“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.”
This evening, the Madison School Board will meet to revisit its vote last week directing Madison schools to play an instrumental version of the national anthem each day instead of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or playing the anthem with vocals. The decision was meant to comply with the state’s new law requiring districts to offer students the daily “opportunity” to demonstrate their patriotism through the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner or the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
It seems a virtual certainty that the board will reverse this decision, opening the door to the Pledge of Allegiance. And in any case, at least some of the offending board members seem headed for recall elections (in which students would certainly have the chance to participate) now being contemplated by certain community leaders.
A decision to standardize the playing of the national anthem every day might on the surface seem benign or even patriotic. But our mayor has condemned the vote, as have two business groups who called it an inaccurate reflection of “the majority opinion of the business community, the people of this fine city, Dane County, or the entire country.”
Given such sentiments, most of the school board members probably feel pretty alone right now.
We ought stand with them.
Of course, it is not terribly difficult to sympathize with their opponents, those good Americans who, rightly proud of our country and eager to inspire this pride in schoolchildren, see the Pledge of Allegiance as the best and most efficient vehicle for making future generations understand how important this country and God are to their forefathers. These individuals also likely take some comfort in the knowledge that millions of K-12 students are reciting the Pledge of Allegiance: “We’ve done our job,” they can think to themselves: “We’ve created good little God-fearing citizens.”
And given the brevity of the Pledge of Allegiance, it might seem a small concession to devote thirty seconds a day to its recitation.
But that is a grave mistake. Schoolchildren have the “opportunity” to stand up in their classrooms and publicly recite the pledge, but they do not have the chance to ponder, discuss, challenge, interpret, or reflect on the words they say. Kindergartners are in no position to struggle with questions of liberty and justice and God, and middle and high school students will soon be numb to the monotony.
Moreover, school and government sanctioning of the pledge only invite s the ostracism of foreigners, students who aren’t comfortable with blind adherence to country or God, and those who simply aren’t prepared to commit to something they don’t fully understand. Peer pressure and schoolyard bullying too often sadly trump “liberty and justice for all.”
Perhaps the cumulative 20 hours spent reciting the pledge over the course of one’s school career might be better spent on a serious discussion of what our freedoms and responsibilities really mean.
After all, when we single out and popularize symbols or prose because they inspire us and serve to elegantly articulate our beliefs, they are valuable and meaningful. But when they are imposed as doctrine and unquestioningly accepted, memorized, and recited back at an early age, they become nothing more than rhetoric without worth. In simpler terms, cherished words become shallow propaganda.
I have a flag in my window and a flag in my car. I love my country, but not because as a kid I was taught to memorize and recite a pledge. Rather, I was taught how to think critically. I dare say that this is a skill sorely lacking in many of the anti-American protesters across the world who today shout “Death to America” just as they were taught to do by their elders. The repressive systems in many of these countries do not take fondly to a citizenry that is taught how to question assumptions, challenge beliefs, and always and vigorously ask “Why?” of itself and of others.
Since such systems fear critical thinking and find strength in rhetoric and repetition, they choose to promote blind adherence over sound reasoning as a means of survival. Conversely, we are a republic whose very strength rests in our personal liberties, in our diversity of opinions, and in our determination that “sifting and winnowing,” while not always efficient or comfortable, makes us better and makes us stronger.
We cannot simply assert that “liberty and justice for all” is a preordained condition. Indeed, there are few goals so threatened by apathy and so dependent on constant vigilance. It is, in fact, our dedication to seeking out the principles of liberty, justice, and equality that brings out our best.
These are lessons we ought be teaching today’s schoolchildren, yet these very lessons would be undermined by the blind recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, however “voluntary” its proponents claim it to be.
It is unwise to codify patriotism, it is dangerous to elevate certain symbols above the principles that they represent and it is self-defeating to suggest that the expression of national pride is in itself a self-justifying endeavor.
Pride cannot be imposed externally, and patriotism cannot be taught by the rote method. The state legislature handed the Madison School Board a misguided mandate. As they struggle to comply with the letter of the law, we must not forget the spirit of our nation.
Bryant Walker Smith (bsm[email protected]) is a senior majoring in civil engineering.