The recent actions of the Michigan House and Senate have again raised questions over the wisdom of mandatory Pledge of Allegiance recitation programs in public schools. Of course, folks who see things in black and white want to paint the issue as a simple matter of patriotism and start pointing fingers at those who have the temerity to object. The issue is far more complex than their superficial analysis, however.
Ask any reputable child psychologist and you will learn that no elementary school student is remotely capable of understanding the abstractions in the Pledge of Allegiance. Children might as well recite nonsense syllables. This exercise does not meet their needs in any conceivable way; it is all about serving the agendas of adults.
I remember films of Soviet and Chinese schools forcing children through patriotic exercises during the Cold War and hearing an outcry about this wholesale brainwashing. Where is the demonstrable difference in the forced recitation of the Pledge? Wouldn't it be better to simply teach the history of our country and let our students choose to be loyal out of respect for the sacrifices made to assure freedom? Do we have so little confidence in the outcome of that choice that we feel compelled to indoctrinate our youth, to force-feed that loyalty while they are defenseless to resist? If so, that's a sad commentary on America.
My chief concern at this juncture is protecting students and families. All of them should be informed that they have the Constitutional right to refuse participation in school Pledge recitation programs without bias. Schools must facilitate this choice and protect students who opt out.
There are many very good reasons to withhold students from participation which should be respected. Some students are not U.S. citizens. Others come from families which have religious issues with paying homage to earthly symbols, e.g., Jehovah'S Witnesses. Many have objections to the discriminatory "under God" clause which was introduced in 1954. Some families don't believe in loyalty oaths or think it is inexcusable to demand them from those under the age of consent. These people may be very patriotic, they're just not dogmatic.
Many schools have attempted to deal with opt-out students by having them stand in the hallway during recitation. This is dangerous. It makes these students readily identifiable and a target for ostracism and potential bullying.
It is possible to implement far more proactive procedures where volunteer pledgers can go to a central location before the school session begins, recite in small groups, then head to their classrooms. This is much more likely to maintain anonymity. Pledging doesn't have to be done en masse; a computer can be programmed to lead small groups in recitation to minimize staff impact. Parents should insist upon this level of protection.
This may be a bit more cumbersome, but if the Pledge is all that critical, then this can be justified in the name of also safeguarding the freedom and interests of students who do not participate.
About the author: Michael Spry has a bachelor of science degree in psychology from Michigan State University and is a long-time advocate and published writer on the Constitutional rights of non-theistic citizens. He resides in Traverse City.
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