United behind the flag - if little else

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The Independent Online

New York

If Britain were America, its schools would look a little different. The Union Flag would be raised outside each morning and the children would begin the day with some expression of loyalty to the state, presumably a chorus of God Save the Queen, and All Things Bright and Beautiful would never be heard.

The Stars and Stripes is the prime symbol through which America tries to instil a sense of national unity, if not plain nationalism, in its schoolchildren. From kindergarten age, pupils in the public-education system must start every day by rising to their feet, placing their right hands on their hearts, and reciting the "Pledge of Allegiance" to the flag.

However, now there is heated debate about how educators in a country so huge and diverse as the US should best give children some common awareness of its history, society and culture.

For younger children, in particular, great emphasis is placed on learning about moments in American history and commemorating them, especially those marked by national holidays, like Thanksgiving, President's Day and Martin Luther King Day. This correspondent's five-year-old, for instance, was given a painting project relating to King that now decorates his bedroom.

Where the arguments arise, however, is over the place of religion in schools and the extent to which political correctness has been taken too far.

There was fury several months ago, for instance, when a panel of experts proposed a new history curriculum which openly de-emphasised "white males" like Washington and Lincoln, and focused on the history of ethnic groups.

Conservatives are similarly restive about the constitutional requirement that all religious worship be kept out of the schools.Children can be taught what Christmas means, but any hint of classroom participation in the holiday is illegal. Afraid of breaking the rules, many schools don't call Christmas "Christmas"; usually it becomes the "Winter Holiday" or "Yuletide break".