Social Education 57(1) pps. 19-22
©1993 National Council for the Social Studies
Following Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the deployment of troops to the Middle East, a patriotic fervor, reinforced by constant news media coverage, spread through this country unlike anything since World War II. People launched campaigns to send packages and letters to the troops. Elementary school classes adopted soldiers. Flags, banners, and ribbons began appearing on stores, houses, and utility poles. T-shirts and buttons declared support for the troops. From flags and yellow ribbons on poles, trees, and mailboxes, to the media with its constant coverage and patriotic interludes, to the patriotic exercises in the public schools-it was a war that children could not avoid.
The immediacy of the Persian Gulf War in the lives of children offered an opportunity to explore their political understandings during a time of international conflict. This article presents the findings of a study conducted with a class of 5th grade students from a rural county in the southeastern United States. The study analyzes these students' perceptions of the Gulf War and the part the public school played in the development of these perceptions.
Teaching young people about the political culture in which they live, under the guise of citizenship education, has long been regarded as one of the major purposes of public schools. The influence of the school on political socialization has also been the object of much attention by research workers during the past forty years (Ehman 1980).
Early studies were based primarily on large-scale surveys and questionnaires, and resulted in descriptions of the developmental stages of political growth largely using a Piagetian model of development.1 These studies indicate that political learning begins at a young age with a strong emotional attachment to and highly positive view of political authority. Patriotic rituals are one vehicle for developing and strengthening this bond. According to these studies, political learning continues throughout childhood and by the end of the preadult years, the basic orientation of the political self is well developed.
Political socialization research has focused extensively on the many agents that influence political growth, including the family, the media, peers, the community, and the school. The mass media is becoming increasingly important as a political socialization agent due to high technology, instant communication, and the observation of live footage of world events. Research has indicated that television in particular has become both an important source of political information and a way of shaping political attitudes (Conway et al. 1981; Connell 1971).
Clearly, television played a major role in providing information and shaping attitudes about the Persian Gulf War. Newsweek (1991, 6) reported that 79 percent of people in the United States saw George Bush's address to the country announcing the war. That same edition of Newsweek also stated that
at home, millions of Americans tuned in to watch the high-tech sequel to The Living Room War....When the Americans hit Baghdad, television recorded the high-tech blitz. Allied warplanes made their own visual records as well, and when U.S. generals played some tape for the press, they selected highlights from the most successful missions....For American children, especially those with relatives in the military, war no longer seems remote or abstract. Television has made it as vivid as a bomb-blasted building or a rubble-choked street. (13, 19, 40)
The public school serves as another important agent of political socialization. Research has indicated that through both the formal and the hidden curriculum, the school teaches the attitudes, norms, and values of the dominant social class and plays a crucial role in the transmission of political information (Allen, Freeman, and Osborne 1989; Ehman 1980; Hess and Torney 1967; Palonsky 1987; Torney-Purta 1984).
After studying twelve thousand students in the 2d through 8th grades, Hess and Torney (1967, 101) concluded that "the public school appears to be the most important and effective instrument of political socialization in the United States." Despite the importance of the public school, however, analysis of the classroom, including textbooks and the hidden curriculum, indicates that most teachers generally ignore controversy and controversial topics (Anyon 1978, 1979; Apple 1971; Audrain 1971; Jones 1971; Palonsky 1987; Remy 1970).
The study of students' socialization to international conflict has been one of the major aspects of political socialization research. Cooper (1965), Alvik (1968), Rosell (1968), Haavelsrud (1970), and Mercer (1974) studied the development of the concept of war among English, Norwegian, Swedish, German, and Scottish children respectively and discovered that concrete ideas about war and peace developed early. Cooper found that at the age of nine or ten a "patriotic filter" begins to be developed that allows children to view only the positive aspects of their country and that the content taught in the classroom reinforces this filter.
Tolley (1973) examined how children acquired attitudes toward the Vietnam War. Of all the socialization agents, Tolley found that children learned the most from television, with the parents second and teachers third. He discovered that the school contributed little to children's understanding of the war but played a large role in the development of attitudes. Tolley (1973, 48) concluded that
although there is no reliable measure of how parents or others affected attitudes, the close association of children's attitudes to teachers' outlooks offers evidence that schools play a prominent if not preeminent role in socialization to war.
Roscoe, Stevenson, and Yacobozzi (1988) attempted to replicate Tolley's study with 7th grade students in a survey on conventional warfare and the U.S. involvement in Latin America. Despite finding a general lack of information about events in Latin America, their results showed that students did not blindly support U.S. policy there. They discovered a significant skepticism about the truthfulness of government officials.
They concluded (1988, 370) that one of the major implications of this research is that parents and teachers have a special responsibility, as major sources of information, to be aware of the powerful impact they have in shaping the attitudes of young people, especially about war. The complex issues surrounding war tend to be simplified and distorted by the mass media and our consumer culture....The young people...who may have to actually fight and die should be fully informed of the many perspectives on war and its alternatives, as should the American public in general.
A functionalist orientation has informed most studies of political socialization. This orientation tends to ignore the complexity of life in the school and how students construct meaning out of their interactions. Research that focuses on quantifying the political thinking of children ignores the complex reality of children's lives.
Robert Coles's research (1986) is an exception. He spent more than twenty-five years undertaking fieldwork around the world to develop an understanding of the political life of children. He discovered that children have a rich political life and deep understandings about the human condition. His findings did not discount the developmental patterns of political growth, but enriched them by placing political development in a cultural and historical context.
In his review of the effects of the school on political socialization, Palonsky (1987, 503) noted the absence of qualitative research in this area and concluded that to examine children's construction of political reality, it is necessary to listen to what they define as significant and to observe the school and classroom processes designed to help children develop frameworks for thinking about the political in their lives.
Methods and Setting of the Study
Using a qualitative research approach, this study attempted to look at children's understanding of international conflict by analyzing their perceptions of the Persian Gulf War and how the public school contributed to those perceptions.
I conducted this research in Beth Bright's 5th grade class at North Clark Elementary School near the town of Exburg in Clark County, a rural county in the southeastern United States lying on the western plateau of the Appalachian Mountains.
The county seat, Exburg, is typical of most small rural towns. The downtown is struggling to revitalize, although most businesses have moved to larger shopping centers on the edge of town. During the Gulf War, Exburg was decorated with U.S. flags and red, white, and blue ribbons were hung on every streetlight in town. The businesses throughout the town were decorated with flags, banners, yellow ribbons, and posters announcing support for the troops. The old high school on one edge of town was decorated with small U.S. flags, one for every soldier from the county serving in the Gulf-150 in all.
North Clark Elementary School, located about nine miles north of the center of Exburg, is the consolidated school serving the northern section of the county. Located on about twelve acres, the school is bordered on three sides by woods. Throughout my research there, a small tree at the entrance of the school was decorated with yellow ribbons, and the mailbox in front of the school was decorated in red, white, and blue streamers.
When I first visited the school, two weeks after war was declared, patriotic displays filled the halls and classrooms. Two 8th grade students had decorated the front hall with a picture display of the words to "God Bless the U.S.A." A poster announcing "We Are Proud to Be Americans," signed by 6th graders, hung near a "God Bless the U.S.A." banner signed by 7th graders.
On red, white, and blue construction paper, a 2d grade teacher had displayed her students' handwriting assignment-the words to "God Bless the U.S.A." Another 2d grade class had created a large U.S. flag with the red and white stripes made from cutouts of their hands. The sign above read "Hands up for the U.S.A." The wall next to the 3d grade class was covered with small U.S. flags, each containing a picture of a student. The cafeteria had been decorated with red, white, and blue streamers, yellow ribbons, balloons, and bulletin board displays for a "We Support Our Troops" dance.
I conducted this study using a variety of interactive and noninteractive qualitative research methods including observation, interview, and inspection of artifacts. I conducted observations in the classroom from February until May 1991, taking detailed field notes that I transcribed and expanded as soon as possible after the observations. These notes included direct quotations when possible.
I interviewed fourteen 5th grade students and their teacher, Beth Bright. These students had returned a form signed by their parents indicating permission to participate in the study. In addition, I inspected various artifacts including posters, stories, and pictures that the students had prepared, as well as local newspaper accounts of the war.
I analyzed the data through a generative process using an inductive content analysis. After reading and rereading field notes of observations, transcripts, and other data, I identified and coded basic categories. I compared and contrasted these categories in the process of looking for relationships. From the categories, I was able to develop themes and patterns.
Qualitative research attempts to examine and describe a specific event in a specific place during a specific period of time, analyzing the culture and how the people in that culture construct their personal realities. The war in the Middle East was a unique situation that can never be replicated. A study of how students develop understanding and attitudes about the war in the Middle East can, therefore, never be replicated exactly.
Due to the nature of qualitative research, generalization is also limited by time, place, and the uniqueness of the event. Comparability, however, is possible, allowing researchers to use these results in comparison to other studies that consider similar situations in which students are confronted with a national or international crisis.
The Clark Countians serving in the Persian Gulf made the war an immediate concern in the lives of the children from Beth Bright's 5th grade class. Nine of the fourteen students interviewed had relatives who had been sent to the Persian Gulf. Many of their comments expressed concern for their relatives.
I felt like [my cousin] was going to sort of get killed or something. Every time I heard about the parachuters, 'cause they kept on talking about people getting killed when they was parachuting, and I kept on thinking, "Mama, he's dead." ...I thought my cousin was gonna come back and we'd have to bury him.
Results of the study indicated that the public school served as an important agent in the socialization of students during the Gulf War, as a source not only for information but for the development of patriotic attitudes. It was not the major agent for the acquisition of information, however-television fulfilled that role.
In Beth Bright's classroom, class discussions were the primary means of obtaining information. Bright said of these discussions:
I pretty much just let them say what they wanted to say. I tried to guide the discussion a little bit but I didn't do that too much because so many of them had so many things they wanted to talk about. We spent a couple days there just letting each person say what they wanted to say no matter what aspect of the war it dealt with.
In addition to the discussions, the students engaged in many patriotic activities including singing "God Bless the U.S.A." every morning, holding a Rap Hussein contest and having a "We Support Our Troops" dance. In addition, some of the students wrote to soldiers in the Gulf. They also drew posters and made displays depicting patriotic sentiments.
One of the major areas of concern in this research were the students' perceptions of the Gulf War. I was able to divide their perceptions into three categories: (1) information about the war, (2) opinions about the war, and (3) emotional reactions to the consequences of war.
Despite the classroom discussions, most of the students were unable to give me accurate information about the war. They were not clear about what the government said was the cause of the war. Most of the students were unclear about when the war began, which countries were involved, who the major people were, and what happened. All of the students, however, identified Saddam Hussein as the enemy. The students received almost no assistance in understanding what was happening and appeared to have no coherent picture of the Gulf War.
In terms of their opinions, all of the students had strong feelings about Hussein's participation in the war and what should happen to him:
He blew his people up. Cuts them up and I think that's pretty sick. It takes a sick man to do that.
I think he should be punished bad-shot.
Get killed, 'cause he deserves it for making the prices go up on gas and killing them other people, soldiers.
Despite the prevalent negative opinions of Saddam Hussein, some of the students indicated that the situation was confusing and not easily resolved.
I don't understand. You know it's the law that if you kill somebody else you get in trouble or something like that, well what if we was to kill Hussein? Would we get in trouble?
Some of the students were not sure we should be there.
Well, it wouldn't have happened if we hadn't stuck our nose in their business.
I really wish it didn't happen because the world would really be better, I think, 'cause I just don't like war really. Some people do. I don't.
It's confusing how things change so fast. First they are our friends, and now they're enemies. Not with the whole of Iraq, just with Saddam Hussein....It wasn't our war. If it was I wouldn't be saying it wasn't our war, but it wasn't our war. It was Iraq and Kuwait was the one that had to stand up for theirself.
The students had intense emotions related to the war, centered particularly around the loss of innocent lives and fear for their friends or relatives serving in the Gulf.
Seeing them people in the streets just lying there. Saddam Hussein killing all those people for nothing because they didn't do nothing. And all them people getting killed. Our people and their people. Because when we bombed them I think it killed some of their people and their families were sad. It just gives you a funny feeling inside. Just thinking about Saddam Hussein killing them people and why the war went on and stuff....It makes you feel like, sometimes you feel like you were dead, sometimes you wish you were dead when you hear it. Sometimes I wish I was dead where I wouldn't have to stay here and listen to it.
One student seemed to sense that the war was only one part of a much bigger problem:
While the war is going on over there, that's what some of the kids are doing to other kids over here in school. All the Iraqis are treating the Kuwaitis real bad. It's like some of the same thing that's going on over here.
Perhaps she summed up all the emotions best when she said, "It's like a piece of your heart missing."
The findings of this study indicate that patriotic events overshadowed any attempt at having the students think critically about the war. Bright attempted to engage the students in discussions about the war but tended to emphasize isolated facts, accepting all of the comments without challenging the students to think about what they were saying. In addition, the patriotic exercises interfered with her ability to help students develop a coherent understanding of what was happening. Students, therefore, lacked accurate information and expressed contradictions and confusion concerning events occurring in the war.
Not addressing the conflict in a critical way could have been caused, in part, by Bright's confusion about the war and the pressure she felt to keep up with the rest of the mandated curriculum and not to challenge the government's policies. It may have been risky for her not to participate in patriotic exercises that the community and the media reinforced.
This absence of addressing conflict during the war is part of a larger pattern of managing conflict and controversy in the classroom and in the curriculum. The tendency of classroom teachers is to present isolated details of history or current events and to avoid mentioning controversy. The results of this study support previous research on this topic.2
As a consequence, students are not taught to cope with conflict at any level. The lack of instruction sets up tension. In terms of the Gulf War, the tension was not resolved. As the school focused on expressions of patriotism, the students were not presented with the tools necessary to analyze the situation in the Persian Gulf; they were left to their fantastic imaginations to try to figure out what was happening and what could be done about it.
Once the cease-fire was declared, life returned to normal in Bright's 5th grade class. Behind in her progress through the social studies book, Bright made no further references to events in the Persian Gulf. The class did not discuss the ramifications of U.S. military policy, the insurrections of the Iraqi people against their own government, the Kurdish revolution, the mass migrations from Iraq, or the resulting human needs. For these students, the war started, it ended, and we won.
The results of this study support a critical theory of resistance as described by Giroux (1983). The school and the classroom were structured to act as an agent of cultural and political reproduction, evident particularly through the use of patriotic symbols and songs. The teacher and the students, however, resisted at some level. The teacher expressed her concern to me about the government's view of the war but was hesitant to pass her concerns on to the students. The students expressed a confused and often contradictory view of the war, indicating they did not completely support what they saw or heard.
Beth Bright continued to be influenced by curriculum requirements despite her attempts to integrate thinking into her lessons. The pressures of the dominant class and the hegemonic structure made it difficult for her to engage the class in thoughtful critical analysis.
Analysis of conflict seems to be largely absent from the elementary school curriculum. Nowhere has this been more evident than in analyzing the events surrounding the Persian Gulf War. Teacher education programs must begin to examine ways to educate future teachers in how to address critically controversy and conflict in the social studies curriculum. Such critical analysis is vital if students are to learn how to cope with controversy in their own lives and how to solve the problems they will inherit.
1See, for example, Richard E. Dawson, Kenneth Prewitt, and Karen Dawson, Political Socialization (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1977); David Easton and Jack Dennis, Children in the Political System: Origins of Political Legitimacy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969); Fred Greenstein, Children and Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965); Hess and Torney (1967); Kenneth Langton, Political Socialization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969); and Judith V. Torney, "Contemporary Political Socialization in Elementary Schools and Beyond," High School Journal 54 (November 1970), 153-63.2See, for example, Anyon (1978); Apple (1971); Jones (1971); Palonsky (1987); and Remy (1970).References
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