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Patriotism in the Classroom

The Common Core State Standards have been the source of continuous debate ever since they were introduced.  But little attention has been paid to non-cognitive outcomes that public schools in this country are also supposed to achieve.  Developing good citizenship is one example.  The battle is over the best way to do so.  

Consider the example of a Florida elementary school teacher who tried to force one of her students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance ("Florida teacher suspended after forcing Jehovah's Witness student to say Pledge of Allegiance," New York Daily News, Nov. 6).  The teacher pressed a 4th grade boy's hand over his heart when he refused to say the Pledge even after he told her that his religion didn't permit him to worship objects.  The teacher was suspended without pay for five days and ordered to undergo diversity training.  

I'm surprised this happened because students in public schools have been excused from the Pledge since 1943, when the U.S. Supreme Court in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette held that opting out is a form of free speech.  Specifically, the high court said that students neither have to salute the American flag nor say the Pledge of Allegiance.

When I began teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1964, each classroom had a small American flag mounted in the front corner.  During homeroom, students were supposed to stand, salute and say the Pledge.  I never had any student refuse to do any of the three.  Shortly after I began my career, however, the practice was dropped.

I was even more surprised by the incident because the usual brouhaha these days is over prayers, rather than over patriotism. But putting the legalities aside, I wonder if the Pledge is pedagogically defensible. When I was in public school from K-12 in New York State, all student assemblies began with students rising, reciting the Pledge and singing the national anthem.  I don't remember any student refusing to do so.  I saw nothing at all wrong with the routine.  In fact, I took pride in participating.  However, I have no idea if my feelings were shared by other students.

I maintain that schools teach patriotism best when they permit students the freedom to follow their conscience. After all, isn't that the truest form of democracy? Or as Justice Robert Jackson wrote in 1943: "To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary ... is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds."

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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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