Education Opinion

I Pledge Allegiance

By Nancy Flanagan — September 20, 2012 3 min read
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Back in the 1980s, when my public school district was still considered rural, a conservative, anti-tax school board was elected and set about re-fashioning the core work of the system, stripping away “frills” and returning to their own nostalgic, just-the-basics vision of education. First order of business: a mandate that an American flag be displayed in every room, and all buildings collectively recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of every day. Effective immediately.

Since you can’t say the Pledge of Allegiance to the wall, principals scrambled to buy flags and the whine of drills punching holes in concrete block drowned out lessons over the next few days. Teachers did what teachers do: figured out how to incorporate a daily PA-led pledge into their own start-up routine while quietly dissecting the new policy in the teachers’ lounge, predicting the philosophical and practical consequences:

Won’t the Pledge become rote and sterile? What about the Jehovah’s Witness kids (a significant subset of our population)--and what about kids who claim the Pledge is against their religious beliefs just for kicks or attention? What happens when 8th grade boys start leaping up and grabbing the flag--as they most certainly will? Can we turn the words--pledge, indivisible, allegiance--into tomorrow’s vocabulary lesson, try to inject some meaning into this exercise? Do our students even understand what the Pledge is--how it came about, its uses and misuses?

Last week, the MI Legislature has passed legislation requiring display of the flag in every classroom in every public school in Michigan--and a companion law compelling daily recitation of the Pledge is in the pipeline. Republican state Senator Roger Kahn, who introduced the bill says: Starting the school day with the pledge is an important expression of love for our country.

Let me say upfront that I, personally, have no problem saying the Pledge of Allegiance (even the God part) at publicly funded gatherings. I sing the war-mongering words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Tiger games, too, loudly and lustily, embarrassing my family. I know all the verses of “America the Beautiful.” I fly Old Glory. I do love my country, warts and all.

It’s the compulsion part that bothers me, in a nation proudly founded on civil and religious liberties. That--and the fact that this legislation is being passed during a hot and heavy election season, right after the MI House introduced a bill specifying that the state’s

...model core academic curriculum content standards shall not include attitudes, beliefs, or value systems that are not essential in the legal, economic, and social structure of our society and to the personal and social responsibility of citizens of our society.

So--expression of “non-essential” beliefs and values may soon be verboten in Michigan classrooms, except for the legal demand that every person publicly vow loyalty to the American political system, every day? Praising our nation as unified, committed to freedom, equity and integrity?

The irony, the irony. Also: a little wobbly, on the first amendment front.

As a teacher, here’s what I want to ask:

• Doesn’t the MI legislature have much bigger problems to solve, at this moment?

• Isn’t this the very definition of a local issue? Most schools deal with expressions of national pride (and similar issues, like celebration of holidays) based on decisions made by School Boards with input from the community, creating local policies that are periodically reviewed and updated, rather than part of the monolithic MI School Code.

• Does Senator Kahn really believe that compelling teenagers to stand and mumble an oath every day will lead to genuine patriotism? Has the fact that rote compliance could well be counter-productive in the long run to occurred to policy-makers?

• Are the MI legislators sponsoring the bill concerned with equally important things, like civic engagement, respect for national service, teaching kids to investigate all sides of an issue? What about maximizing voter turnout? Or do those qualify as “value systems that are not essential?”

Much of the discussion has been around who’s going to pay for all the new flags-- the legislature has declined-- but I really wish it were possible to assign every legislator who votes for this new requirement to a five-paragraph essay, delineating its purpose and meaning.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.