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.

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?

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.

"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."

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