Marion Cross School: teaching a Valuable Lesson or Pandering to Patriotism?

BanksyAndipaGallery2From the department of “they write letters & stir up trouble”:

Dear Dr. Kelley,


With a new year dawning, I wanted to raise an issue that has been on my mind for some time. In fairness, though, I should probably start out by apologizing for the length of this note…

 In the early December PTO newsletter, you highlighted the mission statement for the Marion Cross School. Describing how the school “partners with families and communities to develop responsible and global citizens who can adapt to a changing world,” you went on to elaborate:

 Teachers have developed a “service learning” approach that includes the development, planning, implementation, and evaluation of student service. It also ties service to the school’s curriculum. One example of this is the second grade Veteran’s Day activity. Students practice language arts skills as they write letters to veterans, thanking them for risking their lives to protect our country’s freedom.

At a time when every aspect of the school’s activities is being scrutinized to trim budgets while convincing tax payers and parents that they’re still getting value for money, the tired cliché “risking their lives to protect our country’s freedom” used in the context of teaching made me wonder: does a lesson apparently consisting of perpetuating a value-laden misperception of armed conflict meet any of the school’s educational goals? I doubt it did much to “develop responsible global citizens with the ability to adapt to a changing world.” And since both meaningful’ and ‘reflection’ are sorely absent from the letter-writing activity, it seems to also have fallen short of the core expectations of the service learning program: “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection.”

Responsibility requires comprehension: our kids (those responsible future global citizens) need to at least understand the very basics of what military service entails and how “freedom” is defined if they are to author a letter on the subject without making a mockery of both themselves and the recipient. Sending a thank-you note to a perfect stranger for something he is claimed to have done on behalf of “the country” is an abstract and contrived task to ask of a 2nd grader, and trying to address that complexity by simply serving them up a conveniently pre-packaged message to recite rules out any meaningful reflection on what Veteran’s Day truly represents.

But if you aim to “develop global citizens who can adapt to a changing world” it seems reasonable to have them reflect on the fact that theirs is a country determined to be permanently at war with no-one in particular, over nothing in particular, in a world where one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. Veteran’s Day offered an opportunity to review the history of conflict and discuss where we are still fighting, who we are fighting and what we’re fighting over. The kids might have considered the consequences of never-ending open-ended missions “over there” killing “them” because “they” (or anyone who just happen to look like or worship like “them”) supposedly want to somehow “take away” what we perceive as “our freedoms.” No such reflection appears to have taken place, and dumbing it down to the point where military service is about “protecting our freedoms” renders Veteran’s Day’s curricular value reduced to little more than a public service announcement for the armed forces. Even with the best of intentions, this approach to “service learning” fails to facilitate an understanding of what veterans represent and why they might be worthy of respect and gratitude. And while the mechanics of penning a note may perhaps practice some cursive and language arts skills, the lack of context leaves it quite disconnected from any greater educational goals and from the world outside the classroom.

Equally troubling: there’s really not much service rendered here – it is at best a disservice to the veterans if all we can offer is the passive platitude of a “thank you” card. Surely a more tangible approach was possible for this “service learning” lesson. At the very least, a visit with a vet, perhaps to hear some firsthand reflections on war? In “Authentic Patriotism” Vermont author Stephen Kiernan argues against apathy and for engagement, praising genuine service to one another as the kind of patriotism that transcends the empty flag waving and political posturing. Genuine service would fit better with the spirit of service learning, and I’d encourage the school to take that notion to heart when planning future lessons. (If, on the other hand, you really just want the kids to practice writing in the context of Veteran’s Day, they would be far better served writing to their representatives explaining that they prefer not to become veterans themselves, and asking them to please think twice about starting the next war. )

As presumed partners in the effort to meet the mission statement goals, I think most MCS parents would agree with the definition of a responsible citizen as a competent individual taught to stay informed by facts, not flowery emotional rhetoric, prejudice or conjecture; raised to think independently, and to take responsibility for acts, choices, and opinions. Most of us strive to raise our kids that way, but our society seems to prefer obedient and dependable cogs in the machine, citizens who will take even patently ludicrous claims by authority figures at face value and simply do as they’re told – the kind of docile, gullible sheep, in other words, who learn at an early age that “war is about protecting our freedom” and who will support or at least accept wars to be fought in their name on the basis of that fallacy. Such unquestioning acceptance sets them on a path to life in a world where veterans (including, perhaps, themselves or their friends) will continue to return with nothing to show for their noble sacrifice but a bad case of chronic limb deficiency. I’d like to think that our school could be courageous enough to teach our kids that, rather than simply accepting and adapting to a changing world, they can, in fact, change the world for the better thru their decisions and actions.

I should perhaps be clear: I have great respect for our veterans, and I appreciate how sacrosanct is the American ritual of thanking them unconditionally. But just as you can “Support The Troops” by advocating for a foreign policy that keeps them out of harms’ way, so can a vet be honored without perpetuating the counterproductive myth that the war in which he fought had much to do with “protecting our country’s freedom.” I’m not denigrating their record, or implying that they aren’t worthy of gratitude – it’s simply the presumed cause that’s problematic. I’m also not suggesting that you whip out Chomsky and teach your 2nd graders about the American tradition of manipulating patriotism (and abusing the courage of those who serve) to further less-than-noble goals of the state. But just as we have finally come to appreciate that teaching our kids about environmentalism isn’t just some treehugger’s un-American pipe dream, so do we owe it to our children to teach them some basic facts of geopolitics, even if they might challenge Land of the Brave 101 and patriotic platitudes about war for freedom’s sake. Then they can decide for themselves how they wish to view war and all its consequences for those who fight and are fought. That may in turn put their perception of veterans and Veteran’s Day in proper perspective, which in the long run will be better for them as well as for the veterans.

Ultimately, we’re of course free as individuals to believe that “our way of life would not be possible without the great sacrifices made by generation upon generation of military personnel who have protected our freedoms for more than 200 years,“ as President Bush claimed on Veteran’s Day in 2004. We are likewise free to believe in “One Nation, Under God;” that Columbus’ discovery of America was “divine providence;” and that the later conquest of the American West was “manifest destiny.” But believing such myths does not make them any more true, however, and a responsible educator proposing to “develop responsible citizens” will know to teach the facts about war, peace and freedom, warts and all. So, I am not objecting to such lofty concepts being drawn into the lesson plans – on the contrary: in a society that spends relentlessly to churn out ever more veterans while its educators struggle to stretch their ever thinner budgets, politics and values must be part of a K-6 curriculum. But at a time when the school is considering drastic cuts in art, languages and other crucial activities that broaden our kids’ horizons and expand their understanding of the complex world that surrounds and awaits them, it is imperative that the curriculum not waste their time and effort, nor cuts corners or denies them the full picture for the sake of convenience or well-intentioned but flawed intellectual shortcuts. Offering merely lip service to the noble notion of freedom, and making a mockery of the true meaning of service, the described writing lesson comes across as vapid and rather pointless; little more than a well-intentioned but ultimately empty gesture laced with at bit of cringe-worthy pretense, not worthy of the values for which the school stands.

Marion Cross School can and should do better, and its mission statement asks that you rise above mere platitudes in place of genuine education. Thus, in future “service learning” lesson plans I for one would be thrilled to see you pick services that meet genuine needs and steer clear of posturing and pretense, and that you show the courage, vision and conviction to provide the kids with context and understanding of the topic at hand, even if the lesson ends up more messy, controversial, complex, and demanding. The same can be said about life in general, so the kids might just learn something useful from the exercise.

Thank you for your time and consideration of what was intended and hopefully came across as constructive criticism.



Update: this kind of sectarian nonsense probably not helpful, either, if you legitimately want to honor the vets, not just romanticize them and exploit their sacrifice to further a specious agenda of pseudo-patriotic proselytizing…

Update II: In fairness, I should mention that I did receive a letter back from Principal Kelley at Marion Cross:

Thank you for your letter regarding my December “Letter from the Principal” that was published in the PTO newsletter. I appreciate your constructive criticism about Marion Cross School’s curriculum, our classroom activities, and the content of my letters.

Marion Cross has embarked on the development and implementation of a long range plan. Its purpose is to take a look at our present curriculum, methods of instruction, faculty development, financial stability, etc. and determine where we want to be in the next three to five years. Last year, a committee of parents, faculty and community members worked together to develop the plan. This year, we have begun the process of implementation.

Each goal has a committee that is charged with determininig how to put the goal’s “strategies” into pracxtice. There is one that is charged with assessing our present curriculum and making appropriate changes. I encourage you to become a member of this committee. We would welcome your input, especially with regard to the development of a service-learning program.

If you would like to meet with me about this invitation or to discuss other issues you raised in your letter, please call my office.

Again thank you for your letter.