June 28 2002


Scrap the Pledge and Discuss Liberty, Justice with Students

By Donal Brown

SAN FRANCISCO — The decision by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the Pledge of Allegiance did not go far enough. I say that as someone who spent 35 years teaching in California public schools.

The new decision only extended to removing the words, “under God.” Prohibiting the entire pledge would have struck a more definitive blow for true democracy and education.

The words “under God” themselves undermine education in America. Without discussion or debate, they encourage students to take for granted the union of church and state, a union that threatens the intent of our Founding Fathers.

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State cautioned about eroding the wall between church and state, given the modern era of powerful governments. “Combinations of church and state will ensure the domination of the church by the state and not the other way around,” he said.

Focusing on the words “under God,” saying they do not belong there in the pledge, the Ninth Circuit Court reminded students of the importance of recognizing the rights of those in the minority. Writing about American democracy in 1831, French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville warned that America was susceptible to the tyranny of the majority.

In his majority decision, Judge Alfred T. Goodwin wrote that the pledge as it is now sends a message to unbelievers “that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

With this decision, justices are teaching students that there are many in our vast democracy whose views differ from the majority, and that must be recognized.

The case was brought by an atheist, but there are many other American students — many devoutly religious — who believe in other than a monotheistic God or whose deity is not recognized by the words, “under God.”

These students must be respected and valued for their differences, so that they can take their places as loyal and productive citizens. Respect for diversity is one of the most important values of our democracy.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the exercise of daily, generally rote recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance is that it does little to teach loyalty to the United States and the enduring values of American democracy.

As educational curriculum, the pledge doesn’t make the cut. It would be far better to use the time now spent reciting the pledge, and set aside part of a weekly class period to discuss the meaning of the words that end it: “with liberty and justice for all.”

Without the teacher leading students to the socially approved responses, let students themselves discover the values of a democracy, debating the reality and challenges of those words.

Younger elementary students might respond at first in concrete and trivial ways, defining liberty as freedom, and freedom as permission to go to the mall or to McDonald’s. But the discussions would soon grow more sophisticated, as students alerted to the topic would hear of freedoms denied, perhaps like barring females in public schools in some countries.

At the high school level, students accustomed to thinking about these issues could discuss the essence of American democracy and debate the relative importance of different values that sometimes collide, such as the rights of a free press and the right to a fair trial. They could also debate the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as we are seeing it practiced in the United States today.

In teaching journalism — and I’ve taught plenty of students now member of the press, including a Pulitzer Prize winner — I always felt that instruction about the First Amendment itself was not a very effective way of teaching the strength of the Constitution. It was better, I found, to present students daily with opportunities to wrestle with issues of responsibility and truth.

My experience in public high schools tells me that discussion and practice in citizenship is far more effective than reciting pledges in teaching the values of loyalty and democracy.

Donal Brown can be reached at dbrown@pacificnews.org.

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