Law not needed to teach respect for flag, nation

By Jayson Jacoby May 03, 2013 09:30 am

When I was in elementary school in the 1970s we recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, but one line always confused me.

Not the “under God” part.

My family wasn’t a churchgoing one — except for Easter — but I sort of implicitly understood about God.

He, or it, was up there, in the sky or possibly above it, and so obviously we, people and dogs and everything, were below, which is to say under, God.

The concept seemed to me quite logical.

For a long span of years, though, I didn’t fully understand the “republic for which it stands” phrase, and in particular what it had to do with the flag.

I came to recognize later that my trouble was that I took things too literally.

This is hardly uncommon among kids, of course — precious few 8-year-olds have moved past the most common definition of any word, if indeed they’ve gotten that far.

When I heard “stands” I could envision a person standing, or even an inanimate object like a house, but I couldn’t conceive why a flag would be standing for a republic.

Most of the flags I saw were flapping about in the wind.

Also I was a trifle foggy on what a “republic” is.

So far as I can remember, though, my uncertainty about the details of the pledge didn’t prevent me from detecting the solemnity of the exercise, or from taking comfort in what seemed to me its inclusiveness.

This was of course from the simplistic viewpoint of a child — I don’t mean to suggest that I grasped the notion of patriotism.

Yet I began to see that the flag and the pledge were symbols of America and that all of us, my classmates and the teacher and the principal, were connected by the significant bond of being Americans.

The pledge, like the flag and other powerful symbols, occasionally is employed for partisan political maneuvers, and from both ends of the spectrum.

The Oregon Legislature has taken up the pledge in a big way this year.

Recently the House, by a 42-16 vote, passed House Bill 3014, which would require public schools to put an American flag in each classroom, and to set aside time each day during which students could recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

As I said I like the pledge, and it pleases me to hear a bunch of little voices repeating its majestic phrases.

But I don’t care for this bill.

I don’t see that the government ought to be enshrining in law an activity that’s not prohibited anyway.

I understand that the pledge isn’t nearly so common in public schools now as it was when I was a student, but I don’t believe this is because the Legislature has failed to patrol our classrooms with sufficient diligence.

If lawmakers are truly troubled by the rarity of a daily recitation of the pledge then they should approve a resolution or some other non-binding document which expresses their concern, and which encourages schools to reinstitute the noble tradition.

But passing a law is an altogether different sort of approach, and in my view it’s the wrong sort.

Proponents of the bill emphasize that although schools would be required to make time for the pledge, the actual recitation would be optional for students.

But this ignores the inherent problem with the very idea.

By making any activity a matter of law the government strongly suggests that to do otherwise is to go against what your nation thinks is the proper course. And although I’m no whiz with a map and compass I prefer going it alone, even if I sometimes lose the trail, to being forever nudged toward the prescribed course by a government which thinks it knows better than I do what defines love of country.

That the Legislature’s call for conformity is not mandatory in no way diminishes its fundamental flaw.

The true measure of America’s greatness, it seems to me, is not what our government does to enable or even to encourage patriotism, but rather what it does to ensure that no one’s beliefs, however unconventional, are tainted because they seem to conflict with the government’s preferences.

I’m sure that in any classroom where the pledge is said now, the vast majority of students participate, and likely all of them, and I think this is a good thing.

But it’s those few kids, who for whatever reason might decline to join in, that I’m worried about, and I don’t believe the government should adopt laws which make their plight more difficult.

I don’t mean to imply that any citizen has a fundamental right to never feel that he’s an outcast, or different.

This is plainly impossible in anything resembling a free society, and can in fact be achieved only in the kind of oppressive regime where everyone feels the same, which is to say equally oppressed, and bad.

House Bill 3014 could become state law, I suppose — certainly my objection to it matters not a whit.

And this wouldn’t be a terrible thing.

I find some opponents’ claims about the bill exaggerated, and a little silly.

Referring to the pledge, state Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, said: “To require little children to do this every day…is very sad and very frightening.”

Notwithstanding that the law wouldn’t require children to do anything, I don’t see anything frightening in the prospect.

Unnecessary, even a trifle patronizing, but not frightening.

Nor do I agree with Rep. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, who derides the bill as “all about posturing and preening. It’s all about getting videos of ourselves being patriotic.”

Too often, it seems to me, people instinctively equate patriotism with jingoism. It’s as if there’s something inherently wrong with demonstrating pride in our country by way of a group ritual.

Other critics argue that cajoling kids to repeat words they probably don’t understand in effect turns students into automatons, diminutive political pawns.

Except repetition is an integral part of education — the pledge, in a sense, is little different from the way kids learn to read, or to write. In the same first-grade classroom where I first said the pledge I also had to print each of the 26 letters, lower-case and capital (or rather, little and big) dozens of times until I could replicate, with some success, the letters rendered perfectly on a strip of paper that stretched above the blackboard.

Anyway, verbal expressions of affection, which the pledge certainly is, aren’t necessarily diminished by frequency.

My younger daughter usually says “I love you” when I tuck her into bed. And although sometimes she recites this in a sort of rote fashion that suggests she’s half asleep, the words never ring hollow in my ears, never fail to reach my heart. 

In the end I suspect more good than ill will come from the Legislature’s debate about the Pledge of Allegiance.

But if the bill becomes law I suspect I will always remember, when I’m visiting my kids’ schools, one clause in particular.

In addition to the flag and pledge, the bill would require public schools to allocate time each week when students could salute the flag.

The bill reads: “Students who do not participate in the salute provided for by this section must maintain a respectful silence during the salute.”

I think saluting the American flag is a fine thing to do.

And I’m all for students being silent and respectful. 

But I always figured teachers were quite capable of enforcing those standards, without assistance from the government.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.