Texas pledge-of-allegiance law undermines democracy, critical thinking

By Robert Jensen

Published in Counterpunch · June, 2003

[This article also appeared in the Waco Tribune-Herald (TX), June 5, 2003.]

Among its many dubious achievements this session, the Texas Legislature — in the name of promoting appreciation for democratic political values in the public schools — struck a blow against the critical thinking skills crucial for meaningful democracy.

The Legislature passed, and Gov. Rick Perry last week signed into law, a bill ordering all school districts to require students to pledge allegiance to the U.S. and Texas flags once during each school day, starting in the fall.

The message is pretty simple: To be good citizens-in-training, children must stand up, face a flag, and recite by rote a questionable set of political assertions. That’s democracy in action? That’s education?

No, that’s instruction in subordination, the unquestioned acceptance of authority.

In his defense of the bill, sponsor Sen. Jeff Wentworth pointed out that the habits we form as children are crucial to moral and political development. “If you want children to know what work is, have them work,” the San Antonio Republican said. I couldn’t agree more.

He continued, “If you want children to love country and state, teach them to honor their flags.”

That one begs some obvious questions: Why should we want children to love country and state? What do such declarations really mean? If our country or state is engaged in illegal or immoral activities, should we love it? If what we claim to love are not the actions of our government at any given moment — which can be, and often are, stupid or wrong, or both — is it really principles about freedom and justice we are claiming to love? If so, why claim those principles for country or state? Aren’t those principles universal?

And, more importantly, if the lives of all people all over the world are of equal moral value — as every major religious and philosophical system contends — shouldn’t we be pledging allegiance to our common humanity? Perhaps we should be pledging to work toward a future in which state and national boundaries no longer separate people. Maybe we should be pledging to work toward a set of universal principles that are articulated and defended in a world council made of up of representatives from different watershed regions based on principles of voluntary association.

Or maybe not — which is my point. Different people have different viewpoints on these questions. In a meaningful democracy, the conventional answers to those questions shouldn’t be drilled into children through rituals. In an educational system that takes seriously the goal of encouraging critical thinking (see the Texas Education Code, section 28.001), the answers to all those questions should not be dictated but should be the subject of discussion from the earliest possible age.

Yes, we want children to form good intellectual and political habits — one of which is subjecting to rigorous critique the political assertions handed down from above.

This is the problem of patriotism. If we want to live in a real democracy, the concept of patriotism itself has to be up for grabs. We must encourage serious debate — not just about what constitutes patriotic behavior, as the question is usually framed, but about whether patriotism itself is politically and morally desirable. That debate isn’t fostered by required recitation of pledges to flags.

The new law also mandates a one-minute period each day for students to “reflect, pray, meditate, or engage in any other silent activity.” That provision and the “one nation under God” phrase in the national pledge of allegiance raise questions of church/state separation. But my concerns here are about pedagogy, not theology.

Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 60 years ago that a school could not force a child to recite the pledge, the new Texas law allows schools to excuse a student, at a parent’s request, from reciting the pledges. Even with that provision, in some classrooms students who opt out may face ridicule from fellow students, and we should be concerned about them.

Much more dangerous, however, is the effect on those students who stand up every day and participate in the pledge drill. Our democracy is in serious trouble if we think we can teach citizenship and critical thinking like the multiplication tables.