Sooner or later, anyone who lives abroad reaches a defining moment when the desire to understand and fit into the foreign culture hits a brick wall of absolute resistance. In my case, living in California, it came a few weeks ago at my son’s elementary school open house. The first-grade classroom was transformed into a showcase of art projects, spelling bees, and mini-science workshops on the life cycle of insects. So far, so good. But then the children of Room 63 started to sing, and my internal refusal mechanism went haywire. In unison, they launched into “America, I Love You”:
It’s your land, it’s my land,
A great do or die land,
And that’s just why I sing:
America, I love you!
From all sorts of places,
They welcomed all the races
To settle on their shore.
They didn’t care which one,
The poor or the rich one,
They still had room for more.
To give them protection
By popular election,
A set of laws they chose.
They’re your laws and my laws,
For your cause and my cause.
That’s why this country rose.
Granted, I’m not a big fan of patriotic sentiment in any context. But this got my goat in ways I just couldn’t shake. First, there was the niggly matter of historical accuracy. (What are black, Asian or Native Americans supposed to make of that line about welcoming all the races?) One also had to question the dubious taste of singing about a “do or die land” in the wake of a controversial war in Iraq that many had passionately opposed. What really riled me, though, was that the song had absolutely nothing to do with education. What was it doing there? I might have understood better if my son’s teacher was some raving flag-waving patriot, but she isn’t. She and the other parents beamed proudly and generally acted as if the song were a normal part of the American school experience.
Which, as I quickly discovered, it is. Patriotic songs are sung up and down classrooms at Grant Elementary, just as they are at every other school in the land. Mostly, they go without challenge or critical examination. In third grade, for example, the daughter of a friend of mine merrily sang her way through “It’s a Grand Old Flag,” which includes the lines: “Every heart beats true/’neath the Red, White and Blue,/Where there’s never a boast or brag.” Her father gently asked her when they got home whether the whole song wasn’t in fact a boast and a brag. His daughter went very quiet as she thought through the implications of his question. Challenging received wisdom in this way is something she never encounters in the classroom.
With my son’s education at stake, I can’t help but ponder the link between what is fed to children as young as six and what American adults end up understanding about the wider world. Children are recruited from the very start of their school careers to believe in Team America, whose oft-repeated mantra is: We’re the good guys, we always strive to do the right thing, we live in the greatest country in the world.
No other point of view-no other cultural mindset-is ever seriously contemplated. Schoolroom maps of North America detail city names, roads, and rivers within the continental United States, but invariably leave the areas within Canada and Mexico blank, as though reality itself stopped at the national border.
In the immediate aftermath of Sept-ember 11, 2001, many Americans were seized by a thirst to know what was behind the destruction at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. College professors and other experts eagerly came forward to initiate discussion on the wellsprings of the very ignorance that had caught the country by surprise.
Soon, all the worst, self-deluding impulses of Team America kicked in. The mainstream media gave the White House the benefit of the doubt on just about everything, even as the administration instituted a wave of secret arrests and closed court hearings, jacked up the military budget, tore up international treaties, and pushed for a whole new generation of nuclear weapons. Nobody seemed to want to believe that these things were happening, or if they were that they were really as grave as they sounded.
And the same soothing message, the same drip-feed of political Prozac, found its way quickly into the education system. Trust the President and everything will be okay. Educators sent notes home to parents on how to deal with the aftermath of September 11, but not on how to explain why it had happened. Educational books appeared, purporting to tell schoolchildren what they need to know about September 11. But mostly they were filled with meaningless platitudes about Americans being united by patriotism and the firm belief that terrorism is a Bad Thing.
People don’t understand what their government is up to because they don’t understand how government works. The disconnect between the people and the rulers they elect, and between the rulers and those most directly affected by the consequences of their actions, is little short of frightening.
A glimpse into history suggests empires often build up illusory images of themselves, images that through their deceptive power eventually conspire to bring them down. It happened to the Romans, and to the Japanese, and to the Soviet empire. Could the United States be so very different?