Teachers, tantrums, and telephone games

This is exactly the kind of nothing-burger journalism I disavow, but I poked a few links on a Twitter feed and wound up reading on out of curiosity so now I have these thoughts in my head I need to get out, not least because I haven’t seen any adult-sounding commentary on this episode, at least not in the chain of commentary I followed.

First, the story is about an 11 year-old black kid in Florida who didn’t want to say the Pledge of Allegiance because he thinks America is racist. (Whoopee!) The Cuban immigrant substitute teacher there at the time got in a dumb argument with him, which escalated until the kid was storming out of the classroom declaring the school to also be racist (c’mon, he’s only 11; when I was 11 I thought I was going to grow up to be a tiger), and somehow it ended with a “resource” at the school — not an administrator — (not sure what a “resource” is, but it’s the term used in the article) recommending the police be called and the kid arrested, which he was. Then later his mom complained, and the ACLU got involved. Here’s the original trash fire some call “the news”, to which I will refer for the rest of this stupid ol’ blog post.

I now play the role of adult, doling out judgments and saying what any reasonable person would say:

1. The substitute teacher was wrong to get into a political argument with a 6th-grader. She should have said “OK, that’s your 11 year-old opinion” and let the kid sit out the Pledge quietly. If she really wanted the kid to open his eyes a bit she could have found a more teacherly way to do it, one where the end result would be him actually learning something new. (I would have just said something like “A lot of smart people agree with you, but there’s also a lot of smart people who don’t. You should find out what they’re saying.”) My blind guess is she was young, inexperienced, and maybe a bit of a hot-head. Also: K-12 teachers shouldn’t feel comfortable voicing their own political opinions online, in public, or in the classroom, at least not without cover of anonymity; a teacher is sort of a public figure and ought to maintain an apolitical image.

2. The ACLU was wrong to immediately assume race was a significant factor. There’s no evidence the school resource called the cops because the kid was black. From the report it sounds like he said and did things that were either violent or threatening of violence, and unfortunately we live in a time when schools need to take that kind of stuff seriously — the race or age of the student has nothing to do with it.

3. I’m guessing the resource (again, not an administrator — but what is a “resource”??) was following protocol more than making a judgment call. But that protocol sucks. I think it’s ridiculous to call the cops on an 11 year-old with no history of criminal behavior or violence, who was obviously just very upset and throwing a tantrum. The article doesn’t say explicitly that the kid had no record, but the mom says this was the first time something like this had happened to her son, so that’s evidence he was probably not a gang member or something. I agree with the mom that the best course of action would have been for the school itself to pursue their own disciplinary action and leave the cops out of it. But again, they probably aren’t allowed to.

4. The mom has no way of knowing what exactly her son did or didn’t say since she wasn’t there, so I’m inclined to trust what’s in the affidavit over her. And it says the kid threatened to beat the teacher, which could be fairly serious. Some 11 year-old black kids are pretty big, and some Cuban immigrant substitute teachers are pretty small. Even if it’s really just something he yelled in the midst of a silly temper tantrum, I can understand that potentially being perceived as a viable threat.

5. I don’t see anywhere that the substitute teacher “forced” the kid to say the Pledge, only that she argued with him about his reasoning to not say it. Plus it doesn’t sound like he ever actually said it! Therefore I’m having trouble understanding how his rights were violated. (His right to not have the teacher argue with him about politics?) If she had actually forced him in some way to say the Pledge, or even pursued disciplinary action specifically because he refused to say it, that seems important enough to include in the article. But it wasn’t, so…

6. Twitter turned this into a really pathetic game of telephone, and this whole affair helps validate my decision not to sign up for Twitter. First, the ACLU twittered about the WaPo story by implying the kid had had his rights violated, and that his being arrested had something to do with his being black. (Again: no clear evidence of either.) Then the National Coalition Against Censorship retwittered what the ACLU said, describing what happened as “responding to a student expressing an opinion in a classroom setting by enlisting the criminal justice system”.  (That obviously is not what happened. The response was to his threats of violence.)

And then the person whose feed I was originally reading retwittered the NCAC’s retwittering by asserting that kids shouldn’t be asked, even politely, to recite the Pledge at all, because they “do not owe allegiance to anyone or anything,” and that “the idea that they do has no place in schools”.

Addressing this last bit: I don’t see any problem with teaching our kids to celebrate and uphold the country they live in, and it seems perfectly reasonable that public schools (and maybe private schools too) should play a role in teaching it. Reciting a Pledge is an unimaginative and relatively ineffective way to do that, but having all the kids stand up and mutter a few sentences at the start of the day is at least something you can get them to do regularly when you don’t have a lot of time to take away from other more important subjects. Most of the kids will then on their own time backfill reasons why the Pledge is appropriate and true, and a few will backfill reasons why it isn’t. Good enough. Then they’ll all grow up and form receive their opinions by other means anyway.

Kids absolutely do owe their allegiance to certain people and things, though. First of all, to their parents and siblings, except in rare and extreme circumstances such as when there is serious abuse.

Second of all, to their country. Kids, perhaps more than anyone else, are being protected against foreign enemies, not just by their country’s military but also by some of the nationalistic bits of their country’s culture (call this the “social contract” or something similar if you like). Of course, their country also provides public services that protect children from all kinds of other harm such as exploitation, crime, etc. At the end of the day this means there are adults who are willing to risk their own comfort and safety at least in part for the sake of children they’ve never met, all because those children live in the same country as them.

Also, not millions but billions of people all over the world say they would move to the US if they could, so it is almost objectively true that anyone who lives here is incredibly lucky and ought to be grateful. Allegiance is a basic but perfectly fine way to express gratitude.

There might be an argument that allegiance need not be taught either way; that the mere experience of living here will tend to imbue Americans with a sense of allegiance to their country. I don’t think this has been demonstrated, and I think it’s actually rather dangerous to assume it will happen because if it doesn’t then it’s hard to see how this country — a country so rich in opportunity, so high in living standards even among the poor, and so exemplary in stable functioning that half the world’s population wants to move here — it’s hard to see how this country can continue to be those things if people have no particular interest in conserving and maintaining the collection of systems that bound and protect it.

Countries really are a social construct. Fundamentally they are ideas. To persist over time they require people who are committed to those ideas. The kind of peace and prosperity that is possible inside the imaginary walls of a country cannot be had when no such walls exist, because then there is too much turbulence and not enough order. You can’t build a skyscraper on a raft that’s being tossed around on the ocean, or even on a rough patch of terrain — heck, you can’t build a sturdy shed there! You have to first do a bunch of ordering to that site, clear away obstructions, install a solid manmade foundation, etc. Yes, that can be seen as a destructive process and I suppose a lot of people do see it that way (even I am inclined to in certain contexts), but it’s very naive to declare that destruction and violence and brainwashing kids through rote repetition of Pledges is the beginning and end — the essence — of what’s going on. This is a country, and we’re trying to still have this country when we’re too old and decrepit to fight for it ourselves!

But that’s why a grown-up like me had to pipe in and say something. 😀

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