Emotions, values, children, and school

At my niece’s kindergarten graduation Friday the entire graduating class of four-and-five-year-olds sang a song with a chorus “I love America.” The song was light-hearted and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.
As a thoughtful person, I couldn’t help think about what having a whole class sing the song meant. I enjoy playing with ideas and what better time to ponder education than at a graduation?
I’ll be the first to say the following is a tempest in a teacup. The interaction wasn’t that big a deal, but this blog is about values and emotions, with the guiding principle that the better we understand them, especially our own, the better our lives will be. Why not examine them in simple cases so that we know them better for complex ones? Also, all these little interactions accumulate if they are consistent.
What if one of the students didn’t love America? I presume the teacher didn’t ask each student about how they felt about the country. If she did, she didn’t tell the rest of us, so I think my presumption is fair.
Even if you believe something like “America, love it or leave it,” a child doesn’t have that choice. Besides, children that age are learning what love and America mean. We’re teaching them what they mean through experiences like this one. So this experience is contributing to what they know about these concepts.
So say you don’t love the country. If the whole class has to sing it, you can sing along or not. If you do, the teacher is asking you to lie. Not just about anything, but about one of your strongest emotions. Even if you believe “America, love it or leave it,” wouldn’t you prefer people to love the country for properties of the country, not because they are told to love it by an authority figure?
If you don’t sing along, you risk being alienated or having the teacher make an issue out of it. Do you just not sing those words but sing along with the rest? It’s hard to avoid not feeling you’re implying you love something you don’t.
I suppose it’s possible a student could tell the teacher they didn’t feel comfortable singing those words. A thoughtful teacher might support that independent thought and expression. I think the kids were a bit young to be able to to so. I think challenging a teacher’s plan would be difficult.
Now, I don’t think many four-year-olds are going to think through all of or even much of the above. I expect two things would happen, though. One is that the interaction will teach them about love, America, authority, and free speech. The other is that they will react emotionally.
So what does the interaction teach them about love, America, authority, and free speech? I can’t help but conclude it says that authorities can tell you what you should and shouldn’t love — to me, the opposite of freedom of thought and expression, the opposite of what we want them to learn.
The emotional reaction will be to feel forced to conform and to fear consequence for speaking your mind. I could be wrong, I don’t know. My memories of being four are vague.
Maybe the students will forget about the interaction and other things will be more important. I can’t help but feel that, however unimportant this interaction, many other similar interactions, no matter how trivial, will resonate with it to communicate a common message to do what they’re told — or maybe even to think and feel what they’re told.
Or maybe the students will learn a lesson with a broader scope — something like that institutions have their own agendas and people in them try to influence you to buy in to those agendas, whether doing so benefits you or not. You may later learn to think about those agendas, which to accept, which to reject, and what to replace the rejected ones on your own. That lesson may take longer — years or decades. It’s an interesting lesson I believe valuable and more likely what most people want their children learning. Curious that it opposes what this incident seems to be teaching.
By the way, the song’s chorus also has them singing “I love Israel,” a place they don’t even live in. Does that affect anything for you?

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