BERKELEY -- Rituals of patriotism have made quite a comeback in the last couple
of months. The New York City Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution
last month to require all public schools to lead a daily Pledge of Allegiance
each morning and at all school events. "It's a small way to thank the heroes of
9/11," explained the board's president. In Orange County, Celebration USA Inc.,
a nonprofit patriotic organization, synchronized a nationwide recitation of the
pledge at 2 p.m. Eastern time on Oct. 12. Several states are considering the adoption
of laws that would require the pledge in all public schools, and Nebraska has
dusted off a 1949 state law requiring schools to devise curricula aimed at instilling
a "love of liberty, justice, democracy and America ... in the hearts and minds
of the youth."
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, people are hungry for social rituals and eager
to communicate a deeper sense of national belonging. But this new rash of prescribing
and orchestrating patriotism is not the answer.
Rituals of patriotism were first institutionalized between the Civil War and
World War I, when organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic, Women's
Relief Corps and Daughters of the American Revolution campaigned to transform
schools, as educator George Balch put it, into a "mighty engine for the inculcation
of patriotism." Balch, a New York City kindergarten teacher and Civil War veteran,
held what is believed to be the first celebration of Flag Day as a way of teaching
his mostly immigrant students about the flag. But his was not a patriotism that
embraced pluralism. His purpose, as he described it, was to instill discipline
and loyalty in what he called the "human scum, cast on our shores by the tidal
wave of a vast migration." He wrote what is considered to be the first pledge
to the flag, a clunky manifesto in which students promised to "give our heads
and our hearts to God and our Country! One nation! One language! One flag!" In
1890, Balch published a primer for other educators, "Methods for Teaching Patriotism
in the Public Schools," that called for the use of devotional rites of patriotism
modeled along the lines of a catechism. "There is nothing which more impresses
the youthful mind and excites its emotions," noted the West Point graduate, than
the "observance of form."
To commemorate the first Columbus Day celebration in 1892, Youth's Companion
magazine asked Francis Bellamy to write a new pledge to be recited by children
at school. Bellamy, a Christian socialist with a commitment to social reform,
dismissed Balch's formula as a "childish form of words invented by an ex-military
officer." He wanted a pledge that would resonate with American history and make
students into active participants in a "social citizenry." For Bellamy, the notion
of "allegiance" evoked the great call for unity during the Civil War and "one
nation, indivisible" recalled a phrase used by Abraham Lincoln. Bellamy was tempted
to add the historic slogan of the French Revolution--"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"--to
the language of his pledge, but, in the end, he decided that this would be too
much for people to accept. Instead, he settled for the final phrase "with liberty
and justice for all." This way, he reasoned, the pledge could be ideologically
"applicable to either an individualistic or a socialistic state," a matter for
future generations to decide.
Bellamy's words--"I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which
it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all"--were gradually
adopted throughout the country. But the pledge, once imagined as a living principle
of justice and liberty, quickly became suffused with militarism and obedience
to authority. On Columbus Day 1892, according to newspaper reports, children marched
with "drilled precision" as "one army under the sacred flag."
In the wake of the Spanish-American War, state-sanctioned rituals of patriotism
became more common. In New York, soon after war was declared in April of 1898,
the legislature instructed the state superintendent of public instruction to prepare
"a program providing for a salute to the flag ... at the opening of each day of
school." Daily rituals aimed at reaching children's hearts were backed up with
new civics curriculums to secure their minds with heroic images of virile soldiers
and the honor of dying for one's country. A typical children's primer published
in 1903 taught that "B stood for Battles" and Z for the zeal "that has carried
us through/When fighting for justice/With the Red, White and Blue."
During World War I, worries arose about citizens with dual allegiances, and
some feared that Bellamy's pledge allowed cunning fifth-columnist immigrants to
swear a secret loyalty to another country. To close this loophole, the words "my
flag" were changed to "the flag of the United States." Many states now required
students to salute the flag every day.
In Chicago in 1916, an 11-year old African American student was arrested because
he refused to respect what he saw as a symbol of Jim Crow and lynching. "I am
willing to salute the flag," Hubert Eaves explained, "as the flag salutes me."
Meanwhile, Boy Scout troops across the country staged massive operettas in celebration
of "America First."
Between the world wars, thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses were persecuted and
their children expelled from school for refusing to salute the flag. What began
as an attempt to encourage loyalty to a nation "with liberty and justice for all"
devolved into the suppression of dissent and unquestioning homage to the flag.
In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an obligatory loyalty oath is unconstitutional,
thus putting the law on the side of any student who refused to participate in
patriotic or religious rituals. But even after the ruling, refusal to say the
pledge took both courage and conviction.
The pledge remained unchanged until Flag Day 1954, when President Eisenhower
approved the addition of the constitutionally questionable phrase "under God"
to differentiate this country from its godless Cold War antagonist.
Since the Vietnam War and the divides of conscience it generated, educators
have not been inclined to impose rote patriotic drills on their students. Instead,
schools began slowly to redefine patriotism in a more inclusive way, a way that
speaks to the needs of a multiethnic, polyglot population living in an increasingly
globalized world. This is not the time to reverse this trend by reverting to form
over substance and rote memorization over democratic participation.
"What of our purpose as a nation?" pondered Bellamy more than a century ago
when he crafted his pledge. Our students today can better use their time debating
this question than marching in lock-step loyalty.
Cecilia O'Leary, an associate professor of history at Cal State Monterey
Bay, is the author of "To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism."
Tony Platt, professor of social work at Cal State Sacramento.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times