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Schools should teach the forgotten history of the Pledge of Allegiance

There’s a story for students about how those 31 words came to be. And questions to ask about whether they still work.

Associated Press/File

Last spring, my son came home from fourth grade and mentioned that he had gotten a yellow slip for not paying attention during the Pledge of Allegiance. My first thought was, You really should pay attention in school, followed quickly by, We’re still doing the Pledge of Allegiance?

Back in the 1970s and ‘80s when I was in grade school, I never understood how saying those words would make me a good American. I still don’t, and I don’t want either of my kids to have to recite the pledge. Truth is, they don’t have to. State law prevents it from being required, based on a 1943 Supreme Court ruling. But state law still mandates that, whether it’s by a person or recording over the loudspeaker, it has to be shared publicly in some form.

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One problem: The goal of elementary school is to get students to listen and follow directions, so while kids might not have to say the pledge, I don’t think any 7-year-old will have the wherewithal to announce, “I’m taking a knee, cool?”

The pledge’s convoluted history doesn’t help. Francis Bellamy created it in 1892 for The Youth’s Companion, a children’s magazine published out of Boston, with a few goals. In no particular order, the pledge was meant to sell magazines and flags for display; reunify the country after the Civil War; commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage; promote patriotism among Americans; and make Americans out of the large wave of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.

The original version went: I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. In 1923, “the flag of the United States of America” was inserted so there was no question for immigrants as to which banner they were promising their loyalty.

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In 1954 came “under God.” The Korean War had just ended the year before. The Soviet Union was testing atomic bombs, leading school kids to practice hiding under their desks. The Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional, and the NAACP, which fought for the case, was believed by some to be infiltrated by Communists, a feeling shared about the civil rights movement. All of this helped fuel the Red Scare, which Senator Joseph McCarthy took advantage of. And so, those two words were added and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to ensure everyone knew we weren’t godless Communists, says Charles Dorn, professor of education at Bowdoin College and co-author of Patriotic Education in a Global Age.

Forget for a second whether a child can make any kind of pledge that doesn’t involve the awesomeness of ice cream or snow days, but this has the government telling kids to say nice words about it, which is kind of mind control-y if you want to believe such things.

I don’t think the pledge has that kind of power; it seems more like a box-to-check ritual. Peter Levine, professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life, says two things add to the disconnect. For one, the pledge isn’t written for young kids. (Hello, indivisible.) The second is that we don’t know if it works, which is a shock since school officials love nothing more than test scores. But for this 130-year tradition — nothing. Levine says we could find out. His idea: Ask second-graders if they think they’re supposed to say “invisible.” Ask 11th-graders their feelings and measure the eye rolls.

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But with no proof of its effectiveness, “It’s a kind of performance,” Levine says.

I wouldn’t mind getting rid of the pledge altogether, but that’s never going to happen. Unless they’re itching for a career change, no politician or superintendent is ever going to say, “You know what I’m gonna make my mission . . . ?” As Dorn says, “It’s not a statement for a school to maintain it. It’s a statement for a school to remove it.”

So maybe we can rediscover some meaning, and that starts with deciding the overall intent. I’d nominate that we worry about making citizens who aren’t afraid to ask, “Why?” Lucky for us, 4-year-olds are good to go on this. But kids still require guidance, so I’d love to see debate classes on everything from best breakfast cereals to whether college should be free. Kids would be fired up for the day and pick up a needed skill, because as it stands, we as a people are great at arguing, bad at listening, and worse at considering.

But debates, like democracy, are messy. They bring up hard truths, can hurt feelings, and add to teacher workload. Plus, debates aren’t quick. School days are already booked, and I don’t want anything that would take away more recess. For all its faults, the pledge is done in 10 seconds.

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The easy, big answer is to pump up the civics. The state requires it but only for one project in eighth grade and another sometime during grades 9 through 12. More and earlier might be better.

The simpler, shorter solution, Dorn argues, is to do what isn’t usually done: actually teach the pledge. Go over how those 31 words came to be, why they’ve been changed, and whether they still work.

But, again, time is limited, so let’s make sure kids understand what they’re saying. They can then decide what to do. Sit it out. Say it. Or protest, which if they’re not being disruptive — and remaining silent while raising a fist is not being disruptive — they’re allowed to do, without repercussions, says Jessica Lewis, staff attorney for Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

It means calling the pledge into question, which might be unnerving to some, but it’s what could get us off autopilot. I think we’re tough enough to take on that challenge and the ensuing discomfort. Home of the brave, right?


Steve Calechman is a writer on the North Shore. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.