3-Minute Civics: The limitations of symbols and symbolic gestures

For the Monitor
Published: 4/18/2021 12:00:04 PM

There is an American flag in my classroom and each school day starts with the words, “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” As a school, we are conveying that the flag is an important symbol and one that deserves our respect and loyalty. I believe it is good that we honor the flag and say the pledge, but at the same time, it is important that we acknowledge the limitations of symbols and symbolic rituals.

One problem with symbols is that they can lose their significance if our use of them becomes too routine. As a civics teacher and involved citizen, I find myself often being reflective during the pledge and thinking about the words. Recently, due to current events, the words “one nation” and “indivisible” have made me even slightly emotional.

I don’t think I felt this way when I was in high school, so I do wonder what is in the hearts and minds of my students. Is this just a chore that they’ve been doing since they were in kindergarten and do the words just wash right over them? (Spoiler alert: I asked some of my students and most of them said that they are largely spacing out during the pledge, but one said that she had been thinking about the meaning because of all that she had learned in my class this year. I got slightly emotional at that moment too.)

I was thinking about this on Feb. 22, which is George Washington’s birthday. Each year on this day, his Farewell Address is read aloud before the Senate. This tradition began in 1862 as a means of boosting morale during the Civil War and became an annual event in 1888.

This year it was Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio that read it, and our own Jeanne Shaheen read it in 2012 and Kelly Ayotte in 2013. The symbolic intent here seems to be to remember and celebrate arguably our most important founding father.

In the Farewell Address, Washington’s primary message was the importance of unity. He wrote, “...it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness,” and stated later that the union should remain the “primary object of patriotic desire.”

While Washington expressed concerns over regional differences and foreign powers, the “worst enemy” in his view was political parties. Referring to political parties, he stated, “It serves to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”

One of the main tools that parties use to sow division according to Washington is lying. He pointed out, “[o]ne of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts.” I think Nostradamus has nothing on Washington, and I’m guessing the irony here is apparent.

Each year, the Senate symbolically honors Washington by reading his final words of advice to our nation while at the same time ignoring his message, as disunity, partisanship and strategic misinformation (A.K.A. lying) run rampant. Like the pledge, I am in favor of the Senate reading Washington’s Farewell Address, but it shouldn’t just be an empty symbolic gesture in which the message of the document itself is ignored.

Another limitation of symbols is that they are subject to interpretation without dialogue or clarification. What you intend by displaying a symbol may not be how it is received by the viewer, and unfortunately this can lead to misunderstanding and division.

Let’s look at another flag for a good example. Occasionally, a student will ask why they can’t display the Confederate flag at our school. That student may argue that he or she intends it as a symbol of a past heritage or a belief in states’ rights. What I try to explain is that even if this is the intent, at least some, if not most people viewing that symbol, will likely not understand that.

The Confederate flag has a history as a battle flag for Lee’s army during the Civil War and is thus connected to a pro-slavery cause. It was similarly used in opposition to the Civil Rights movement and in other situations when white supremacy has been touted. There is no way to display a Confederate flag and also ensure communication of a nuanced message that is not connected to slavery or racism. The symbol will be viewed by many (or most) as a threat, or as divisive or hurtful, even if that is not the intention.

Symbols are powerful, but shallow. They can become invisible through routine, or send unintended messages. I think George Washington can help us here again with some more advice from his Farewell Address. At one point, he stressed the need for education saying, “Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge… it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

I guess it’s no surprise that the teacher agrees that education is the key, but I am comforted by the fact that I know that all of the students who are standing for the pledge with me each morning will also spend a semester with me, or one of my colleagues, studying civics. They will have an opportunity to develop an understanding of government and their role as a citizen.

Maybe the understanding and context that a civics class provides will help them see the pledge as more than just a repeating obligation, as at least one of my students did. Maybe, when we say “one nation” and “indivisible,” some of them will even get slightly emotional along with me.

(Dan Marcus teaches at John Stark Regional High School in Weare.)

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