Sunday, March 24, 2013

I ('d Rather Not) Pledge Allegiance

In a Department Chair meeting a couple of years ago, we were going around the table with our Concerns from Departments. The chair of the Social Studies Department raised a question from one of his constituents regarding a rumor that some teachers were not having their students recite the Pledge of Allegiance, even though the Faculty Handbook clearly states that we must.

My good friend Kristen rose from her chair, slammed her hands on the table and asked, "which terracotta-toothed, flannel-wearing, hillbilly...(it went on like this for some time)...isn't saying the Pledge?"

I meekly raised my hand.

Here's why (I did make this argument at the time--perhaps in some kind of condensed form. Sometimes Department Chair meetings are long; sometimes it's my fault.):
  1. The words themselves - Geoff Nunberg has a great piece on this topic--in fact, many of my thoughts on the subject are plagiarized from his. You need only look at the first line to see that we have a problem. The first allegiance we pledge is to the flag itself. The Republic (for which it stands) needs to wait for the second phrase--oh, yeah, that too: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America...and to the republic..." The Country gets second billing to the fabric itself, which is not more or less than an indulgence in idolatry. Mostly, as Numberg argues, the words become just sounds divorced from their meaning--"I led a pigeon to the flag," "one Asian under guard." When they don't, however, it's potentially a bigger problem.
  2. Freedom - Part of it, I must confess, is to peeve off those who use the word "freedom" as if they own the brand. By their definition of the word, "freedom" requires me to do things their way (regular Slacker Guide readers have seen this idea before: here). The freedom that the Pledge enshrines is the same freedom that I exercise by choosing not to participate. This, like it or not, is just as authentic an expression of freedom as participating. 
  3. Socialism - Okay, I don't really have a problem with Socialism, but I wanted to work in the fact that the original text was written by Francis Bellamy (1855-1931), who was in fact a Socialist. Also, he considered placing the word "equality" in his Pledge, but knew many would balk at the idea of equality for women and African Americans.
  4. Profession of faith - In the 1950s, the Knights of Columbus began to insert "under God" into the pledge. Eventually the Congress put it in there for everyone else as well. The fact that they chose to literally divide "one nation" and "indivisible" with a statement of Christian belief was a stroke of ironic genius, and prophetic to what this phrase and world view would continually do to our country. Or they just shoved it in there at random, who knows? For more on prayer in school, see also: here
  5. Time - One of our assistant principals is fond of the following math problem: even if the pledge only take a total of one minute of class time, including standing, reciting, sitting, and re-focusing, that means: 1 minute x 182 school days = 182 minutes, which in our school represents about 2 1/4 class periods. Two full days of class, or an entire half-day of school dedicated to this exercise. 
That last one sounds pretty trivial, but hear me out. Music teachers know that we must be very careful regarding what we practices every day, lest we become good at it--keep making that face (or bow-hold, or embouchure) and it will freeze that way. Forming habits is the human default-setting, and so there is something to the fact that this one thing that we ask the entire school to do every single day. What would be the effect if we took that time to do ten jumping-jacks? To sing Happy Birthday? To write a one-sentence summary of the previous twenty-four hours? To chug a bottle of water?

Spending half a day doing any of those things is entirely useless, but do any of them for a minute each day and things would start to change.

One program where we demonstrate understanding of this phenomenon at my school is our mandated reading program. Twenty minutes each Wednesday morning are dedicated to silent reading by everyone in the school--students, teachers, and administrators. Twenty minutes a week isn't very much school time, and it's even less given just a little is taken from each period. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that I never know how much time is left in the class on Wednesday--"and that's how everything came together in one neat, succinct package of balance and perfection. See you...wait, what, ten more minutes?...Crap."--it wouldn't really be noticeable. Except that it is. We all feel a little different on Wednesday compared to the rest of the week--sometimes it's just a little more sleepy, but it can also be experienced as calm and thoughtful. And we read books. Very slowly, if we stick with one twenty-minute session per week, but it is possible to read a book this way. In fact, I find it is an excellent way to read a book that you would never read for pleasure.

Half of the arguments in favor of reciting the Pledge seem to boil down to "it's not such a big deal," the other half  "it's an important civic duty for Real Americans." Either recitation of the Pledge is meaningful or it's not and yet, people seem to use both conclusions as arguments in favor of doing it. If we did sing Happy Birthday, eventually just about everyone would be able to hit the high note and we just might eventually coalesce into a single key. If we did stretch, or do pushups, or attempt some other kind of exercise, we would become the slightest bit more fit, or at least become more aware of our lack of fitness. If we used that time to eat two peanut butter cups, we would consume 38,220 calories in the school year and gain almost 11 pounds. If we recited thirty seconds of random words, but did so with good diction and correct posture, we could improve our elocution and reduce our lower-back pain.

In other words, it's a small thing with a large multiplier. Whatever it is we're trying to do with this, we run the risk of succeeding--making students more patriotic, more compliant, more Socialist, more religious, more muttering, more linguistically disengaged, better at memorization, better at choral speaking... There is something we're trying to do here, and perhaps we need to figure out what that is before we find that we've accomplished our goal.

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