Pledging Allegiance may be this year’s most important education book, not simply because of its star-studded list of contributors, but for the way they examine the meaning and teachability of patriotism in post-9/11 America. The authors address the role educators can play in provoking students to think about their own views: How far should wartime patriotism stretch? Should it encompass support for U.S. troops fighting an unpopular war? How about cuts in social programs that allow military budgets to swell? Or federal agencies’ prying into American citizens’ private lives?
The most compelling essays in this collection are foregrounded by personal experiences. In one such piece, Gloria Ladson-Billings, an African American education professor at the University of Wisconsin, describes her hope in democracy despite the bigotry she faced during the civil rights movement. Commitment to our country, she argues, is part of our relationship to social history.
New York University professor and former teacher Deborah Meier likens patriotism to her youthful dedication to the New York Yankees. “I owed them total allegiance and loyalty,” she recalls, though at the same time, “it was perfectly OK to dislike, and even hate,” the team’s management. In the same way, she notes, “Schools can be a place to explore multiple patriotisms and not merely places to impose a single, favorite version.”
University of Illinois professor William Ayers describes how military recruiters zero in on secondary students from impoverished areas of Chicago. Thanks to millions of dollars spent on JROTC and other military academies and new recruiter access to student information through No Child Left Behind, he maintains, high school has become a “battlefield for hearts and minds.”
The book ends with a short piece by Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq. “If every student in every school learns only one thing about patriotism, it should be this,” she says: “Life is precious. We honor our country by holding precious the life of its youth.”
David Lee Carlson taught secondary English before becoming an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the English and curriculum and teaching departments of Hunter College at the City University of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Pledging Allegiance: The Politics of Patriotism in America’s Schools