An 11-year-old Florida boy was arrested last week for disrupting a school function and resisting arrest without violence after he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in class. A school resource officer was called to the classroom after the child denied to stand for the Pledge and told a substitute teacher that forcing him to do so was racist. Though it is illegal to force a student to say the Pledge, a fact the teacher apparently did not know, the subsequent argument ended with the boy being transported to a juvenile detention center.
Beyond the irony — a child detained for refusing to say “liberty and justice for all” — is a clear illustration of why the Pledge of Allegiance needs to be removed from schools. The tradition of saying the Pledge is not only vaguely fascist, it’s a poor way to teach patriotism and one that’s inconsistent with American values almost however you define them. The Pledge is not rooted in unassailable pride for our national experiment. It’s rooted in anti-capitalist and xenophobic sentiments. There’s plenty there for everyone to find objectionable.
The Pledge was popularized in a different America. The tradition began during the Civil War when fealty towards the Union was not a given. Enemy soldiers and citizens were often asked to pledge their allegiance to the American flag both as an act of rehabilitation and an acknowledgment they could be trusted. After the Civil War, a variety of national pledges were proposed and used, particularly during war-time, when a citizen’s or soldier’s loyalty to the country was considered crucial.
This is why this loyalty oath, a common tool rhetorical and political device deployed by autocratic regimes, has remained popular in a proud democracy.
The Pledge didn’t enter American schools immediately after reunification. The activist and publisher Francis Bellamy proposed a national pledge, which he wrote, be recited by school children during an 1892 Columbus Day commemoration of the flag. That’s when the thing took off. But Bellamy’s intention was more complicated than simple remembrance. He felt that the oath should be required, particularly in schools, where it would help inculcate immigrants with American values, replacing their otherwise radical political notions. Bellamy was, it turns out, a bigot concerned about the inclinations of superior races. He was also a strong nationalist. Those two political inclinations don’t, history teaches us, mix very well.
Parents might recognize the Bellamy salute.
“There are races more or less akin to our own whom we may admit freely and get nothing but advantage by the infusion of their wholesome blood,” Bellamy wrote in 1987. “But there are other races, which we cannot assimilate without lowering our racial standard, which should be as sacred to us as the sanctity of our homes.”
Which is all to say that the 11-year-old boy arrested in Florida last week was not wrong when he called the Pledge racist. Though the modern tradition is not necessarily racist in form, it comes from a deeply racist place. Did his substitute teacher, a Cuban immigrant, know this? Likely not. Does it matter? Not really. You either respect free speech or you do not. (Americans are supposed to.)
Historical argument aside, the pledging tradition is a poor learning tool. As the incident in Florida indicates, most kids will go with the flow even if the Pledge is not required. Mandatory and not mandatory are meaningful legal distinctions, but children are still be pressured to express fealty to their country. That’s no good. It’s not that expressing patriotic sentiment is bad — the opposite, really — but that such expressions should represent genuine feeling rather than obligation.
Why teach kids to love the flag when you can emphasize the love of country?
Shouldn’t we want our children to develop their own feelings of connection and allegiance to our nation based on the freedom and liberty they feel and observe? Making them recite the words of a 19th-century lunatic isn’t a good solution.
If we’re honest with ourselves, “liberty and justice for all” are more of a goal than a reality. Let’s take a few minutes in the morning and talk about that goal rather than acting like we live in an autocracy. We don’t. Thank goodness.