Elementary Brainwashing, as Recalled Intermittently in Middle Age

In 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:

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

“Finest” 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….

There 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.

While 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.

There 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.

My 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 day.

There 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.

I 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.

In 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….

October 13, 2005

Andrew S. Fischer has worked in various fields.