Editorial | Honor the Flag by Honoring its Ideals

January 16, 2013 

The nation’s flag rightfully occupies a treasured place in our hearts. It symbolizes liberty, freedom, democracy, opportunity, equality and every other patriotic ideal that stirs our souls. We salute it daily in our schools and sing to it before every professional ballgame. Brave men and women have died to protect the nation and the idea it represents.

But dear as the flag is to us, it is in the end only a bit of colored fabric. Should we punish a teacher for dramatically pointing out that fact? Absolutely not.

Chapin High School teacher Scott Compton has been suspended and looks likely to be fired after taking a flag off the wall during three of his honors English classes and stomping on it in December. His actions, part of a lesson meant to demonstrate that ideas are more than their symbols, have drawn quick and harsh criticism from around the nation, as The State newspaper reported this week. Speakers at a school board hearing on Monday called it “contemptible and disgusting” and “a grotesque display of misjudgment.”

We’ll agree that Compton’s choice of object lessons was shocking and offensive to many. But, at the risk of putting words in Compton’s mouth, that was sort of the point. Compton’s lesson holds firm, and it’s a lesson that patriots should be embracing, not vilifying.

Those so quick to excoriate Compton should remember some of the very values that flag represents, with freedom of expression high on that list. What lesson are Compton’s students taking away from his suspension? That America is the land of the free, unless you do something that other people don’t like? That offending others is somehow unpatriotic? Perhaps that the idea of America really is so small it can fit in a piece of fabric.

The American flag represents our nation in the same way that the cross represents Christianity or the Star of David represents Judaism. Would we like to see any of these symbols defamed or defaced? No, but at the same time any harm to these symbols would not touch the ideals and beliefs they stand for.

Stomp on the Stars and Stripes all you want and we will cringe and grimace and grit our teeth, but the United States will still be alive and well. The ideals of our nation do not reside in a piece of cloth. They live in our hearts, our intellect, in our communal, representative government and our dedication to the beliefs that our Founding Fathers laid out when they formed a more perfect union 237 years ago.

The morals and ethics that guide us as a nation are not found in a patriotic piece of fabric, however symbolic it may be. Such was the lesson that Compton was attempting to impart to his students. It’s a hard lesson perhaps for those of us brought up to venerate and honor the flag. But it’s a good lesson. The flag is only a symbol, a rallying point. We honor the flag not because of any inherent value in the way it’s made or flown, but because of what it stands for, a nation dedicated to a better sense of justice and humanity.

Compton now must decide whether to appeal his superintendent’s order to fire him. We sincerely hope he does. And if he does not win, we’d suggest that Horry County Schools strongly consider hiring him. Teachers with such passion for their job should be encouraged and cultivated, not punished for giving their students big ideas to think about.

We may not agree with Compton’s treatment of the flag, but it is wrong to punish him for that treatment. To do so is to honor the nation’s flag while ignoring the very ideals of freedom that it represents.

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