Students give voice to patriotism Scholarships: The VFW puts its money where its mouth is with generous awards to the winners of its annual contest.

The Education Beat

February 05, 1997|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

ABOUT 8 o'clock Sunday evening at a Washington hotel, the Veterans of Foreign Wars will announce the winner of the $20,000 T. C. Selman Memorial Scholarship, given each year to the winner of a national "audio essay" contest for teen-agers. The topic this year: "Democracy -- Above and Beyond."

Sound sappy? Perhaps, but the topic, chosen by the VFW national commander, didn't discourage 116,000 teens in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories from engaging in the VFW's 50th annual contest of patriotic declamation.

These teens entered the contest in the fall at their high schools or local VFW posts and won at the local and state levels before expenses-paid trips to Washington for four days of touring, meeting their congressmen and congresswomen (perhaps the president) and hobnobbing with VFW officials. (Maryland's winner is Christian Orr of Greensboro.)

The "Voice of Democracy" may be the last major refuge of patriotism in American education. It's by far the most generous academic contest based on unadulterated love of country. The VFW will hand out $118,000 in college scholarships Sunday -- even 54th place wins $1,000 -- and in only two years the national organization has raised $1.6 million from its members for an endowment that eventually will support the contest permanently.

The VFW, in short, puts its money where its mouth is at a time when patriotism is not the most popular sentiment in education, as evidenced by the controversy sparked by Bel Air High School's attempt last spring to reinstate the Pledge of Allegiance.

As the Montana state winner (and national finalist) in 1958 and a judge of the national contest for several years, I've watched as the "Voice of Democracy" has expanded at the same time patriotism has become interchangeable with "church," as in "church and state."

We seven judges sat for a full day Monday listening to the state winners' three- to five-minute taped essays. The contest is judged "blind," the 54 finalists played at random and judged by number. The judges' scores are fed into a computer, so I will not know the winner until Sunday night.

I do know, however, that these kids are good. Many have done solid research into American history and government. Their essays are filled with moving and often humorous anecdotes, imaginative scenarios and apt quotations. In addition to old Thomas Jefferson and Abe Lincoln, every year there's one surprise expert quoted repeatedly, as though the contestants have consulted. This year it's the late American educator Robert Maynard Hutchins.

True, some of the contestants repeat myths, and few, at least at the national level, tread on contemporary controversy. None, for example, examines campaign financing or considers Paula Jones as an American patriot. But perhaps such essays have been weeded out in earlier judging.

A fervent opponent of the Vietnam misadventure and a believer that criticizing the nation is as patriotic as praising it, I was uneasy in the early years of judging "Voice of Democracy." But as patriotism became more and more politically incorrect, as more high schools dropped the pledge and removed flags, I began to look forward to this midwinter American love fest.

Another of the national judges, Lorin A. Jurvis, is president of Patriotic Education Inc., a 45-year-old organization in Rockville that produces patriotic materials for schools -- guides for studying the Constitution, for example. But Jurvis has to call what he promotes "citizenship" education because, he says, "We still have to get by the prejudice that there's something wrong with being patriotic."

Jurvis, retired from the Foreign Service, says teachers colleges over the past two decades have abandoned training in patriotic activities. "Only half-jokingly," he says, "I blame it all on Dr. Spock."

Benjamin Spock is not quoted by this year's "Voice of Democracy" state winners. But Barbara Bush is, and Edmund Burke and Winston Churchill, Mikhail Gorbachev and that revolutionary Max Robespierre. Not to mention the anonymous mother of one of my favorite contestants. (The rules prohibit contestants from identifying themselves or their hometowns and states.)

"Democracy is all right for America," she is quoted, "but this house is a dictatorship."

Teachers association at home in Annapolis

The Maryland State Teachers Association, which Baltimore officials let slip away with neither a whimper nor an inducement, has set up shop at 140 Main St. in downtown Annapolis. One of the reasons for the move cited by Associate Executive Director Betsy Moyer in a recent MSTA publication is "greater access to free media."

Forty-three staff members and three officers left Charm City for 'Naptown.

This will never replace the Army-Navy game

A sign that spring is coming is that St. John's College is gearing up for its annual croquet match against the Naval Academy on April 26 at the St. John's campus in Annapolis. St. John's has won the Annapolis Cup, housed in the nearby Little Campus Inn, 11 of the 14 times the two schools have competed.

Pub Date: 2/05/97

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