Backstory: Is America pledging less?
The schoolkid's mantra is more legally mandated than ever, but recited less than ever.
(Page 2 of 2)
At Bainbridge High School, a suburban Seattle public school, these questions go not to the administration, but to students. Social studies classes use the pledge to ask what it means to be an American.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"It generates pretty good discussion," says Bainbridge associate principal Dean Fritts. And while he thinks legislation compelling kids to pledge allegiance is "dumb, bad lawmaking," the pledge offers a shared starting point to discuss patriotism.
"For the most part, I think our students see the pledge as reaching for the American ideal," he says. "There are students who have knee-jerk ... liberal reactions toward it, and there are teachers who I have to talk to because they think those students who refuse to say the pledge are ... disrespecting the beauty of this country."
Debates over the salute, local and national, can be particularly prickly – even winding up before the Supreme Court on several occasions. Serious supporters see it as a sacred tradition – the spoken equivalent of the flag to which they pledge.Extreme opponents call it the indoctrinization of God and country on impressionable youth.
But, these are the fringes. The wane of the pledge from American life is more tied to indifference than passion, says Barbara Truesdell, assistant director of Indiana University's Center for the Study of History and Memory.
"It used to be we'd hear it at town meetings and public gatherings," she says. Now, "it's just not a part of daily life."
The decline is perhaps most apparent in the classroom – particularly blue-state high schools.
"I don't know of any high schools in the area in which the pledge is recited daily. It isn't here," admits a superintendent of a largely liberal suburban Boston school district who asked not to be named because of how contentious the subject can be. "If I insisted on it being recited here – which is not my plan or desire – my career would begin a quick and flaming descent."
But what about the laws in Massachusetts – and more than 40 other states – mandating the pledge?
The actual letter of Bay State law demands students say the pledge every morning. It even imposes a $5 fine on teachers who refuse or forget to lead the students for two weeks. But this law has been unenforced since 1977, the year the current wording was passed, says Kathleen LeBlanc, a legal officer with the state Department of Education. That's because forcing students, or teachers, to say the pledge violates a different American institution: the First Amendment.
Simply put, if students don't want to say the pledge, they don't have to. They can sit quietly at their desks or, in some schools, may continue their conversation over the rest of the class. If a teacher doesn't want to say it, he doesn't have to. A student volunteer can lead the pledge, or the principal can recite it over a loudspeaker.
All that Massachusetts public schools have to provide is the opportunity to say the pledge daily.
How much kids learn about the pledge is all at the discretion of their individual teachers, says Hansen principal Bill Griffin, as he leads a visitor to Ms. Lund's class.
The Canton schools have said the pledge every day "for as long as I can remember," says superintendent Irene Kaplan. She hasn't discussed the pledge with other superintendents. She assumed saying it daily was a given. "It's a tradition. We say it in every grade. We're consistent," she says. "We're patriots."
While Lund's first-graders have been saying the Pledge of Allegiance for two months, she says this fall day is perfect for a visitor because, "just yesterday I went over the meaning of the pledge with the class. Now they know what all the words mean."
Well, maybe not all the words. "Indivisible" takes them a few tries. One boy in an oversized rugby shirt confidently reminds the group it means "freedom." A ponytailed classmate eagerly raises her hand to correct him: "It means you can't be seen."