A challenging task is to purge ourselves of the myriad things that find their way into the corners of garages, basements and attics. A few years back, my wife and I were an appraisal away from selling our home, and in anticipation of having to move, we purged a few thousand pounds of those things then deposited for no apparent reason in the aforementioned locations. The good news is, we’ve stayed lean because we like it lean. Or should I say “lean-er?”
In conjunction with a renovation of my basement office, I undertook another kind of purging—ridding myself of physical documents in Pendaflex folders—and in so doing, I encountered twenty-eight sheets of tablet paper that awakened a memory of a time almost 50 years ago when some “True Americans” were bemoaning the fact that there was a movement afoot to eliminate the requirement that students be allowed to opt out of reciting The Pledge of Allegiance, which at the time was required of every student every morning of every school day.*
Growing up Boomer, as required, I had recited The Pledge every morning of every school day for twelve years. Given that my attendance was very good, I estimate that the words of The Pledge had passed between my lips 2,100 times. When I became a home room teacher in 1973, that number of recitations grew, and as a 7th grade homeroom teacher in 1975, what I witnessed every day reinforced my long-held opinion that for almost all students, reciting The Pledge was a daily, mindless mumbling of meaningless words. Being a young, know-it-all (I know, I know) and inexperienced teacher, I had the temerity to say so in the teacher’s lounge one day during a discussion among my colleagues. Attacked by my older colleagues as someone who was advocating the end of American Democracy as we then knew it, I decided to gather some evidence to support my opinion. The next morning, I asked my homeroom students to do two things: 1) write out The Pledge, and 2) define “allegiance.”
What was documented on the resurrected sheets of tablet paper were the students’ responses to the two requests. What my 28 white, suburban/middle-class, 7th graders had recorded—who, during their school career of 6+ years, would by then have recited The Pledge over 1000 times—was confirming and enlightening. Only one student had been able to record The Pledge accurately regarding content, and only six other students were close, these six having omitted a “to” or “the” or the like. There were many spelling errors in every response—only one student had spelled allegiance correctly—and not one student was even close to a correct definition of allegiance; in fact, the evidence resurrected on the 28 pages was that only a few students even attempted a definition, none of which were close to being conceptually accurate: loyalty or commitment of an individual to a group or cause.
Lest you think I’m offering perverse hyperbole, I offer the following two examples from the 28 student responses …
If you have forgotten the Pledge, the last official iteration follows, which was issued in 1954, per 4 U.S.C. §4 (Note: this version was the first version to include a reference to God. The previous four iterations going back to 1892—the original version—made no such reference) …
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
My assertion made in the teachers’ lounge in 1975 had been that it was unlikely the American experiment in Democracy had or would benefit from school children reciting The Pledge of Allegiance each day. My students’ responses supported my assertion; however, because I knew I would have to continue requiring my students to recite The Pledge, I determined to assure that they at least knew what they were saying. In homeroom period the morning after “the quiz,” instead of reciting The Pledge we discussed what it was The Pledge meant. Because there was a significant level of engagement on the part of my students—and because I think it was the right and proper thing to do—that discussion became a practice I continued at the beginning of each of the following years with my homeroom students.
To me, the most significant legacy of required recitation of The Pledge falls into the category of Historical Irony. It is ironic that requiring school children to recite The Pledge became a cause célèbre for conservative Americans who must not have known, especially during the early years of the Cold War against Communism, that The Pledge had been penned in 1892 by a socialist named Francis Bellamy as part of an ironically capitalistic PR campaign. (See: How the Pledge of Allegiance Went From PR Gimmick to Patriotic Vow).
It is also ironic that despite the fact any educator worth his/her salt knows that reliance solely upon rote memorization has zero impact upon conceptual understanding, educators were responsible for implementing the meaningless exercise every school day. And it is ironic that despite every Boomer who attended public schools having recited The Pledge a few thousand times, when we became policy makers, we created educational policy that minimized or eliminated the teaching of Civics (see: A Look at Civics Education in the United States) the result of which, it can and has been argued, is a foundational cause of our current American discontent.
* In June of 1963, SCOTUS put an end to the daily morning ritual that accompanied The Pledge: Bible readings. (School District of Abington Township v. Schempp)
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