Flag Day fades from public schools amid culture wars


Maybe, with all the focus on exposing students to hot-button cultural issues, there’s just no room in the modern American classroom for lessons on Flag Day — Tuesday’s annual national celebration of the Stars and Stripes.

A new study from the homework learning platform Brainly says more than 30% of kids don’t know the American flag has 50 stars representing the nation’s 50 states.

The survey released ahead of the annual holiday — which recalls the day in 1777 when the United States approved the design for its first national flag — also finds that 53.2% of middle and high school students do not discuss Flag Day in their schools. But more than 35% want to learn more about it.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, says the holiday might matter less today than the flag’s elements and “how they mean different things to different people.”

“Perhaps the flag is best thought of not in terms of students memorizing facts about it, but as a source of thoughtful questions in a history or civics class,” Mr. Grossman said in an email Monday. “What should the elements of the flag represent? Why?”

Wilfred M. McClay, a historian at Hillsdale College, says U.S. history classes have increasingly “discouraged” a focus on the flag as a symbol of the country’s freedoms while emphasizing the constitutional right to burn it.

“For the flag is our most powerful symbol of what makes us one people. We should not be surprised if our neglect of it will have serious consequences for our cohesion as a nation,” Mr. McClay said Monday.

This year’s Flag Day comes amid a contentious national debate over whether U.S. public schools should shape students’ opinions on controversial political issues or stick to the facts of reading, writing and arithmetic.  

Spurred on by parental rights groups, Republican lawmakers have promoted parental rights in education laws in states ranging from Florida to Oklahoma to remove “divisive concepts” from the classroom.

Those concepts include lessons on gender identity for small children, discussions of systemic racism in the nation’s history and “woke math” textbooks that use examples from both in word problems.

Robert Gmeiner, an economist at Methodist University in North Carolina, says the American flag is a controversial symbol of racism and sexism for those who promote these lessons.

He points as an example to the pushback of progressive activists against Nike’s Betsy Ross sneakers, which featured the nation’s original flag with 13 stars in a circle to represent the 13 colonies that formed the United States.

“It was taken as a symbol of slavery,” Mr. Gmeiner said.

Although most schools are out for summer break each June 14, a teacher helped develop the annual holiday, also known as National Flag Day.

Wisconsin teacher Bernard J. Cigrand urged his students in 1885 to observe the date as “Flag Birthday.” His desire to honor the flag led him to write an article in a Chicago newspaper.

As regional celebrations spread, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed June 14 as Flag Day in 1916 and Congress permanently established the holiday in 1949.

Despite that history, only 45% of the students who responded to Brainly’s survey knew that the original American flag contained 13 stars.

The survey also found that just 16% of respondents correctly knew that the red, white, and blue colors signify valor, purity, and justice. More than 59% of the others incorrectly claimed it represented freedom, equality, and justice for all.

Colleen Sheehan, a professor in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, says the survey shows schools could do a better job teaching the flag to students.

“The American flag reminds of us what America stood for at the time of our founding. It reminds of us of the work we have yet to do today to live up to that vision, that idea captured in the word ‘America,’” Ms. Sheehan said Monday.


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