The Flag and the Hornets Nest

Jan 15, 2013 by


Ron Isaac

Ron Isaac

by Ron Isaac –

Was it a spur to critical thinking or was it an insult to nationhood punishable by termination?  Or both?  Was it a sacrilegious act or a thoughtless slip of discretion or immature judgment?  Or neither?

Is this educator a menace to public sensibilities or an inept and unsavvy practitioner of defensive education who bravely or pig-headedly refuses to play it safe at the expense of intellect-building?

Was it, maybe, stealth propaganda or just a bad joke?

According to the Daily Caller, quoting WIS ( a local NBC affiliate), a teacher in South Carolina was yanked from the classroom and consigned to extended administration leave and possible eventual firing for allegedly throwing an American flag on the floor and stomping on it. It is not claimed that he did it as part of a meltdown or fit of temper. What he apparently wanted to do was graphically demonstrate to his students the concept  and potential dangers of symbolism and misplaced passion. It was about proving a point.

He had reportedly introduced the lesson by drawing several symbols. including a cross,which, as a segue, he uncritically identified as a symbol of Christianity.

Michael Copeland, parent of one of the teacher’s students, told WIS that the teacher took down the American flag and explained “This is a symbol, but it’s only a piece of cloth. It doesn’t mean anything,” and then proceeded to step on it in order to show, according to Copeland, that “there would be no consequences.”

Inarguably it may just cost the teacher’s job and just as inarguably there are far bigger implications for us all.

Citing the superintendent’s military service and his own 20 years in uniform, Mark Bounds, a spokesman for the district, said “we take this action very seriously” and preached “our flag is a symbol of our freedom, and so many people have fought and died for that liberty.”  He insists that the District has recurrently warned teachers against injecting their own opinions in the classroom.

If this prohibition cuts across ideological lines rather than forbid only specific views at variance with the “conventional wisdom” of the community, would that change anything? 

According to FITS News, which the Daily Caller refers to as a conservative news website, the accused educator is a “good teacher” who wears his “very liberal” views “on his sleeve in the classroom.”

Would the District have reacted the same way if the expressed political views had coincided with their own?  Or the trampled flag were Iranian or Mexican?

Assuming the ban were non-selective, could the integrity of the profession remain intact?

Every teacher, especially ones with rigid or fanatical views, ( and what measure, other than rare “common sense” or the oily “standard of the community” rubric) can define extremism and justify restrictions on it?)  must be monitored at least to ensure that they do not penalize students students whose arguments are adversarial to the teacher’s.

So, what is the issue here?

Does it fall into the pit of the “Free Speech/Slippery Slope” complex?
Which “core values,” if any, are inviolable?  And what makes them so,–are there “official” or “institutional” beliefs that are so deep-rooted that they are uniquely not subject to defilement?

Is the sharing of ideas, including some that may not be popular in some circles but are part of that elusive prize known as civilization) to be authorized according to some chain-of-command?

And since a soldier’s right and duty to disobey an illegal order by a superior officer is recognized, does a civilian counterpart enjoy the same privilege in a classroom?

What is at stake in the outcome of the South Carolina story?
What are the tradeoffs?
What dependable mechanism exists to appeal questionable prosecution?
Can differing versions of “truth” all find homes on a level playing-field of debate?
Dare a classroom be such a home?

Most people would agree that the methodology used by the South Carolina teacher was quite ludicrously flawed. If it was crude, insensitive and bad practice, did it nonetheless get a critical job done?  Did it help the teenagers get passed the inert lesson plan and engage their brains?

And would not the absence of a teacher’s efforts to stimulate mental energy constitute the worst of professional sins?  Whatever meaning we take away from this sordid and enlightening affair, the story is much bigger than the South Carolina story itself.

The parameters and constraints of responsibility are very slippery. But one thing is for sure: cherished symbols are a hornet’s nest!

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