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Editorial: Teaching patriotism

An editorial
November 26, 2005
Right-wing talk radio hosts found a perfect "scandal" for their programs to exploit this past week: the controversy over an Allis Elementary School assignment that asked third-graders to write letters urging an end to the war in Iraq.

As part of a social studies course that sought to teach the children how to be active citizens, teachers asked the 90 third-graders at the school to write a letter a day for 12 days. The letters were to be addressed to other students, journalists, members of Congress, the president and the secretary-general of the United Nations with the purpose of "urging them to press for peace" in Iraq.

Of course, the teachers arranged for an alternative assignment for students whose parents did not want them to participate in the letter-writing project. But that wasn't enough for the right-wing ranters who are always looking for a way to attack anyone who is not praising the president. For lockstep right-wingers, teaching children to be active citizens is troubling enough; teaching them to express dissenting views is heresy of the highest order.

So the teachers at Allis got hit with a firestorm. While many parents, including leaders of Allis' Parent Teacher Organization, supported the assignment, lots of people who have no tie to the school district, nor even to Madison, weighed in - including talk radio hosts in distant towns and even U.S. Rep. Mark Green, R-Green Bay, who is rapidly emerging as the biggest nanny-state busybody in Wisconsin. School district officials quickly announced that the assignment had been rescinded because, they said, it violated a School Board policy against teachers urging students to engage in political activity.

Teacher Julie Fitzpatrick, who helped develop the assignment, said, "It's kind of sad when peace causes a furor."

She's correct, of course. But, unfortunately, these are times when many of the most powerful people in politics and the media fear the very mention of the word "peace." Thus, Fitzpatrick was right when she said that she and the other teachers should have anticipated the furor.

The fact is that teaching children to express their views, particularly dissenting and provocative views, is essential if democracy is going to function and flourish. And teaching children to be for peace is entirely appropriate and patriotic.

The mistake that the teachers at Allis made was not in setting up an assignment that urged students to write letters promoting peace but rather in the specific language of the assignment, which said students would be "writing letters to encourage an end to the war in Iraq." Instead of such precise language, the teachers should have left open the question of how best to push for peace - allowing for the mainstream view that the best way to do that is by ending the war but also accepting the increasingly isolated position of the Bush administration and its acolytes, which holds that fighting this war to a successful conclusion will ultimately make the world more secure and peaceful.

When all is said and done, we think that the educators at Allis were trying to teach an important lesson, in an engaging and valuable manner. Members of the Madison School Board and the school administration should make it clear that teachers in this city's schools will continue to be encouraged to come up with creative, boundary-breaking assignments that teach students to be more than mere spectators on the sidelines of American democracy.

Children should never be indoctrinated. But they should always be encouraged to embrace the full responsibility of their citizenship - and that includes the duty of dissent.

Thomas Jefferson got it right: "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." And teaching children how to be thoughtful and effective dissenters is the highest form of education.


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