RICHMOND, VA. — The sound of children's voices saying the Pledge of Allegiance in their classrooms each day is an American tradition. Or is it?
Concern that students are no longer reciting the 31-word pledge at school is stirring a debate in some states over whether grown-ups should make sure they do.
Just last weekend, Virginia lawmakers voted to make the pledge a daily requirement in all public schools, joining New York and Montana as states that have gone on record in recent years as being pro-pledge.
But can lawmakers legislate patriotism - and will reciting the Pledge of Allegiance really help instill a sense of citizenship, civic responsibility, and even voter participation in the young people required to recite it?
For Virginia state Sen. Warren Barry (R), the answer is a no-brainer.
"Some people say you can't force patriotism. I disagree," says the ex-Marine. "I think the fact that students will have to get up and say the pledge will make them think about what it means."
The blunt-speaking Senator Barry is so adamant about the pledge that, under his original legislation, students who refused to say it (except for religious reasons) would automatically be suspended. He's disappointed in the final bill, which permits students to sit it out. (Students can still be kicked out, but only for disrupting pledge time and only if the local school district opts for such discipline.)
Still, he says, the legislation "has been a conversation piece," and there's no mistaking that. Across Virginia, it has sparked discussions around dinner tables and at school cafeterias about the messages today's young people take in about citizenship, patriotism, and what it means to be an American.
One word that gets mentioned fairly often - especially among parents - is "respect."
Julie Mallory, whose two boys attend public school here in Richmond, says she was troubled last year when a child in her son's kindergarten class, who did not say the pledge for religious reasons, had "the run of the room" while the rest of the class recited it. "I had a problem with the disrespect that implies," says Mrs. Mallory. "Saying the pledge acknowledges the freedoms we do have. It gives our kids pride in our country."
This year, her youngest son again says the pledge daily in class - and the rambunctious child now stands still for it. But her fourth-grader says his class doesn't recite it at all.
Signs are mostly anecdotal that the Pledge of Allegiance is falling out of favor in America's classrooms - even though many states have longstanding laws encouraging or mandating that it be taught. Thirty-two states have laws that mention school participation in teaching the pledge. Twenty states actually require that it be recited during the school day.
Still, most of these laws were enacted decades ago. And even when states update them - as New York did in 1996 and Montana did in 1997 - it's no guarantee that the pledge will be de rigueur in classrooms.
Susan LaRosa, who lives in Brooklyn, was surprised to learn a few years ago that her two grade-school children didn't even know the pledge. At first, she wasn't terribly concerned.
"I grew up in the '60s," she says by way of explanation. "But now that I'm older, I think it's probably not a bad idea for them to have some pride in our nation, to know something that kids all over the country have and do in common."
Many experts agree that schools have an obligation to help create the next generation of citizens - and they say that the pledge, with its emphasis on unity and democratic values, is a great place to start. "The pledge can be an excellent segue into a discussion about current affairs, for example," says Terry Pickeral, executive director of the Compact for Learning and Citizenship at the Education Commission of the States.
For Barry, the intent is to help instill a sense of patriotism in young people - something he sees as noticeably lacking when he visits classrooms around the state.
"Students, particularly in the older grades, don't pay attention at all to the pledge," says Barry, chairman of the Senate Education and Health Committee. "When I ask them about it, they say they just don't feel like it."
He says reciting the pledge underscores certain values of American culture, such as appreciation of freedoms "and homage to those who died for the flag."
There are, of course, dissenters. Rick Battistoni, for one, worries that laws such as Virginia's could create a climate of "zero tolerance" for children who don't say the pledge.
"It's hard to argue against the pledge as a symbolic expression of our shared values," says Mr. Battistoni, a political scientist at Providence College in Rhode Island who has studied citizenship education. "But if it's done in a ritualistic way, like the national anthem is at sporting events, it doesn't have much meaning."
He says the real issue is how society defines citizenship.
"Is a citizen someone who is 'good,' who knows the rules and obeys the laws? Then the pledge can be seen as a way to achieve conformity to that goal," Battistoni says. "Or is a citizen someone who is capable of deliberation on civic issues, who helps make decisions through critical thinking and autonomous action?"
Pat Alli, a Richmond mother of three, says the pledge is sort of like the issue of school prayer - it brings out many opinions. She says it means something different to her as an African-American. She'd rather see the emphasis on discussing respect and tolerance for others - "indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" - than simply on patriotism.
"I grew up knowing it. But I think when students get up to say it, it's out of habit. Does that show respect?"
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor