Elementary Brainwashing, as Recalled Intermittently in Middle Age

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elementary (or grade) school they used to make us sing in what was
called “assembly” a couple of times a week; the intention was to
mold our puerile, budding protoplasm into dutiful citizens, by compelling
us to chant patriotic songs. While most of my attention was directed
at Mrs. Something, a perennially tan, leggy, thirtyish, long-haired
blonde teacher who played the piano, I rebelled by mocking all of
the songs. I actually spent considerable thought converting some
of the words into obscenities. In “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,”
for example, “poor” became “whore.” This mild form of revolt reached
its pinnacle when applied to the school song:

Schoolname is the finest school
In Billy Penn’s whole town,
You’d never find a better one
If you turned the world around.

was changed to “dumbest,” and “better” became “worser,” a double-delight
since it was grammatically incorrect as well as derogatory. My changes
to the second verse are too graphic to be reproduced here….

was another song called “Lincoln Was An Honest Man,” which featured
that prevaricating refrain over and over again, ad nauseum,
until the merry squealings of my little peers caused me to drone,
more or less harmoniously, “Lincoln was a stupid ass.” (That still
makes me chuckle.) Despite the relentlessly-positive presentation
of Lincoln, I always thought there was something creepy about him.
After reading The
Real Lincoln
and other recent publications, I’ve finally
understood why.

I do remember being taught something hazy about the Radical Republicans,
Andrew Johnson was ultimately portrayed as the “bad guy” during
the Reconstruction era, since he was (at the time) the only U.S.
President to have been impeached. The true story – that Johnson
wanted to admit the defeated southern states back into the Union
as soon as practicable, while his fellow Republicans were intent
on making the south suffer mightily, as well as ensuring a dominant
Republican political machine going forward – was not disclosed
in a remotely truthful fashion.

was, of course, the pledge of allegiance, which struck me as “robotic
recitation,” since we small children hardly cared about such things;
we were clearly being manipulated into becoming absurd parrot-creatures.
There were patriotic plays and such. In one about Benjamin Franklin,
a student carried aloft his famous saying on a placard, “A Fish
Smells in Three Days.” It was decades later when I happened to discover
that the actual saying was “Fish and relatives smell in three days.”
Naturally that wouldn’t do in elementary school, so the teachers
sanitized it, which is understandable, but after all these years
I’d have preferred that they just left it out, rather than lie about
it. Small lies, big lies – all have an impact on a developing mind.

own sixth-grade class put on a play, pathetic nonsense about a “human”
suit of playing cards with one blank card, who eventually turned
out to be the ace. Our teacher, a tiny, annoying woman with an unpleasant
case of flatulence and an anti-male bias, asked which boy would
like to play the part of trumpeter. One volunteered, and he was
informed that, as part of his costume, he’d have to wear red tights.
Everyone laughed heartily, of course… until our teacher informed
us that all the boys would have to wear tights. I suspect
we all still suffer from that monstrous emasculation to this very

was daily Bible reading, until the Supreme Court decision in 1962
ended it. I confess I did like the first eight lines of Ecclesiastes
III, but so did everyone else: “a time to be born, a time to die;
a time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together,” etc.
It had a rhythm and pleasantness about it. Even as a child, however,
I found all the other psalms and readings boring, and somehow oppressive.
Once again the intent was to promulgate “good citizenship,” this
time via forced religious inculcation. These morning recitations
were torture to sit through, akin to being stuck at a long funeral
ceremony wearing an itchy suit.

vividly recall, in sixth grade, discovering the issue of central
government vs. states’ rights. As presented, it was perfectly obvious
that the only conclusion which could be drawn by an intelligent
student was that a central government was clearly superior; in comparison,
the idea of states’ rights was just plain silly, and unworthy of
consideration. No one dared to even think about embracing the opposite
position. Brainwashing, obviously, in a deadly, elegant form, which
took years to undo. This particular “truism” still persists in absolutely
everyone I know; when I ask them to wonder how interesting it would
be if each of our fifty states had its own unique character, they
cringe. Instead of marveling at the possibility of “The Voluntary
Tax State” or “The Nudist State,” or forty-eight other different
choices, they invariably babble about the specter of constant bickering
between the states, bemoaning a permanent Yugoslavia-like condition.

the midst of the cold war, we had what were called “retention drills.”
Every so often, without warning or explanation, a siren would sound
and we’d have to lower the window shades, file out of our classroom
in resolute silence and sit numbly on the cold hallway floor, waiting
for a putative atom bomb to strike. Unspoken terror engulfed us
all, as we wondered why the savage Russkies wanted so desperately
to destroy us. Surely they must be mad. Yes, we are sane; they are
mad. Americans: good, Russians: bad. So simple it must be true…
yes… and FDR, all by himself, brought us out of the Great Depression…
and our form of government is by far the best…. and checks-and-balances
works perfectly…. whirr… click… mree… mree….

13, 2005

S. Fischer has worked in various fields.

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