Backstory: Is America pledging less?
The schoolkid's mantra is more legally mandated than ever, but recited less than ever.
A familiar "Good morning" rings over the Hansen School loudspeaker, calling the children of Claire Lund's first grade class to their feet. Ms. Lund reminds her pack of 6- and 7-year-olds to place their pint-sized paws over their hearts, face the stars and stripes, and pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.Skip to next paragraph
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It's a slice of Americana: Little kids mangling big words as they're introduced to the patriotic principles of liberty, allegiance, and an indivisible republic.
It's also an American ritual: Every morning, kids from kindergarten to high school recite the 31-word salute.
Or do they?
A generation ago, it was nearly impossible to get through the American public school system without learning the oath – and equally impossible to forget it after so much practice.
Today, though, ask kids if they know the pledge and you're increasingly likely to get a blank stare. Veronica Baccki, a talkative second-grader in a Needham, Mass., public school flies through "of the United States of America" just fine. But then there's a long pause. She stares at the ceiling with her mouth open, then gives an embarrassed smile and covers her eyes, working to summon the next line.
"We learned what the pledge means, but it was a while ago and I forgot," she says, regaining her confidence after finally puttering to the pledge's end. "Some people in my class forget the words too. They look at the signs in the front of the room with words on it. Even some fifth-graders [who lead the rest of the school] will sing it and forget."
But fifth-graders aren't the only big kids scratching their heads. Ask the under-30 crowd to recite the pledge, and you might get an embarrassed petering out at around "... for which it stands."
So is the pledge fading into folklore? Waning like the words of the national anthem?
"Certainly since the Vietnam War, the pledge has decreased in influence and meaning," says Bruce Schulman, a professor of modern American history at Boston University. "A lot of 20- and 30-year-olds can't even recite it now."
There are no numbers to prove the pledge is waning. In fact, since 9/11 more state and town laws actually require students to say the Pledge of Allegiance than ever. But anecdotally, Professor Schulman says he's noticed the pledge's importance diminish over time.
While still pithy and patriotic, "the pledge now takes a compulsory nature and doesn't have as much meaning as it did, maybe, 15 years ago," he says. "[For] those 20-year-olds that do remember the words, I bet it's something like remembering the lyrics to a song that was popular in high school."
Ambushed with a request to recite the pledge, Sarah Garrison, a 22-year-old Los Angeles movie production assistant, breaks into slow, nervous laughter just after " ... and to the Republic."
"I'm kinda surprised at myself," says Ms. Garrison, who attended Texas public schools. "We said the pledge a lot – maybe not every day, but a lot. And yet, now, I'm reaching, but there's nothing there." To her credit, she recalls the entire oath after a few minutes, but her memory still takes a little nudging.
That young adults are struggling to string together the pledge is no surprise to Scot Guenter. Over several years of teaching a course on patriotism at San Jose State University, in California, he's found that his undergraduates have absorbed little about American civil traditions. Few know the words to the national anthem. Even fewer know any other patriotic songs. Almost all of the students said the Pledge of Allegiance in grade school, but he says the number drops off sharply by junior high.
"My suspicion is that the Vietnam War is about when people began questioning rituals like the pledge," says Mr. Guenter. "And as that generation emerged as today's teachers and principals – and parents – they likely brought with them that questioning."
Why recite the pledge? Why every day? Are we proud of America?