Recite pledge, but know meaning behind the words

Sunday, October 28, 2001

Patriotism is back.

Sept. 11 has re-kindled a love of country not seen in America for decades. Overnight Old Glory has appeared everywhere from car bumpers to store windows to suit lapels. And singing the words “our flag was still there” has a new poignancy.

This surge of patriotism is already having an impact in our public schools. Lawmakers from New York to California are waking up to the fact that patriotic exercises — once a routine start to every school day — have fallen out of favor in many schools. Legislatures and school boards are now rushing to restore the Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem to the classroom.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. When the Wisconsin legislature passed a law mandating that students either recite the pledge or sing the anthem every morning, the school board in Madison voted to avoid both by having schools play the tune of the anthem instead. (The board has since reversed itself after widespread outrage in the community.)

Why ban the pledge? One Madison board member claims it was to protect the rights of students and staff not to participate. But that stands the issue on its head. The way to protect everyone’s rights is to allow those who object to opt out — not to ban all patriotic exercises from public schools. The Supreme Court ruled years ago that students have a First Amendment right to be excused from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Others object to recitation of the pledge because they consider the phrase “under God,” (added to the pledge in 1954 at the height of anti-Communist fervor in the United States) to be unconstitutional government promotion of religion. But the Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the argument that the reference to God in the pledge violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Here again, those who disagree should be allowed to opt out. Since the pledge has been upheld as constitutional, states have the right to require it in the schools.

But just because the pledge is constitutional, does that make it the right thing to do in public schools? Some claim in Madison and elsewhere that group activities like this encourage a mindless patriotism — “America, love it or leave it” — that promotes hostility towards those who refuse to participate.

Are these real dangers? Well, we know from history that in times of war patriotism can easily become a brand of jingoism that tolerates no dissent. Consider the reaction in Madison. I’ve been told that school board members who voted against requiring the pledge have been intimidated and reviled as “godless communist sympathizers.” A New York teacher told me that she was berated by students for not having a flag on her car like everyone else. And a parent in New Jersey called a state office to complain about the pressure on her daughter to participate in all kinds of rallies, songs and other patriotic activities.

But saying the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t cause these incidents. Failing to teach and model the principles that our flag represents causes them. Patriotic exercises like the pledge can play a role in fulfilling the civic mission of the schools if, and only if, they are accompanied by a thoughtful discussion of what the exercises mean.

If we’re going to ask students to pledge loyalty to a nation with “liberty and justice for all,” then we must inspire them to uphold that vision of America in their life as citizens. Otherwise the pledge can become an empty recitation that breeds superficial patriotism at best.

It’s particularly important to teach kids all about liberty of conscience and the right to dissent — two of the key principles represented by the American flag. Students have a vague idea that they “don’t have to say” the pledge. But many don’t know why we don’t compel people to do so. Refusing to salute the flag isn’t about goofing off or showing disrespect — it’s about making a claim of conscience. As the Supreme Court eloquently put it more than 50 years ago:

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

Framed this way, all students learn that respecting the flag means respecting fundamental constitutional rights — including the right to dissent or opt out on grounds of conscience. That’s genuine patriotism.

So let’s say the Pledge of Allegiance in our public schools. But let’s make sure that we mean what we say.