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October 24, 2011 at 2:23 PM

Should schoolkids say the Pledge?

Posted by Bruce Ramsey

Civil disagreements, with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times editorial board, is an occasional feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Today the two take up the argument over whether the children at the John Stanford International School in Seattle should say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Lynne Varner, left, and Bruce Ramsey

Lynne Varner:Bruce: This.story has reignited a local debate over the politics of the Pledge of Allegiance.

I grew up feeling patriotiic and saying the flag some days and feeling a melancholic disenchantment with America on other days when I refused to open my mouth as the pledge was recited. It was, and this is important, always my choice.

Schools should offer the pledge and students should continue to feel free to recite it, or not. I don't see the pledge as an oath to America, but rather to an ideal and a set of principles that just so happen to guide this country. The pledge has been modified four times since it was written in 1892, and perhaps the last modification, adding the words "under God," has made people the most uncomfortable. By whatever name you call God, many people appreciate the insertion of spirituallity. And if they don't, they don't recite the pledge.

Understandiing our shared values and what's most important to our lives - a debate made all the more urgent by a recession that has forced us to recalibrate - is a useful lesson for children. So too is the history of the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance. This country has been through paroxyms of turmoil and our kids need to know where we've been if they're going to lead us where we're going. Bruce?

Bruce Ramsey:Lynne, if the Pledge of Allegiance were invented yesterday and someone proposed to require public schoolchildren to recite it, I’d be yelling loudly against it. It is a government loyalty oath for children. Why would you want to impose that on kids? To make them good citizens? Well, then, teach American history. Teach the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the story of the Revolution. Don’t force them to recite an oath, especially the first thing in the morning, when everyone’s only half awake.

That said, the Pledge is something I grew up with, half a century ago, and got thoroughly used to. I think we said it once a week, hands on our hearts. I was fine with “one nation indivisible” and “liberty and justice for all” but as the class infidel, I always left out “under God.” I was an adult before I discovered that “under God” was added under President Eisenhower, just a few years before I had started the first grade. The hand-over-heart salute had been instituted during World War II, under President Roosevelt, because the old arm-outstretched salute looked too much like “Heil Hitler.”

In 2005 I reviewed a history of the Pledge, “To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance,” by Richard J. Ellis. Ellis said the Pledge has always been about Americanizing immigrants and loyalty during war. It was written in 1892, thirty years after the Civil War. It was written in the North, and there was Unionist sentiment in it: the word, “indivisible.” It was also written at a time immigrants were flooding into Ellis Island. People thought making the foreigners’ kids say the Pledge would make them American, sooner. Maybe it did.

Americans adopted the Pledge, and strengthened the Pledge, at times when they were the most scared of foreign influence. The first state to mandate the Pledge was Washington, in February 1919, right after the armistice in World War I and the failure of the Seattle General Strike and a few weeks before the terrorist bombs that set off the first Red Scare. Congress added the “under God” at the height of the second Red Scare to remind Americans that the Communist enemy was atheistic.

But it stuck, and to say today that you’re against the Pledge, or would not have children say it, lays you open to the charge of being a bad American. Was Abe Lincoln a bad American? He never said the Pledge. In his lifetime not one American said it. Now everyone who grew up here can remember saying it many times, and it feels unpatriotic to argue against it.

The Seattle Times story quotes a parent at the Stanford School opposed to the Pledge because it promotes nationalism rather than globalism. So it does, and nationalism is part of an ideology. But so is globalism. Would she have the children in public school say a Pledge of Support for Global Citizenship? For Environmental Sustainability? If she would, she is not against oaths, but is merely arguing over what kind—i.e. what sort of ideology will government schools attempt to instill in children? I think I am against oaths for kids. Teach them honesty and the meaning of words, and save the oaths for when they grow up and join the Marines.

Lynne adds:No, Bruce, those who are against the pledge are not bad citizens. Patriotism is in the eye of the beholder and no one can question another's loyalty.
I agree with you that being united over a flag and its shared inheritance is far more meaningful than the vaguer "global citizenship." Suppose I don't agree with what some countries on the globe stand for, must I pledge loyalty to them anyway. I disagree with your last line: oaths have a place outside of military service. They have a place in marriages, in our responsibilities to each other as citizens and as a country united under a single flag..

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