Pep Rallies and Public Schools: How the State Programs Us for War

Anyone who 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 song.

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.

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Of special 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).

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Having read some Henry 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 children.)

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.

Flags went 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”).

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President 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.

Sure, here 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.

Question the 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.

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Gatto’s work 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 to pee.

Possibly most 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.

Clearly, the 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.

June 23, 2009

A Novel Response to LRC by JL Bryan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.