Monday, September 19, 2011

Parents Fight Over Pledging Allegiance In Schools

From NPR's All Things Considered:

Brookline parent Martin Rosenthal says he is very patriotic. He proudly put his hand on his heart and pledged allegiance to the flag at a recent community event. But, he says, the pledge has no place in the classroom.

"You're asking kids in school to take a loyalty oath in front of their classmates," he says. "I just don't think that's right."

Rosenthal says the pledge has no educational value and even flies in the face of the kind of critical thinking schools should be teaching. But, he says, he's most bothered by the peer pressure students may feel to recite it.

"It's like if you don't agree with the group, we're gonna ostracize you," he says. "If you don't swear allegiance, you're considered disloyal. That's what I'm getting."

Since he filed his proposal, Rosenthal says he's been assaulted by calls and emails that prove his point — messages like "Go f - - - yourself you socialist pig," and "You liberal a - - - - - - - are ruining this country."

Read or listen to the rest here.

Some observations.

The pledge is, indeed, a loyalty oath, but that doesn't mean it has no place in the classroom. Which is to say, if this American ritual is to have any meaning later in life, it needs to be studied and practiced in school. Now, having said that, what exists in virtually all American classrooms isn't much more than an empty recitation, the likes of which in the Catholic Church have been criticized by Protestants since the Reformation. So because the pledge in actual practice is simply a meaningless piece of mandated behavior, I can see where this guy is coming from. As traditionally constituted, this recitation is an exercise in obedience, which runs counter to both democracy and the free thought supposedly taught in school.

That is, the pledge, without deep meditation on its component ideas, is the opposite of what we say we want from American citizens.

And this peer pressure thing is definitely worth noting. I don't think it's as direct as Rosenthal is making it out to be, but it exists, nonetheless. American schools are, in the most important ways, about indoctrinating children into a culture of obedience and authority--I've explored this concept in great depth elsewhere, but suffice it to say for now that the entire apparatus of what we call school is so consumed by procedure and discipline that such concerns easily dwarf education's ostensible purpose, learning; in short, bureaucracy and rules are far more important than thought, and that's the real lesson kids take away from their k-12 experience. So the schools are about following rules and pleasing authority figures. It is in this context that children say the pledge. Opting out of a classroom activity in which everybody else is participating, which is apparently allowed in Massachusetts schools, is downright weird given the overall cultural context. Making a conscientious stand is decidedly inappropriate for the school environment, and that's essentially what such peer pressure is all about.

Really, the problem isn't so much the pledge itself, which I personally love despite my deep misgivings about the "under God" clause and its ill ramifications for the notion of the separation of church and state. Rather, it's about how and where the pledge is administered. That is, we try to teach democracy within the confines of an authoritarian classroom, and if that's not cutting off your nose to spite your face, I don't know what is.