The dust has just settled when, at 8:45 a.m., like clockwork, the clanking of chairs and shuffling of feet erupts. Every morning, children jump to their feet nationwide, setting aside morning lessons to place hands over hearts. Bending over to fetch pencils that roll off the desk — a daily mishap — is a no-no, but refusing to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance? Unthinkable.
My children, born overseas and new to this morning tradition now that we’re living stateside, didn’t realize (before I told them yesterday) that reciting the pledge is optional. “Uh, I don’t think so, Mommy,” the youngest replied after I told her it’s unconstitutional for a school to require she say it. “Everyone always stands,” her older sister chimed in, noting how her teachers haven’t said anything about it being optional.
Mention required or forced displays of patriotism to foreigners and you may as well cue mental newsreels of Hitler Youth, arms held high. European children don’t salute their flags — imagine the headlines if German kids did salute theirs! — and if you ask a Brit what they think of the Pledge of Allegiance, you’ll get responses like “creepy brainwashing.” But Brits and Germans don’t love their countries any less than Americans do; World Cup pandemonium is proof of that. And there’s something very different — more heartfelt and endearing — about spontaneous flag-waving and patriotic singsongs by adults from the repetitive uttering of a pledge by children too young to know what they’re saying. The obvious solution? Tell America’s youth they can sit down.
The Supreme Court agrees. The justices deemed it unconstitutional back in 1943, holding that the First Amendment’s free speech provision protected students from being forced to recite the pledge and salute the flag — and yes, American kids used to raise their arms to salute the flag. That ruling articulated that “free speech includes both the right to speak and also the right not to speak,” says Kent Greenfield, a professor at Boston College Law School. Yet most states stipulate that schools begin their day by giving students an “opportunity” to recite the pledge.
In legal terms, it’s quite clear that coercing a student would equate to expulsion if they fail to stand and recite. But what about social pressure? When a teacher pressures a child into saying the pledge, its a big problem, says Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston. “But if it’s Harry, Joe or Sally saying, ‘Hey, you, why don’t you stand for the pledge?’” he adds, “call it bullying, sure, but it’s not a First Amendment issue.”
My own children have made it clear that their legal choice is not made apparent in school, and while I’m sure some school districts are better about it than others, I’m pretty certain very few kids ever dare opt out. “Everyone always stands,” as my daughter said. But when I pressed her as to why she and her peers do so, all I got was a shrug. And herein lies the problem: They’re only doing it out of forced habit. What on earth does that teach them? To stand up and follow the leader without question, like sheep? “Once patriotism becomes rote and unthinking, it’s not really patriotism — it’s robotic,” Greenfield says.
Greenfield links this customary patriotic ritual to the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events. “It’s not clear to me why sporting events have to start with an act of patriotism,” he says. Even worse? Ostracizing people like Colin Kaepernick and others who choose to kneel during the national anthem, a song notably penned by a slave owner. When such displays of patriotism become “so habitual that it’s done without thinking, and when people who refuse to do it are ostracized and punished,” Greenfield says, “then I think we have gone too far.”
I agree. Schools should limit these “opportunities” to recite the pledge, instead focusing on engendering a true love and understanding of country that will lead to more heartfelt, mindful displays of patriotism rather than millions of young heads cocked in boredom as they turn to face the Stars and Stripes each morning. I’m not saying rip up the pledge — quite the opposite: Let’s stop the mind-numbing repetition of it. When my kid can respond to a question about why she recited the pledge with “Because I love my country, Mommy,” then I’ll know we’re on the right path.