On Martin Luther King Day, several schools in Georgia and the Carolinas opened to make up days missed due to snow closings earlier in the year. A NAACP spokesman, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, says, “”This time is set aside to honor a man who devoted his life to the service of mankind and should not be disturbed . . .(We) kindly request that you reconsider (opening).”
Schools are required to meet a specified number of times during the year and schools would fall short if they didn’t open. But the NAACP has a point. Schools have shortened spring break by a day or added another to their calendar in June.
But the controversy raises a larger point: how should our national holidays be marked? Closing schools seems to be to send the wrong message. For many it is another day to sleep late, play video games and shop at the mall. Sales events on national holidays may be good for business. But national holidays should remind us of our citizenship, not merely reinforce our consumerism. I remember best Armistice Day (Veterans Day) when at 11 o’clock we childdren stood at our desks for a minute of silence to remember the war dead.
We have confused citizenship with consumerism. A citizen is one who is concerned with the public realm and makes choices about representation and policy; a consumer is concerned with the private realm and makes choices about products and prices. By closing schools on national holidays we reinforce notions of buying. If schools remained open, there is the opportunity to underline what it means to be a citizen.
National holidays should be time for discussions about the difficulties and dilemmas of ethical choices in a democracy, the hard and sometimes muddy choices. There is George Washington, the man who could have become king but walked away from a third term as president, the same one was the leader of a troop that engaged in an Indian massacre; Abraham Lincoln, the emancipator of slaves, who also suspended the writ of habeas corpus in several places, then ignored a court orders to restore it; the veterans who served when called upon, occasionally in wars that shouldn’t have been fought; and, of course today, MLK, the civil rights hero who broke the law for the sake of fulfilling America’s more noble self.
Democracy means choice but it is a different kind of choice as to which of dozens of cereals to buy. That distinction is increasingly lost and there is a lost opportunity to make that distinction when schools are closed for the day.