In a town called Christiansburg, Virginia, a group of teenagers got in trouble this week for wearing Confederate flag clothing to school. School discipline pops up in the news every now and then, so why this case, and why now? One guess, judging from the photograph, anyway, is that after Charleston, public sanction on displaying the Confedederate flag has become the abstinence program of civic education. Strict prohibition, strong urge to explore.
Even though it positions us down on the ground looking up at the next generation of manifest destiny, I still get a sense from this photograph that there is something altogether adolescent about clinging to a mythology of the Old South. Maybe it’s the compositional pairing of teenage defiance with stars and bars; maybe it’s the awkward assertion of individuality through tight group conformity.
The flagrant historical confusion of this photograph seems emblematic of a larger problem, too. So instead of removing these kids from school for a day because they wore Confederate flag insignia, how about putting them in school for an extra day of classes in US history? Maybe assign some light reading on what the term “secession” meant to the southern states, what it meant to the Union, and then quiz them on which side used which flag during the Civil War. Then use this same photograph to spur thinking about the historical record as something that changes depending on where you stand on the issues.
What draws me in most about this photograph, then, is the way it visually enters the debate about schooling and academic “discipline” in this country. The decision to suspend kids from school for claiming a piece of US history raises questions not so much about what lessons are being learned through this act of discipline, but about how reliably the discipline of academic history serves the politics of the present.
(photo: Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times/AP. caption: Christiansburg High School students bearing American and Confederate flags gather in a shopping center parking lot after being suspended from school property in Christiansburg, Va. Thursday. Roughly 20 students at the Virginia high school received a one-day suspension for wearing clothing displaying the Confederate flag).