When my father was in elementary school in China, he and his classmates began each school day by chanting passages from Chairman Mao’s “little red book.” They stood in lines, reciting the words together before sitting down to learn math. I was in sixth grade when I first heard this story, and all I had were questions. “Why didn’t anyone protest?” I demanded. “How could all of China be so brainwashed?” My dad shrugged. “We were all so young at the time,” he said. I scoffed and felt thankful to be living in America, land of the free and unindoctrinated.
The next morning in English class, I put my right hand over my heart and stood with my classmates to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “I Pledge Allegiance to flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I recited the Pledge nearly every day when I was in elementary and middle school. I didn’t think about what the words meant, where they had come from, or why I was even saying them. At the time, the irony of my situation didn’t even cross my mind.
It wasn’t until my (frosh/soph) year of high school that I realized I was not required to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance — I never had been, and neither had any of my classmates — I also realized something terrible about myself: I was no different from the young Chinese students who grew up in the Cultural Revolution. My fealty to the United States had been bought with a candy incentive to memorize the pledge in second grade, and it had gone unquestioned for nearly seven years.
As high school continued, I sought to fill in the missing pieces of my crumbling worldview. The first time we read about the Opium War in ninth grade, I wanted to raise my hand to ask why we hadn’t been taught about this before. I wanted to know why our class constantly made jokes about how “dumb” China was — communism, dog-eating, refusing to open its ports for so long — but never talked about how the British had forcibly pumped drugs into China, knowing full-well that it would ruin lives. I wanted to ask why all of our history classes implied that any non-Western perspective we learned about was backwards or undeveloped — third to our first-world status. And for what? To reinforce the image of America the Great? I wanted to know how many other false viewpoints I had adsorbed. The more I looked for them, the worse the offenses became. Westernization was taught as an act of generosity, but “assimilation” was only a vocabulary term. European invasions of unwilling people were glossed over and glorified. American war atrocities were not spoken of. I learned U.S. History four times over and spent a total of maybe two months learning about non-European cultures — and by the end of it, I knew virtually nothing about the world.
Through this, I realized that teaching ignorance by omission is as terrible as openly indoctrinating students with propaganda — worse, even. With a worldview crafted so narrowly, how could the average American public school student ever strip away their inherent sense of moral superiority to understand the importance of diversity and non-discrimination outside of the classroom? This question has played a larger part in my college years than I would have liked. On a campus where people spend so much time agonizing over the voting choices of greater America and puzzling over our racist political system, we seem to forget that many of us were raised in an education system that taught us cutesy rhymes about the great Christopher Columbus, a man who led a genocide and inspired more. It is a system that is imbalanced in representation to the point of inaccuracy. It is the root of endemic American ignorance, which is bred and taught and retaught in classrooms where students stand obediently to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning before sitting down to do math.
Let us not be blind patriots of Yale, our states, or this country. But let us also not be blind to those around us whose views were insidiously crafted by our flawed system, for whom the issues of diversity and compassion have remained invisible. The source of this ignorance is not a single body of believers or one power-hungry white man — it is all of them in history, glorified and taught in school again and again to the next generation of Americans. In remembering this invisible lens and all the years that we held our own right hands over our hearts, perhaps we can stop asking “Why?” and instead answer the question, “What can we do next?”