Rallies and Public Schools: How the State Programs Us for War
by J. L. Bryan
by J.L. Bryan
by J.L. Bryan: A
Novel Response to LRC
attended those giant child-processing centers the state insists
on calling "schools" will recognize the scene:
You walk into
the million-dollar cinderblock gymnasium, immediately dwarfed by
the size and sound of the crowd. The school's thousands of students
have been herded together to cheer the glory that is "their" team
as it prepares for "the big game." Teachers and students dress in
school colors, wave the school pennant, and join in the school fight
All this is
a Very Big Deal, and woe unto he who questions any of it. There
may be a speech from the principal, or from that annoying kid who
successfully rode a wave of apathy into the student council presidency.
The cheerleaders dance and praise the team. The team members themselves
run out to thunderous applause, the crowd cheering for whatever
it is they presumably accomplish for the school community – and
never mind that the biggest jerks in the school are invariably found
within their ranks.
Here and there
you may notice small, dark clumps of the disaffected, those dour
punk/goth/whatever kids who don't seem impressed by any of this.
They will be treated harshly by teachers for being negative, antisocial,
or – heaven forbid! – lacking in proper "school spirit." There is
something wrong with them, most would agree, or they just want attention.
And these malcontents are all freshmen or sophomores. Upperclassmen
of their ilk have long since learned that such rallies are the perfect
time to sneak behind the school for a cigarette or a few bong rips.
significance is the rally against the major rival school down the
road, the archenemy who must be denounced, ridiculed, and defeated.
No one can tell you why that particular school is the big rival.
"Because they're the Broncos (or whatever the rival mascot might
be)" is a typical, circular answer. Some don't even bother moving
in a circle: "They just are," such people say, probably convinced,
after a lifetime of learning to accept such answers from teachers,
that this would appropriately resolve the question.
In my experience,
one revealing answer came from my high school Latin teacher: "You
must support the home team. Support the home team. Support the home
team." (Also, teaching Latin by rote had apparently programmed her
to repeat all statements three times. Not kidding.) She didn't follow
up with any explanation of the virtues and benefits to accrue from
home-team-supporting behavior. It was just crazy to think that,
although the state forced us into this ridiculous institution, with
its ridiculous rules and overlords, we would ever consider the school
to be anything but our "home." We were certainly intended to identify
it as such. The football team was there to defend our honor (against
what, nobody knows).
David Thoreau and Thomas
Jefferson, I concluded that the entire culture and organization
of public schools must be a mistake. There were so many authoritarian
attributes, I thought, they weren't teaching kids to be responsible
citizens of a republic, but subjects of a police state. Serious
reforms were clearly needed. (Years later, having studied John
Taylor Gatto and Austrian
economics, I realized that a) the state raises kids this way
deliberately, not by mistake, and b) a free market in education
would quickly find and disseminate the best methods for teaching
The whole weird
culture of government school still puzzled me when I graduated in
1996. A little more than five years later, starting on 9/11/2001,
I began to discover what all the weird ritualism and pressure to
conform had really accomplished for the state.
up everywhere – you had flag bumper stickers, flag lapel pins, flag
t-shirts, flags draping homes and buildings, flag-colored bunting.
Across the South, people even traded their defiant Confederate flags
for Old Glory – swapping out their scrimmage jerseys for the team
colors. The Pledge of Allegiance took on a new, more sacred quality,
as did the drinking
game that is our national anthem (from the article: "If you
could sing a stanza
of the notoriously difficult melody and stay on key, you were sober
enough for another round").
Bush, until then known for his questionable election, the Enron
scandal, and taking long vacations, suddenly became the great leader,
warrior, and protector. (Yes, the same guy who completely didn't
protect anyone from the attacks was now going to keep us safe –
but let's not digress into reason). We had Britney Spears and Ann
Coulter to cheerlead the Prez. Men and women in any sort of government-issued
uniform became hallowed saints. Our wise and noble leaders, all
in their matching lapel pins, sat down at their desks and led the
charge to war – war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq, and a hoped-for
war in Iran, if they could squeeze it in.
and there were clumps of the disaffected, those left-wingers and
libertarians who didn't support the Patriot Act, the Iraq invasion,
or the general sense that our politicians and thinktankers would
kill anyone who stood between them and the oil supplies of the Middle
East and Central Asia. But these were not serious people, not people
who had TV talk shows and columns in the New York Times.
Not people who held high office. Thanks to public education, we
all knew that these were just that predictable handful of fringe
weirdos, who are probably even now sneaking out back for a cigarette
or a few bong rips. The serious, sober-minded folks were out buying
little flags to pin on themselves.
war in those days, and many people would just give you a puzzled
look, as if asking why they hated the Broncos. "Because they're
our enemies!" According to whom? Had Iraq attacked us? "What are
you, on their side? You're either with us or against us!" And the
countless innocents who would die from the invasion? Probably fans
of the other team, the jerks.
Even if you
didn't support the war, you should of course "Support the Troops,"
preferably with a yellow magnet on your car (don't use a sticker,
it could scuff the paint). Naturally, they're fighting for us, and
it's important to support the home team, don't you know, even if
the game itself seems pointless to you. And support them only by
keeping them at war, no matter what, for years and years and years,
because quitters don't win the championship ring. We need to bring
home the gold. For our country, our honor, etc.
And when it
comes to politics, the same logic applies. You can choose "your"
team – there are two big ones – and then cheer for them, wear their
t-shirts, wish harm upon the opposing team, and feel as if something's
been accomplished when someone from your team wins a major office.
Between the shouting matches at bars and the flaming blog posts,
you'll barely notice how truly powerless you are.
reveals many ways government schools are designed to break human
beings into mindless, obedient machines. There's the common teacher
tactic of insulting and humiliating the kid who acts differently,
or asks too many questions. There's the charming custom of begging
for permission to carry out basic bodily functions, which many a
teacher gleefully denies – and you must have that hall pass so you
can show your papers to the hall monitors, proving you have a right
effective is the practice of age-ranked classes. Every child naturally
looks to older children and adults as role models. The school denies
us this, forcing kids to look to other kids their own age as role
models. Everybody strives to be like everybody else, the source
of the common teenage lament that "Everybody else dresses
this way!" or "Everybody else is going to the party!" After
more than a decade of this, we become adults desperate to prove
to everyone else that we are just like everyone else.
Much character development is also lost in the other direction –
older kids never learn the responsibility of looking out for younger
kids, the understanding of subject matter that comes from helping
to tutor them, or the fulfillment that comes from helping someone
smaller and weaker than yourself.
All of this
is useful for training obedient subjects who constantly adjust themselves
to whatever they are told. When it comes to the martial virtues,
however, there's nothing quite like a properly managed team-sports
program. Kids can learn loyalty, teamwork, obedience, aggressiveness,
and an animosity toward the "enemy" that can be snapped
on at will. Some of these may sound virtuous by themselves – but
what about the German soldier who remains steadfastly loyal to Hitler,
or engages in teamwork by helping operate a concentration camp?
Those soldiers were several generations into the Prussian
school system on which the American system is based.
individual needs an inner core of principles that he values more
highly than the approval of the team, the coaches, and the rest
of the school community. Such fierce individualism is at the heart
of what it means to be American, and what it means to be human,
and it is something government schools will never teach.
[send him mail] lives
in Atlanta. His novel Dominion
is free at his website.
A Novel Response to LRC by JL
Bryan is licensed under a Creative
Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.