Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The New Sparta

Here's a weird new item from Snopes.com--not an urban legend but a true story that has been circulating via email and was verified by the Snopes people. It's a disturbing example of creeping militarism and the slightly crazy attitudes it fosters.

Follow the link if you want the whole story, but basically it describes an unusual attention-getting technique used by Martha Cothren, who teaches military history at Joe T. Robinson High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. (And by the way, isn't it a little odd that military history should now be a high school subject?)

On the first day of class in 2005, the kids walked in to find no desks in the room. Ms. Cothren refused to explain why. Word spread around the school and curiosity grew until, toward the end of the day, a local TV crew actually turned up to cover the story.

Finally, during the last class period, the teacher addressed her students, who were sitting on the floor around the edges of the classroom:
"Throughout the day no one has really understood how you earn the desks that sit in this classroom ordinarily. Now I'm going to tell you."

She went over to the door of her classroom and opened it, and as she did 27 U.S. veterans, wearing their uniforms, walked into that classroom, each one carrying a school desk. And they placed those school desks in rows, and then they stood along the wall. By the time they had finished placing the desks, those kids for the first time I think in their lives understood how they earned those desks.

The teacher said, "You don't have to earn those desks. These guys did it for you. They put them out there for you, but it's up to you to sit here responsibly, to learn, to be good students and good citizens, because they paid a price for you to have that desk, and don't ever forget it."
Barbara Mikkelson of Snopes explains that this is in fact a true story (unlike a lot of the right-wing emails that circulate on the Internet) and that the email was probably inspired by former governor Mike Huckabee's use of the anecdote when he addressed this year's CPAC convention in Washington--the same event at which Ann Coulter called John Edwards a "faggot."

I have nothing against our men and women in uniform. In the kind of world we live in, the U.S. needs soldiers, and it takes courage and discipline for them to serve as they do. But I really don't understand the message that Ms. Cothren has so elaborately orchestrated for her students. In what sense do American soldiers "earn" the desks that are used by kids in schools?

Do kids in other countries with less impressive armies not go to school?

What about kids in countries that don't enjoy the democratic freedoms for which our military is often said to fight--do those kids not go to school, or do they not have desks?

If the US were to lose a war--in Iraq, say--would our kids' schools be shut down?

If the US had never fought for and won its freedom from Great Britain--if we were still a colony--would our kids not attend classes?

In fact, even if the US were somehow to be conquered by some foreign nation, wouldn't schools still be in operation? (I mean, even under the Communists and the Nazis, kids still went to school.)

I'm not just trying to be sarcastic here. I really don't understand the connection between our military might and the availability of schooling for our teenagers.

I suppose that, since the armed forces plays an integral role in the broader society, one could argue that the soldiers do their part to make it possible for the rest of us--including school kids--to live our lives. But so do lots of other people. If the soldiers "earned the desks" for the students by helping to make our way of life possible, what about the farmers who grow our food? The truckers who deliver it? The air traffic controllers who keep planes from crashing? The doctors and nurses and pharmacists who help us stay healthy? The fire fighters who protect us from fires? etc. etc. etc. All are vital to the American way of life.

But in the USA in 2007, it is only the military to whom we are supposed to kowtow in awestruck gratitude. This quasi-mystical reverence for armed might is not healthy, and it is certainly a far cry from what the Founders had in mind.

America was not intended to be some kind of new Sparta, and it's disturbing to watch it slowly morphing into one.

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