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Are Teachers Employees or Professionals?

It's always interesting to contrast educational issues in other democratic countries with those in the U.S. The controversy now taking place in Japan is a good example because it's reminiscent of what transpired here in the past.

Since 2003, teachers in Tokyo public high schools have been required to stand up, face the flag and sing the country's national anthem during school ceremonies. In 2004, Sawa Kawamura refused to do so. As a result, she has been assigned duties that limit her interaction with students, even though she has been teaching for 20 years. Some 400 teachers have joined a class-action lawsuit against the enforced display of patriotism that is headed to the Supreme Court.

Although other cities have implemented similar policies, the situation in Tokyo is being watched most closely. The teachers involved in the suit maintain that Japan's flag and national anthem are symbolic of the country's militaristic past. They claim that forcing them to stand and sing violates their freedom of thought. I don't think teachers in Tokyo will win.

I say that because in March 2009, the Tokyo District Court rejected a lawsuit filed by 172 teachers who said the censure by the Tokyo Board of Education violated the Japanese Constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought ("Court rejects 'Kimigayo' suit by 172 teachers who refused to stand up," Japan Today, May 27, 2009). The court held that teachers are public servants who can be required to "engage in uniform activities at school ceremonies."

In sharp contrast, in 2003 Judge Lewis Babcock of the U.S. District Court proclaimed: "It doesn't matter whether you're a teacher, a student, a citizen, an administrator, or anyone else. It is beyond the power of the authority of government to compel the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance." The court's decision doesn't mean teachers don't feel pressure to do so. On the contrary. But at least until now they have the law on their side. Whether their legal right not to recite the Pledge is pedagogically defensible, however, is another matter.

To understand why, it's necessary to consider the origin of the Pledge. In 1892, Francis Bellamy, cousin of Edward Bellamy of Looking Backward fame, was working for The Youth's Companion, a magazine for schoolchildren. Bellamy was assigned the task of composing a few lines to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery. The result was 23 words that he called "intelligent patriotism."

The words to the Pledge underwent changes over the years in response to pressure groups. What is largely forgotten is that the original Pledge was to be recited with a stiff, right-arm salute. But the gesture was dropped in the 1930s because of its association with Naziism, and was superseded by the placement of the right hand over the heart.

Lawmakers on both the federal and state level argue that recitation laws are needed as a way of inculcating patriotism in students. But it's debatable if that is the best way of achieving an admirable goal. Coercion usually results in conformity, but it doesn't necessarily engender respect. It's the latter that the Pledge is supposed to promote. That's the irony.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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