Public schools are supposed to teach kids to think critically, right? Students should be learning to apply rational analysis, assessing evidence, and reaching logical conclusions with the knowledge they’ve accumulated and the intellectual skills they’ve developed. Isn’t that what education is all about?
Unfortunately, one of the ironies of life for many young Americans is that their public schools do just the opposite. Conformity and obedience are often the top priorities, while any questioning of authority is discouraged and a herd mentality predominates. Even worse, in many public schools across the country, a highly religious atmosphere is apparent, with some teachers and administrators actively promoting Christianity.
Facing such anti-intellectualism, secular students—that is, atheist, agnostic, humanist, or just plain nonreligious students—might wonder what they can do to push back. To this question, the American Humanist Association has an answer: try sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that constitutional free speech protections forbid public schools from requiring students to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. With this right firmly established, the AHA launched its Pledge Boycott two years ago to encourage all Americans, especially students, to refrain from participating in the Pledge of Allegiance until the words “under God” are removed.
Not surprisingly, the boycott has stirred up some controversy, as it’s shown that many school officials are extremely hostile to kids who wish to opt out. Some are simply unaware that students have the right to sit out the Pledge, while others know the law but are determined to bully or coerce students into participation anyway.
Whether confronted with opposition or not, boycotting students who report back to us typically reveal that the opportunity to respectfully dissent is positive and liberating. “The quote ‘under God’ turns the Pledge from a patriotic saying into a prayer,” said one student from New Mexico. “Prayers are for church, not for school, so my friends and I sat down. We attempted to do this last week, but we didn’t have enough courage. Today, after finding this site, we did, and now my friend is excited that we could start something big.”
Although intended as a way of raising awareness of the “under God” issue (many Americans don’t even know that the words were only added to the Pledge as recently as 1954, after heavy lobbying by religious groups during the Cold War), the AHA’s Pledge Boycott has opened up a much wider dialogue on a host of other Pledge-related concerns. Here are some of the issues that have arisen as the boycott has progressed.
Should we even be pledging allegiance?
International students visiting the United States are often puzzled by our daily Pledge exercise. Most Americans don’t think much about the Pledge of Allegiance, taking it for granted as something that has been part of the school day for as long as anyone can remember, but no other developed country conducts what essentially amounts to a loyalty oath at the start of each school day. The Pledge Boycott helps to initiate a conversation about why the exercise is conducted at all and whether it should even be taking place.
Many will insist that the Pledge of Allegiance is needed to instill patriotism. This argument assumes that children need to participate in a daily patriotic exercise to love their country, when in fact fondness for one’s homeland is a natural human impulse. So long as one’s government is at least marginally fair and just, most people will reflexively have some sense of loyalty. Humans are hardwired for such in-group thinking. One could easily argue that daily flag salutes do little to instill healthy patriotism but instead tend to nurture unhealthy nationalism. If students are conditioned with belief in national greatness on a daily basis for thirteen years, exalting one’s own country above others, isn’t it more likely that many children will emerge from the process with a chauvinistic mindset of national superiority?
Lack of critical thinking
It is hard to imagine any exercise that is more inconsistent with critical thinking than one that has children repeating scripted words under the pretext that they are affirming their own personal beliefs. Indeed, smaller children (and many older ones as well) don’t even understand what words like “allegiance” or “republic” or “indivisible” mean. As parents send kids off to school to be educated, it would be hard to design a daily exercise that is more counterproductive, more hostile to the goal of getting them to think independently and critically, than rote recitation of an oath of national loyalty.
When children opting out of the Pledge exercise are confronted by hostile teachers, there is one accusation that predictably will be raised. The children are almost always told that sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance is “disrespectful” toward soldiers and/or veterans. Such arguments show us how even adults are conditioned to see the world with a herd mentality – as if a child choosing to sit out a group recitation is somehow a slap in the face to military personnel, past or present. Of course, such allegations are absolutely false, since the decision to refrain from reciting the Pledge is in no way a statement of disrespect toward anyone. It’s unfortunate, but even many educated school officials erroneously conflate reciting the Pledge with being a “real American” and “supporting the troops.”
Importance of respecting dissent
One thing that exacerbates the sharp divisions in America today is that there is very little respect for dissent. Indeed, the divisiveness that predominates in this country is not so much the result of widely varied opinions but the hostile, toxic atmosphere in which the conflicting views seem to clash. We live in a society where online rants and mean-spirited tweets are the rule, where the notion of seriously listening to opposing views and engaging in productive discussion of issues is a rarity. In such an atmosphere, the value of having children in public schools openly but respectfully dissent on a daily basis in front of their classmates should be apparent. It will surely cause some friction from time to time, but more often it should serve as a reminder that a diversity of views exists and that even in small towns and comfortable suburbs there are some who question longstanding ideas and assumptions. At a bare minimum, sitting out the Pledge is a great conversation starter.