man without a country?

  2. Aaron Orgill Says:

    This is really where I get confused by the religious right. They insist (rightly) that schools not preach acceptance of teen sex, abortion, and homosexuality, and claim that it undercuts their parental rights and that such has no place in public schools. But as soon as the discussion shifts to creationism or the Ten Commandments, which they’re in favor of, they act as if placing the responsibility with them will lead to disaster, and all of a sudden public schools are a place where the government should be there to reinforce their own particular values, regardless of anyone else’s feelings.

  3. jennifer Says:

    Good point Aaron.

  4. Cameron Says:

    “I would suggest that many in our history have tarnished the principles of this nation while wearing flag pins…”

    Likely, yes. But so what? Does that negate the effect, as you note in your post, that these symbols have? I just get a real sense of throwing the baby out with the bathwater here.

    In our country there is a decided lack of civic involvement, historical perspective and knowledge, and perhaps most egregious, a lack of understanding of what makes America great. Using symbols like flags and pledges are important tools for instilling a sense of patriotic duty.

    We all complain about voter apathy, but then we couldn’t possibly recite the Pledge of Allegiance because it contains the “G” word.

    If we want to oppose this bill on grounds of local control, or unfunded mandates, that’s fine. But to assert that symbols are good and have meaning, but that we shouldn’t actually use them is wrong. Jesus may have condemned the Pharisees for their rigidity concerning the outward ordinances, but one of the last things he did as a mortal was to institute a new one.

  5. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Good questions, Obi Wan. Ones I hope to address before long.

    A little off-topic, Aaron, but those are fine points. On a related note, I suspect that I might have some very serious disagreements with these Senators on what constitutes a “proper understanding” of U.S. History and government.

    Cameron, who is throwing the baby out? I never said we shouldn’t use them. If you read my post, you will see I said “It certainly doesn’t hurt to hang the flag in a classroom,” and did not anywhere suggest we abandon the flag. My point was that this is one of many examples of a lack of depth or even complete misunderstanding of the nature of symbols in the conservative perspective.

    There is indeed a lack of civic involvement in our nation. Whether or not civic involvement was greater in earlier times is debatable. Even more debatable is the apparent contention by the Senate that this lack of involvement is a result of neglect of superficial observances. While properly understood use of symbols can be important to education, the misuse and reliance on symbols is also a common method of indoctrination. Fascism loves its symbols.

  6. Aaron Orgill Says:

    You’re right. I meant to include conservatives’ belief that pride and patriotism are synonyms with the other things. It seemed all connected in my own mind at the time.

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