Pledge Of Allegiance Past Its Prime?

Millions of American school children begin the day with the pledge of allegiance. But do they, or their teachers, really understand what it means? Host Michel Martin discusses the issue with journalist Mary Plummer, of KPCC, and Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, your grandmother might have told you that a messy house leads to a messy life. Well, our next guest grew up with parents who were hoarders and the mess became a matter of life and death. We'll hear from the author of "Coming Clean" in just a few minutes. But first, please put your hands on your hearts.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

MARTIN: Well, I think most of us recognize those words as the Pledge of Allegiance. The original Pledge was first published in 1892. Millions of American children still begin their school day with those words, but many do not. And now as the country continues to argue over issues like immigration and assimilation, some people are wondering if teaching the Pledge is really the best way to teach children about their country.

We wanted to know more about that, so we've called Mary Plummer who's been reporting on this from member station KPCC in Pasadena, California. Also with us is Peter Levine. He is the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. And they're both with us now. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

MARY PLUMMER: Thank you.

PETER LEVINE: Thanks.

MARTIN: Mary, let me start with some facts that I learned through you. The author of the Pledge, Francis Bellamy, actually did not intend for the Pledge to be said on a daily basis. I did not know that. What was the idea?

PLUMMER: So basically the Pledge was unveiled at the Chicago World's Fair's Columbian Exposition back in 1892. And the idea at that time was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America. So, you know, it was aimed at schoolchildren, but I was also surprised to learn that it was not at all aimed, you know, to be said every day. The daily basis idea didn't come in until much later.

MARTIN: Is it a requirement? I understand that at one time it was - that schoolchildren could actually be expelled for not saying it in school.

PLUMMER: Right. Well, here in California, the Pledge of Allegiance actually isn't required, but California students are required to conduct a daily patriotic act. And, you know, what exactly does that mean? It's really up to school districts to kind of determine how they want to enforce that. So students are required to do some sort of daily patriotism, and most of them - from my reporting - it seems are doing the Pledge of Allegiance. But the state doesn't specifically require it.

MARTIN: Peter, what about that? I mean, one of your subjects is of course civic engagement and how to teach civic engagement. What is your thought about the Pledge? Do you think it's an effective way to teach kids about their country and the values that - what it means to be an American?

LEVINE: I don't think it's very well thought out if it's supposed to be educational. I mean, I think when people drop it as, for example, some schools do in California, the criticism is, oh, they don't care about patriotism or they don't care about the flag or they're objecting to God, who's mentioned in it. So it becomes a test of how patriotic you are. But I think if you ask the question, is it a good educational device for teaching patriotism? I'm pretty skeptical.

MARTIN: Well, then, Mary, I know that your reporting stands on its own. It's not meant to kind of answer or critique any of these issues, but you did ask kids in your reporting what the Pledge meant. I just want to play a short clip from some of the things you found out. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: It means that - it's, like, good for things.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Come on now. I cannot do this.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I don't know. Represents America.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: To be nice to God.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: It's a little boring.

MARTIN: Aw, OK. And how old were these kids, Mary?

PLUMMER: Those are kindergarten and first-graders. So, you know, many of those students - you know, it was the early days of the new school year and they were really still learning how to, you know, kind of tie their shoes and hold their pencils as they're also grappling with kind of the daily recitation of the Pledge.

MARTIN: So they were just learning it at this stage? Kindergarten, yeah.

PLUMMER: Yes. Yes. Some of them had kind of just started exactly.

MARTIN: What about some of the older kids? I mean, some of the schools you visited had large members of students who were first-generation Americans. Did they have a different feeling about it?

PLUMMER: Yeah. Absolutely. I talked with some third-graders, and, you know, I think by third grade, kids had a little bit better understanding of what the Pledge means. It was interesting, I spoke with a lot of first-generation Americans. You know, one little girl told me that she actually says the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at home with her family. So she was saying it, you know, twice - once at school, once at home with her family. You know, also I spoke with a kindergarten teacher who told me that she was sensitive to the fact that not all of her students are U.S. citizens. So when she was teaching the Pledge and kind of the ideas of citizenship, she was sensitive to the fact that, you know, not all kids' parents were able to vote and that not all of the students in her class were citizens.

MARTIN: Peter, talk a little bit more about that if you would. Are the kinds of conversations that we're having here about the utility of it, the educational value of it, is that a rich conversation? I know that one of the other things I learned from Mary's reporting is that teachers could be fired for not leading the Pledge, but now it's been established by the Supreme Court that your right to free speech includes the right not to speak, so that you cannot be required to say the Pledge. So, Peter, is this discussion over the utility of teaching the Pledge every day and reciting it every day, is that something that's going on all over the country?

LEVINE: No. I mean, I don't think people really talk about what the Pledge accomplishes - do kids learn, do they know what indivisible means, do they learn more, you know, in fifth grade than they do in third grade. Are alienated teenagers who have to do it actually learning to not like the flag? So we don't really study that. I think, basically, it's quite a hot-button issue, and if you're against it, you're taken to be unpatriotic.

MARTIN: Well, so, Peter, while we have you, in your ideal world - having studied this whole question of civic engagement, civic learning - do you have a better idea?

LEVINE: I'm not necessarily against the Pledge, but I do think there's something more important, which is to actually have a conversation, an appreciative conversation but a thoughtful conversation about what liberty and justice for all means. So to actually take some of those words, like liberty and justice, which are very complicated and controversial, and talk about them and understand them.

MARTIN: So what would you envision? Would you envision - and at what age would you start doing this kind of teaching?

LEVINE: I would start in kindergarten for sure. I mean, you can talk about both liberty and justice in kindergarten. I wouldn't necessarily have kids say the same thing every day - the same 30 words every day and then not talk about what it means - but I would definitely talk about what does it means to be just in a kindergarten circle and in the country as a whole and in the world. And I think that kids are actually quite good at talking about that.

MARTIN: Mary, thank you for your reporting on this. What's the most surprising thing you learned about the Pledge in the course of doing your reports?

PLUMMER: You know, one thing that was interesting for me - it was kind of an opportunity for me to think about my own relationship with the Pledge of Allegiance, which is something that I think in our everyday lives we don't necessarily spend a lot of time on. I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska and at my elementary school, there were two students who were selected, you know, periodically to lead the morning Pledge and the morning announcements. And, you know, I remember that so vividly.

I remember the process of getting up and getting to school a little early and helping with that process and helping kind of lead the school in something. But I don't remember ever learning about the Pledge in school. You know, in my mind, it's something that was just kind of always there. I don't even remember how I learned the words to the Pledge. So I think I did take something away from this idea of routine and ritual and I think kind of for better or worse from teachers and students I talked with, you know, there is something about that process of reciting something together every morning that means something.

MARTIN: Mary Plummer is a reporter for KPCC in Pasadena, California. She's been reporting on the Pledge as part of a project on civic engagement. She was with us from KPCC. Peter Levine was also with us. He's the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, and we caught up with him at his office in Medford, Massachusetts. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

LEVINE: Thanks.

PLUMMER: Thank you so much.

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