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Making the Pledge Meaningful

October 12th, 2014

When I was a kid, I remember saying the pledge, and for years, I thought the pledge had the words, “one nation, under god, invisible….” True story—never having heard the word “indivisible,” I didn’t hear it, and instead filled in the word I knew which was closest. For years, I was pledging my allegiance to an invisible country. Which I thought was kind of cool.

For that matter, in the first grade, I really didn’t know what the words “pledge,” “allegiance,” or “republic” meant, and was fuzzy on concepts like “liberty” and “justice.” Come to think of it, kids that age usually have a very sketchy idea of what “God” and “the United States of America” are as well.

Let’s face it: kids do not understand what they’re doing when we have them recite the pledge. To them, it’s just one of those things they do because grown-ups tell them to. But they have no clue as to what they are saying.

That, in my opinion, is why we should never have the pledge recited in schools.

Think about it: what is a pledge? It is a “solemn promise or undertaking,” committing one’s self to an organization, a cause, or a course of action.

When we testify in court, we take an oath to only tell the truth. However, when we have children testify, they don’t take that oath—precisely because we know that they do not understand the concept we would be asking them to swear to.

So why do we make kids, incapable of understanding what they are doing, take the pledge, especially if we take the idea of the pledge so seriously?

The answer is, we don’t take the pledge so seriously. We take it mindlessly. Because, sad as it may seem, most adults are still fuzzy on the concepts in the pledge. Go ahead, try to get most of them to accurately define what a “Republic” is. Most would have difficulty making a distinction between “freedom” and “liberty.” And if you ask them what the consequences of the pledge are, they would probably have to compose such a list on the spot, never having done so before.

To me, having kids recite the pledge is not just nonsense, it’s bad civics. If a pledge is to mean anything, it must be made solemnly, with full and clear understanding of both the meaning and the consequences of the action. Having it be a forced, rote recital voids it of actual meaning and makes it at best a pro-forma ritual, and at the worst, indoctrination. As a result, most Americans do not understand the very country they live in, but think that they do. They have been trained to accept without thinking, while being weak in the fundamentals of good citizenship.

I would say that we make the taking of the pledge a serious event, making it clear what the pledge means in full, and what the person is actually promising to do. Don’t have it be a mass recital, but instead a personal statement.

This could not be done early or quickly, but over many years of time. Include the concepts involved in classes throughout school. Have kids take various pledges—not to steal, not to bully, not to get into fights, for example—and have consequences if they break those pledges, so they understand what a “pledge” is.

Have students engage in exercises to demonstrate allegiance, but throw in the ethical permutations. Should allegiance trump morality? If a kid has pledged his allegiance to a team, does that mean he should not point out cheating by his teammates? If the group they pledged allegiance to asks them to do something wrong, should they do it?

Make students aware of what the flag is: a representation of the nation, which is defined by its constitution. How well do you know the constitution? If you’re like most people, you don’t know it very well, just the vague outlines. So, we’re pledging our allegiance to something we don’t understand? Hmm. How about, instead of pledging allegiance, we bring back Civics as a required course, and learn what we would be pledging to first.

That would help cover the understanding of what a “Republic” is—and how it differs from a Democracy. I think you should probably understand the distinction if you want to make a solemn pledge to one of them. The same with “liberty” as opposed to “freedom,” and even “justice” as opposed to what most people really think that is, which is vengeance. Making all of these terms clear to young people would also be required for the pledge to be meaningful.

Then we should cover the consequences of such a pledge. Most people, like politicians, say the words without really meaning it, as if it were some lodge ritual, except they don’t have to sweat what the actual meaning is. If you asked most American adults what they have to do as a result of taking the pledge, you would probably just get blank looks.

I would say that taking the pledge means taking the republic seriously. I would say voting in all elections is the absolute minimum required for that. Availing one’s self of the free press and all other resources to become responsibly aware of the issues, so as to vote responsibly. Paying your taxes, not dodging jury duty, following the law—I would assume all of these would be concomitant with the pledge. Not just cheering for the country in the Olympics and taking our side in any international disputes, but to actively work to make the country a better place. Public service of some kind would not be a bad means, either.

When a child reaches some level of maturity, we should put them to a test, to see if they truly understand the terms of the pledge—the meanings of the words and the responsibilities implied. If they agree, fully understanding everything, then they take the pledge. Each person could, without fear of repercussions, decide to add or subtract the “under God” phrase. The oath would not be taken ceremonially, not ritually—that could be turned into a compulsory action—but meaningfully, as one takes a citizenship pledge.

This would not be required by law, one’s rights would not depend upon it to be realized. Instead, it would simply be what the pledge is purported to be: an oath of allegiance. Except fully realized, not mindlessly recited.

Then the pledge would have some sort of meaning. Then it would be worthwhile to ask our kids to take it. Then it would be a positive force in our society.

But now, it’s carried out in a way that is devoid of meaning, and unsurprisingly, used as a political weapon to boot. It is, as currently carried out, probably more detrimental than it is patriotic in any way.

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  1. Troy
    October 12th, 2014 at 22:27 | #1

    patriotism, like religion, is supposed to be mindless.

    nationalism is a crock, anyway.

    asking for intelligence and probity is a bridge way too far for maybe half the electorate.

    Hell, half the population doesn’t even bother to vote.

    this is not to say we should not remember, honor, and learn from history and historical personages like the founding fathers, and our own national experience lo these 400+ years.

    over the past ten-odd years of wikipedia spelunking I’ve gotten immense enjoyment and enrichment learning about some of the stuff that my few high school history classes didn’t have time for — William Penn, Proprietor of Pennsylvania (he basically owned the entire state !), Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice, Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures, the various waves of populism of the 19th century, culminating in the Progressive Movement and Roosevelt’s run of 1912, finishing ahead of the sitting Republican president.

    We have a seedy underside too — our brutal expansion at the expense of the existing nations is not something to be honored, nor is, perhaps, the various wars we got into from the Mexican War to the dozens of nasty armed interventions from Panama to South Vietnam, the racist shitheads of the old south, still with us today . . .

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