I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

Honor the Vets, but Teach Students to Think

by Oskar Cymerman       @focus2achieve

Wednesday was Veteran’s Day and just as in the years past, my school put on an outstanding ceremony to honor the US armed forces veterans. It is a beautiful celebration to honor the sacrifice our men and women make to show our appreciation and respect to those who put their lives at risk for us. But is it always best for us?

This post will put some people off, perhaps anger others, because what I am about to write might be misunderstood or misconstrued. Some of them might be colleagues, and some might be friends, and I hope that if I do strike a sensitive note with them, they can forgive me for saying what I believe and think is right.

This post is a risk I am willing to accept, because while I am in awe of and appreciate the service of the soldiers, I have to be true to my beliefs and core values, and teach my students to think for themselves. Student education, the proper and authentic education, without omission of all things true but inconvenient, is the number one priority on my “teacher” list. As such, I must tell them about the 3 inconvenient truths: the Brainwashing, the Imperialism, and the Freedom of Mind.

The Brainwashing

Belief determines behavior. This country was founded on noble and progressive beliefs and was once a beacon of light, a shining example of what personal freedom can look like, to the rest of the world. It was imperfect, but beautiful. But now, it is a shadow of itself. Slowly, the confidence in the United States as the bastion of freedom has eroded, and its reputation of being the “most free country in the world” lives on only in rhetoric of its politicians and minds of its citizens, blinded by ideals and unaware of facts.

It’s easy for people to believe in ideals. I believe it is human nature to be good, and as such we strive to be part of something greater, something important. This is why it is so easy for a speaker who presents a big enough message to rouse us, ask for our support, and call us to action. Such was the case with the Iraq War that started in 2003, officially ended in 2011, and is probably continuing through the present. This conflict represents maybe the most obvious rationale/reason mismatch anyone can observe with a little research into history and the facts surrounding the war itself.

Rationale: Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and is ready to use them (the T-word).

Reason: US Dollar is threatened as the world trade currency, because Saddam Hussein, who controls 25% of worldwide oil production, is now selling it in euros, following Iran, another oil-rich country placed on George W. Bush’s axis of evil, threatening the same in 1999.

Since the US Dollar became the world trade currency in the 70’s, our government has irresponsibly been ordering the Federal Reserve (a private banking behemoth with roots in Great Britain) printing more and more dollars and using them to pay for imports, mostly oil. This convoluted system with many layers only partially understood by many economists, has been our country’s answer to raising money that cannot be collected through taxes, and is the reason for the perpetually record-breaking debt burden of our nation. If you are not sure what I wrote just now, don’t worry: I keep rereading and am not sure if I understand it myself. But that’s precisely the point…

As a naïve young soldier, who upon reading the words of the Declaration of Independence in his high school US History class has become forever enlisted to defend the ideals it promises, would you like hearing that the real reason why you are going to Iraq is to prevent your government’s screw-ups from becoming an economic catastrophe; to basically bail out the officials we all elected from the consequences of their collective incompetence? Yep, preserving freedom sounds way better.

The Imperialism

“A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” ― Dwight D. Eisenhower

A Polish friend of mine who recently visited the US to rock climb in the West has recently posted several pictures from her adventures to Facebook with a caption that translates to “Imperialistic United States.” Imperialistic, I thought to myself and smiled: Why would she say that?

The next day was when I attended the Veteran’s Day program at my school. Just like everyone else, I clapped hard when veterans form the local VFW chapter entered the gymnasium to show how much I admire and appreciate their bravery and service. It was a great ceremony and it was well prepared, but I did not stay to the end. During the lead Jr. ROTC Cadet’s speech two things hit me hard:

1.     The casual description of US flag flying proudly in all four corners of the world, as if it was something perfectly common to have military troops stationed literally everywhere in the world.

2.     The statement made that since the inception of this country, every single generation has had to fight in a war to protect our freedom.

I had to leave after the second statement, as it upset and prompted me to reflect on the “Imperialistic United States,” and how the pretext of freedom is commonly used to mask the true intentions of our policy makers or to justify the millions of lives our military has erased from existence. One of the most horrific and shameful genocides in the history of the world involves the white Americans systematically dehumanizing and killing Native American Indians. In fact, the US Government using its military might has done such a thorough job of destroying the American Indian spirit that today the native population exhibits the highest school dropout rates, highest suicide rates among youth aged 15-24, and highest alcoholism and death from alcoholism rates among all US ethnicities as reported by the National Congress of American Indians.

I know that the cadet just read a prepared speech designed to discuss the greatness, justify the necessity, and emphasize the benevolence of the US Military. But I wonder if this teen realized that all the wars waged against the native tribes and nations (and you can find a long list of them here) were not for freedom at all? Maybe he thought that the US military was freeing the Indians from their land, which was doing them a huge favor, because what were they going to do with all this real estate if they didn’t even know how to farm, right? That last one was cynical, but questions in this vein rarely get asked in public. They are not convenient as the answers involve some of the often-glorified forefathers of this nation being shown to act in ways consistent with those employed by some of the most evil and cruel world leaders, such as Hitler, Stalin, or Milošević. And that is nothing to aspire to.

One such well-documented case, is of President Thomas Jefferson laying out a plan for seizure of “aboriginal” lands through deceitful assimilation, acculturation, and in cases of resistance, forced removal and extermination. He presents this plan in a letter to Governor William H. Harrison Washington from February 27, 1803. I wonder if the American History textbooks used in high schools provide any look into the specifics of how this country started implementing such radical nationalistic views and imperialistic polices shortly after its inception. While Jefferson himself was already out of the office at the time of implementation, the “Indian killer” President Andrew Jackson had a well laid out template for it, courtesy of his predecessors, most notably Jefferson.

“The most powerful man in the free world” – this is what we are accustomed to hearing when the President of the US is being talked about. What makes him so powerful? All Americans know the answer to this question, because it is a source of pride to all of us. Our military is a fine-tuned ass-kicking machine second to none; bar none. But I think it is important to ask our students the question whether this fact should be a source of pride for us. Has the privilege of being the all and ever present benevolent uncle to all nations who do as we do been bestowed to America by the rest of the world? Has it been agreed upon by at least the majority of the people living on this planet? Perhaps, the divine granted it to us? Or maybe, in the words of Jefferson, “it is our sovereign right?”

The Freedom of Mind

I think it is important to start educating our students to look at our government’s policies and actions with a more critical lens. This is one of the freedoms afforded by our constitution, but only exercised by few, as our very government is a great marketer of ideals and noble values it sells as a package deal, while it goes about its business of world domination. We, the educators, have to teach our students to challenge this approach and pose difficult, rarely asked, and often overlooked questions such as:

1.     Are our policies, as viewed by not just our people, but also the citizens of other countries, benevolent or simply arrogant and why we should care?

2.     Does the official story of going to war make sense, or does it wreak of ulterior motives?

3.     Is the predominant modus operandi of “benevolent hegemony” a must, or something we are desperately trying to hold onto as Americans?

4.     How have we found ourselves in this position?

5.     How long can we go on like this? And

6.     And is it truly advantageous in the long run?

And maybe the new generations will clear the smoke, shatter the mirrors, and pave way toward a more sustainable America. After all, would it be so bad to the American ego to restore equal footing with every other nation on earth and become a country that truly cooperates with the rest of the world, instead of instilling fear and forcing collaboration with the imminent threat of military intervention and the potentiality of chaos ensuing in the countries of those who oppose its will? Just saying…

The truth is that the United States has exercised imperialist policies since its very beginnings as a country. To maintain the support of its citizens, the government uses the high ideals and moral principles contained within the pages of our constitution. These tactics, along with the targeted promotion of the courage and sacrifice of our soldiers, are used to distract us away from the real issues and the true motives. These motives aren’t necessarily evil; they just aren’t harmonious with the picture of America we project to ourselves, which in turn is a reflection of who we are as people. Most people like to paint a pretty picture, because abstract paintings are weird…

As teachers, we need to work to free our children’s minds from the tyranny of linear thought and help them clear out the distractions preventing them from seeing the complicated truths. It is only then we can teach them to protect our most precious resource – our young men and women – who, on moments notice, courageously accept an order to leave those they love and go into hell. Sometimes they are called upon to protect us, and sometimes to protect our interests. Sometimes, they go into hell and back. And sometimes the hell claims the highest price anyone can pay…

We also need to teach our students to be smart about how they communicate about these issues and about the actions they take to stand up against engagements that violate their core values. Edward Snowden comes to mind here. For what he did, he is in exile forever. He is no longer American, never to be spoken of in the same sentence as the words “United States of America.” No longer a citizen, he stays a country-less wanderer, forever to be vilified by legions of his blinded compatriots, whose eyes he tried to open, if only for short while. 

But what did he do? I do not know his motives, but I want to believe that one day his conscience caused him to stand up and say: I will not allow my own government to violate the Constitution of the United States of America, the very document it has sworn to uphold and protect no matter what. What he did, wasn’t thought through. Maybe it was stupid. Perhaps an act of treason as well. But what is more un-American and traitorous than violating the one document that delineates what it means to be American and explicates the principles we swore never to allow to be desecrated? Because if we do, the very foundation of what this country is lays in ruin.

Personally, I am conflicted and angry when our government uses preservation of our freedoms as a ruse to go to war and then makes a mockery of these inalienable rights by covertly defiling them when it sees fit.

Our Soldiers and Our Children

I do not claim to have all of the facts and I interpret things and events based on the research I do and sources I find. Some of this information is not meant to be found easily. Some of it is readily available and has been (not so) common knowledge for decades. It isn’t even hidden or denied by our government – it’s just conveniently omitted and replaced with ideals we aspire to.

As a teacher it’s my job and desire to help my students aspire to do great things and honor those who choose to serve others; the men and women soldiers whose courage, honesty, and values exhibit what’s best about this country. It’s also my responsibility to teach them to think for themselves, consider the facts, look for conflicting information, make their own conclusions based on their findings and regardless of the good opinion of others, and formulate their own value systems to withstand the pressures of those who will undoubtedly seek to influence and bend their will.

This includes challenging the government for which the indefinite detention of its citizens without trial is now status quo, the very government that is slowly eroding whatever is left of our “inalienable” liberties, under the pretext of preserving freedom, because WE LET IT.



I dedicate this post to my son, Adam, whom I want to infect with unconditional love for life and people, and whom I hope to teach to think for himself, speak out against injustice, and uphold the highest values.

I also dedicate it to my friend Paul, an Iraq War veteran, who, from our regular conversations, seems just as conflicted as I am about our government’s motives, and continues to support his veteran brethren by advocating on their behalf. Right on brother. Right on…


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