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For Allegiance, Teach Values Behind Pledge
Jane Eisner, The Inquirer, October 21, 2001 -- Last week, you could see the bandwagon draped in red, white and blue bunting pull up before city halls and state capitols where the politicians eagerly waited to climb aboard.
   It stopped in Wisconsin, where a new state law calls for a daily display of patriotism, and in Nebraska, where an old state law was quickly resurrected. It entered New York City, where the Board of Education mandated that all public schools lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.
  And the bandwagon made its way to Harrisburg, where all but one member of the state House voted to require public, private and parochial schools to set aside a time for the pledge or play the national anthem on each school day. It takes a brave public servant - or one with a seat as safe as Fort Knox - to stay on the sidelines at a time like this.
   Political bandwagons get rolling for a reason, of course, and this is no exception. Schools across the nation are grappling with how to display and teach patriotism, and many are dusting off traditional rituals that fell out of favor in the last go-go decade or two.
   I have no problem with encouraging children to recite those 31 special words. Students and teachers who wish to refrain may do so - a 1943 U.S. Supreme Court ruling enshrined that right. Those who participate may feel a momentary sense of unity and focus.
   But let's not pretend this is a recipe for breeding budding patriots. "I don't know what you gain by forcing a 16-year-old to say the pledge if he doesn't want to say it," said State Rep. Greg Vitali, a Havertown Democrat who voted for the bill despite his reservations.
   "There's a certain irony in the government mandating an allegiance to it."
   Worse would be if public officials, educators and parents confuse these forced, superficial displays of allegiance with the real thing: engaged, informed citizenship. A song is not a vote.
   A pledge cannot substitute for civic participation.
   "Saying the pledge, I believe, is important," said Melvin Garrison, social studies coordinator for the Philadelphia public schools, where the requirement to recite the pledge is followed sporadically.
   "But saying the pledge and not connecting it to anything is just as bad as not saying it at all."
   And, my fellow Americans, those connections are discouragingly weak. Too many students don't know the first thing about U.S. history and government, leading to ignorance and apathy among adults. Which survey should I use to prove the point?
   Twenty-two percent of American teenagers don't know that the Revolutionary War was fought against England. Fourteen percent think the enemy was France. (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation survey, July 2001.)
   Only 5 percent of Americans can correctly answer 10 rudimentary questions about the Constitution. (National Constitution Center poll, 1997.)
   Nearly half the voting-age population did not even attempt to cast a ballot during last year's presidential election. In 1998, a non-presidential year, 63.6 percent stayed home.
   And according to the latest findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 35 percent of high school seniors did not know the basic facts of citizenship. Only about 25 percent of fourth, eighth and 12th graders were proficient in civics.
   "What we learned from NAEP is that most of the students surveyed did not have an adequate knowledge of the values and workings of a constitutional democracy," said Margaret Branson, associate director of the Center for Civic Education, a California-based organization that has developed civics curriculum for 30 years.
   "Yet that is what creates a sense of belonging," she said. "We Americans are not bound together by race, religion, ethnicity. We are bound by our common values and principles. There's no other way that we cohere."
   Branson believes that civic literacy, and not simply rote gestures, leads to patriotic acts and feelings. Her bias is obvious - promoting civic education is her life's work - but there's evidence on her side. For instance, the center surveyed alumni from one of its programs and found that 82 percent reported voting in November. The turnout nationwide for that age group was 48 percent.
   Yet the national obsession with standards and testing may be draining resources from teaching history, civics and social science. The alphabet soup of assessment tests concentrates on reading, math and science; in Pennsylvania, for instance, there's no state-mandated exam for social studies.
   In Philadelphia, Garrison said the message seems to be: We don't test it, we don't value it. "Here, when we're trying to unite as a nation, we don't value the one thing that is most important - our understanding of civic ideas and civic values."
   Here, also, is an opportunity. The elected officials who've ordered schools to say the pledge and wave the flag now have the chance to ensure that there's money and time for solid civic education. And the voters who cheer on superficial actions ought to press for substantive ones. As historian Diane Ravitch wrote last week:
   "What schools must do is teach young people the virtues and blessings of our democratic system of government. Our ability to defend what we hold dear depends on our knowledge and understanding of it."
Jane Eisner's editoral was originally posted to, and is reposted here with permission.