Learning about “American” Ideologies, Values, and Identities in Public Schools

Antwan Jefferson, PhD

I was a first grader at Wythe Elementary School in Hampton, Virginia in 1983. Each morning, following the school announcements, we stood up, turned our bodies in the direction of the US flag hanging in the front of the classroom near the door, and pledged our allegiance, first to the flag, and then to what it represented.

You may remember these words:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America
and to the republic for which it stands
one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

First to the flag, and then to the republic. The symbol, then the substance.

This practice was hella normal for us as young children, doing what we were asked to do, which made us good (aka compliant) students. Reciting the words. Holding our hands over our hearts, in fear of the punishment we’d face if we refused or failed to engage–a paddle from the principal (this was Virginia, after all) or a call home (for those with home phones, or cars, or flexible jobs). No thanks on that paddle offer, Mr. Principal. Hand-over-heart-stat! You need a smile, while I’m at it?

It’s actually pretty simple to look back on this and quickly notice how preposterous this all was: Cultivation of national identity through declaration of allegiance to a national identity through words and mannerisms. School-based corporal punishment. A nation chosen by God and offering liberty and justice to all (ahem).

Today, we are less likely to see such overt training in patriotism, in Americanness, in being one of the chosen. But it’s there, or at least, that’s the position that we’ve taken in this issue.

Colorado students have the opportunity to pledge their allegiance to the flag, but they also have the option to decline participation. BUT, educators are expected to teach students “the proper respect of the flag of the United States, to honor and properly salute the flag when passing in parade, and to properly use the flag in decorating and displaying” (CRSTitle 22. Education § 22-1-106).

With more than 90,000 students in DPS, 40,000 students in Aurora, and about 900,000 total PK-12 students in Colorado, we wonder in this issue about the symbols and substance that students experience in schools.

DJEC Associate Editor Spencer Childress, EdD, led the development of this issue’s dive into this topic, exploring the role of public schools in cultivating allegiance to a national identity that seems to lead with symbols rather than with substance. The voices you’ll encounter in this issue demonstrate that cultivating a national identity stems from the substance of public education. They show us that being American is not one thing, and there is no one best way.

Against the backdrop of violent riots at the US Capitol 4 months ago. Against the backdrop of rapid-fire global crises. Against the backdrop of normalized pro-US media coverage. And with added context of students at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Early College organizing for comprehensive change of the entire curriculum to help achieve the “liberty and justice for all” part.  

Here is our May 2021 issue.