[September 8th marked the 125th anniversary of the first publication of the Pledge of Allegiance, in the popular magazine The Youth’s Companion. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy this complex shared text, starting with a repeat of one of my oldest posts and then moving into four new ones. Leading up to a weekend post on the very salient question of the worst and best versions of allegiance!]
On two contexts for my older son’s inspiring act of civil disobedience.
First, here’s the relevant paragraph from my “Inspiring Children” post from earlier this year: “Throughout his time in 5th grade this past year, my older son took a knee during his class’s recital of the Pledge; the idea, entirely his own, was to honor and extend Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest. [ED: Which is even more frustratingly salient now that the NFL season has begun and Kaepernick remains unemployed, due at least as much to his protests as to concerns over his quarterbacking. But he has inspired a number of other parallel protests from fellow NFL players during this year’s preseason, so the story continues to evolve.] Thanks in part to Bruce’s amazing “American Skin (41 Shots),” a shared favorite song of ours, I’ve talked to the boys about police shootings and race in America for many years now; but there’s talking and then there’s listening, understanding, and developing one’s own perspective and voice. My son’s Pledge protest reflects just how fully he’s done all of the latter, and become his own amazing young man as a result (among many other influences of course).”
Kaepernick, his fellow NFL protesters, and the history of sports protests thus offer one clear context for my son’s Pledge protests. But I wanted here to add a second such context, one directly linked to the turn of the 20th century era in which the Pledge originated: public schools and patriotism. While public education had been part of the United States since long before the Revolution, it was in the late 19th century that states began passing so-called “compulsory laws,” making school attendance mandatory for all young Americans. By 1900, 34 states had passed such laws, with the effect that by 1910 over 70% of American children attended school for at least some time; by 1918, every state required at least the completion of elementary school. There were of course many factors and arguments that led to this shaerd emphasis on mandatory education for all American children, but prominent among them was the sense that it was through such a shared educational experience that all young Americans—whether they were born here or had immigrated—could become “Americanized.” This was the goal of such parallel efforts in the era as the settlement house movement, and it was a clear facet of the push for mandatory education as well.
That doesn’t mean by any stretch that our modern public education system was designed to brainwash the nation’s young people—it had far too much of a John Dewey influence for that. But at the same time, a certain patriotic reverence for the United States seems to have been a prominent part of American public education in the early 20th century; one need only read Mary Antin’s memoir The Promised Land (1912) to see the effects of that educational emphasis on a young immigrant girl (Antin frames those effects as entirely positive, to be clear). Given the centrality of the Pledge of Allegiance to a typical public school day in 2017, that linkage between public education and patriotic sentiment is still quite visible a century after Antin published her celebratory book. And given my own work, in my most recent book and overall in my career, on the concept of critical patriotism, it will come as no surprise that I see my son’s Pledge protest as not only appropriate for a space so tied to ideas of patriotism, but a vital example of applying such sentiments and concepts to one’s own life and choices. Fortunately, his school seems to feel the same, and allowed him to perform his patriotic protest throughout the year.
Next Pledge post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other takes on the Pledge you’d share?
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