Students cannot be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in School. This idea has been established as precedent since the case West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette. Since that was established nearly eighty years ago, the decision is likely not going anywhere. Some states have interpreted the Barnette decision liberally, though, for example requiring that students obtain written permission from their parents to abstain from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. This rule was deemed constitutional in the 2008 case Frazier v. Winn, and that is how the precedent currently stands.
Now, I would like to present a few opinions and explore their relative merits. I do not believe there is an objectively correct answer to this question, and I think there are bigger issues in this country, but I do think there is no better microcosm of the debate over the proper meaning of the word “patriotism” than the Pledge of Allegiance debate. On one side, there is the camp represented by those who make parental permission mandatory and who are in general more conservative (Frazier was decided in Florida). On the other, there is a camp that can be represented by this quote: “[P]atriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is [stupid].”
Aside from the liberal vs. conservative angle to this debate, there are philosophically valid arguments on both sides, which I would like to present. Mandating conformism is generally seen as a bad thing, but I submit that there is not an objective reason for this notion. Nationalism is the glue that holds together Nation-States, so encouraging it is a way of indirectly ensuring the cohesion of a country. Dystopian though it may sound, increased cohesion certainly makes a country run smoother, and god knows the U.S. could use some smoothness at the moment. On the other hand, if you grant O’Brien’s argument, patriotism, and therefore its enforcement through mandating the Pledge of Allegiance, is unconscionable. And, though I think it is somewhat reductive, the point it makes is worth considering. How much cohesion do we really need, and how much individual thinking are we willing to give up?
I would like to present one opinion on this issue, but I must lead by declaring that many of my opinions are of a more libertarian bent, so take what I am about to say with a grain of salt. I do not think that mandating the Pledge of Allegiance is a good idea, regardless of its constitutionality. The kind of conformism it enforces is not the good kind, the kind that enforces taboos against things like murder. Ultimately, what mandating the Pledge of Allegiance creates is people who either chafe under that requirement or take patriotism lightly. On the latter subject, cheapening patriotism is ultimately as pernicious an approach as ignoring it altogether. Further, everyone has the experience of saying “sorryyyyyy” and not believing it. Forcing this condition upon generations of schoolchildren can only be counterproductive. In the worst case, what mandating the Pledge of Allegiance could cause is a Brave New World-esque society in which the sum of all the knowledge of the common people is a few mantras imposed by the world controllers. I present this idea not because I think mandating the Pledge of Allegiance will lead to this scenario but because it is an interesting and relevant reductio ad absurdum for the reader’s consideration.
Regardless of the validity of my argument, there are students who are currently required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, within the bounds of the Barnette Decision, but this action is by no means accepted by all, even some state courts. And now, if you will forgive the cliché, I will leave it to you to decide for yourself what you think.
Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brien