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The Pledge of Allegiance as a Civics Lesson

Published in ChicagoNow, December 4, 2014

At Thanksgiving, for unknown reasons, some of my grandkids started reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The ones in school, grades kindergarten through fifth, knew it perfectly. Well, they knew the words. Turns out they had little idea why they said it or what allegiance or republic or nation or indivisible (invisible?) or liberty or justice (a cool clothing store?) really mean.

When one of my granddaughters was not quite three, she was able to recite the pledge. I guess she learned it at her preschool. Now that she’s eight, she can say the words correctly but she doesn’t really know much more about what they mean. At my other grandkids’ school, someone leads the Pledge every morning over the PA, followed by the school rules (Dolphin Dos): “Be safe. Be ready. Be respectful. That is what we call the Dolphin Dos.” So those kids think that’s the last line of the Pledge. Makes sense, right?

The more I thought about it, I wondered if my grandkids would ever learn about what the Pledge means in school. Could there be some connection between not teaching much about history or what we used to call civics (how our government works) and the lack of participation in elections? Maybe we no longer value knowing much about our country’s history, let alone the rest of the world’s. As a college English major/history minor, I’m totally out of step with what matters educationally these days. Does anyone read A Tale of Two Cities anymore?

In an article in the Chicago Tribune, December 1, 2014, Diane Rado describes the efforts of a task force to ensure kids learn some civics and history as part of their education. She states,

“Considered marginalized in an era of high-stakes testing in reading and math, civics is gaining attention as a state-appointed task force of lawmakers, educators and advocacy groups pushes reforms to bring the subject to prominence in the public school curriculum.
The goal is to help students become thoughtful, informed, involved and responsible citizens, through instruction that moves away from memorizing facts and focusing on government institutions.”

Rado explains that since Illinois doesn’t have a standardized test for history or civics, the quality of instruction and time devoted to these subjects has declined. The task force advocates revising the state’s social studies standards to promote news literacy and the importance of voting.

As a first step, here’s a brief history lesson about the Pledge that I shared on Thanksgiving. I remember when President Eisenhower added the words “under God” to it. It was a big deal. I vividly recall my teacher explaining what the pledge meant and why it was important that we were a nation under God. Bet you didn’t know that this was done to distinguish us from the godless communists during the Cold War. OMG – Do kids these days know what the Cold War was?

For sure, they don’t know that a socialist minister, Francis Bellamy, wrote the Pledge Allegiance in 1892. Or that it was originally published in The Youth’s Companion magazine that September. Or that it was commissioned to go with the notion that every school should display an American flag. Could this have been an early example of marketing for flag manufacturers?

Yep, this is turning into a grumpy grandmother rant. But I still believe that when half of Americans can’t name all three branches of government, don’t know that Congress has the power to declare war, and think the Electoral College has something to do with training politicians, we are missing something in what we teach folks in school.

Edmund Burke, an Irish statesman and philosopher who served in the British House of Commons at the time of the American Revolution, said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” When we don’t teach our kids the lessons of the past or how our government works, we create a disengaged citizenry.

So yes, reciting the Pledge can be a teachable moment. We just have to find time for these moments in our schools to turn them into learning experiences for our kids.


by Laurie Levy
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