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Marc Epstein
Sitting Out the Pledge
In New York’s public schools, patriotism is passé.
4 June 2007

Every weekday morning, two students ring chimes over the public address system of Jamaica High School in Queens and begin the day’s announcements. But before they report varsity teams’ results, the weather, and assorted items of school interest, they ask that everyone rise and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Shortly after September 11, the New York City Board of Education issued a directive requiring the daily recitation of the Pledge in schools. It needn’t have bothered. As Diane Ravitch pointed out in an op-ed not long after the attacks, a longstanding state law already mandated the practice.

As the current school year began, however, I returned to the classroom full-time after a six-year term as dean of students at Jamaica High, and quickly discovered that I was one of few reciting the Pledge. The other teachers whom I spoke with had similar experiences.

I asked my students why they weren’t saying the Pledge, or why they stood silently while others recited it. None expressed deeply held political or religious motivations. They were simply indifferent. I learned that many of them had said the Pledge in elementary school, but were unfamiliar with patriotic songs: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful,” and a host of others that I had sung with classmates at PS 139 in the 1950s.

This ignorance should not come as a surprise. The most recent New York State test results for eighth graders entering high school indicated that only 27 percent had a basic knowledge of American history. The New York State history curriculum barely touches the actual battles and major political events of the Civil War.

In addition, teachers face the problem of educating a large immigrant population that scarcely resembles the last great wave of immigrants of 100 years ago. Over the years, countless students have come to me and asked to be excused so that they could “go home to their country” because of family illness, or to attend a relative’s funeral. Curiously, they never mention the name of their “country.” Often it’s an excuse for an extended trip back to their land of origin. Their outlook is a far cry from that of my great-grandfather, who brought his eldest daughter to America and saved money for three years before he could afford to bring his wife and two other children, who had remained behind in Europe. He never thought of going back “home” for a visit. America had become his home.

Today, cheap air travel, along with a rising standard of living, has made it easier to maintain close ties with one’s mother country. Satellite dishes dot the rooftops of New York’s immigrant ghettos, making television channels from overseas accessible. Hometown newspapers from Tokyo to Karachi are there for the plucking over the Internet. Americanization is a far more complex project today than it was in 1907.

Ronald Reagan understood the problem as well as anyone. In his farewell address to the nation in 1989, he noted, “Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style.” He recognized that the America he grew up in was very different from the America of today. “We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions.” Reagan called for an “informed patriotism.” It’s an idea that seems almost quaint today.

In June 1927, on the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the flag as the official symbol of our country, the now-defunct American Flag Association held a “vesper” flag ceremony on the Capitol steps in Washington. The ceremony, timed to coincide with sunset on the “holy Sabbath,” included ministers of various denominations, President Coolidge, justices of the Supreme Court, and members of Congress and the Cabinet. The program “consisted of the massing of the colors, sacred and patriotic music by the Marine Corps Band, and the playing of Stars and Stripes Forever conducted by Sousa himself.” The principal address concerned “The Religion of the Flag.” One can readily imagine what the reaction would be today to a ceremony of this kind.

The events of September 11 have receded into the past. Despite initial momentum for teaching students patriotism in the aftermath of the attacks, over five years later students still seem to lack a basic understanding of what patriotism is. Those foolish enough to believe that American identity can be sustained by the affordability of high-definition televisions and by cheap, unassimilated immigrant labor, will come to recognize that they ignore patriotism at great peril. Let us hope that our awakening, if it comes, is not too late.

Marc Epstein served as dean of students at Jamaica High School for the past six years. He has written extensively on school violence.

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