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The Flag and the Hornet’s Nest

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!



  • 1 phyllis c murray
    · Jan 27, 2013 at 6:35 am

    Mr. Isaac, like a brilliant lawyer, you have skillfully placed the facts before the people to examine. Surely, teaching has its challenges as teachers earnestly try each day to engage students in a lesson. Our young audience today, unlike the audience of yesteryears, centuries ago, are bombarded with drama and glitzy presentations all day in the media which catch their attention. No longer can teachers present mealy- mouthed lessons and expect kids to stay tuned. “So let the rumpus begin!” (to quote Sendak). as we use every visual and tactile and auditory device possible in the classroom. In fact, we are encouraged to bring the lesson to life because of the various learning modalities, learning styles, or multiple intelligences of our students. Therefore, I re-enact Rosa Parks’ bus ride scene with children each year. And the students remember years later. ” What is the color of your money? Even 5 year olds know that it’s green as they finally get on board the bus and sing freedom songs. Yes, as teachers, we sing to and with our students , play chess with them, and enjoy teaching and learning with them. Teaching is a lively art. “That’s what we do!” However, in my opinion, there are two things we don’t do: We don’t tread on the American Flag. And we don’t threaten the President. It’s just unAmerican. Phyllis C. Murray, UFT Teacher

  • 2 Michael
    · Jan 28, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    The young man could have made the same point by destroying a copy of the New Testament. “After all, it’s only paper,”he could say, but to believers it’s god’s word, or at least a profound series of moral parables. How about if aTea Party stalwart decided to burn copies of the Bill of Rights? Would you view that with equanimity. Or a benighted antisemite plastering swastikas on synogogues? Nothing benign about that. Besides, why insult people, when the insult itself obscures the larger point? That’s the point about symbols. They represent larger issues, and attacking the symbol challenge the larger issue without enlightening anyone. If the issue is worth challenging, then do that. Don’t get in a brawl about symbols. BTW, I’m sure there are some you cherish, too, eh?