Academic journal article Social Justice

Pledging Allegiance: The Revival of Prescriptive Patriotism

Academic journal article Social Justice

Pledging Allegiance: The Revival of Prescriptive Patriotism

Article excerpt

IN A MATTER OF A FEW MONTHS, WE HAVE WITNESSED FAR-REACHING CHANGES IN American global doctrines, the domestic economy and politics of government, and national security and criminal justice. Our focus in this essay is on shifts in the cultural politics of nationalism. During the flush years of an exuberant dot-com economy, being an American meant little more than the freedom to consume or visit Disneyland. But since the September 11 attacks, a resurgent patriotism is omnipresent and nowhere is it more on display than in our schools. (1)

In October2001, the Bush administration launched a series of initiatives aimed at prescribing patriotism among the nation's 52 million schoolchildren. Government officials urged students to take part in a mass recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and called upon veterans to teach "Lessons for Liberty" (Milbank, 2001: A2). The House of Representatives voted 444-0 for the display of signs proclaiming "God Bless America" in the public schools. At the local level, the New York City Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution requiring all public schools to lead a daily pledge in the morning and at all school assemblies. "It's a small way to thank the heroes of 9/11," explained the Board's president (Wyatt, 2001: A20). In Madison, Wisconsin, the School Board reversed its previous position and voted to allow schools to recite a daily Pledge of Allegiance and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" (Associated Press, 2001: A12). Nebraska dusted off a 1949 state law requiring schools to devise curricula aimed at in stilling a "love of liberty, justice, democracy and the hearts and minds of the youth." And after years of futile attempts, a conservative, fringe organization in Orange County -- Celebration USA Inc. -- succeeded in synchronizing a nationwide recitation of the pledge at 2:00 p.m. eastern time on October 12th (Sack, 2001: B1).

In the aftermath of September 11, people are hungry for social rituals and eager to communicate a deeper sense of national belonging. Yet this new wave of orchestrated patriotism is aimed at closing down debate and dissent through the imposition of a prescribed allegiance.

Rituals of patriotism were first institutionalized in the United States between the Civil War and World War I. At the end of the bloodiest civil war of the 19th century, the combatants left the battlefields for political, economic, and cultural arenas, where the struggle to make a nation continued with renewed intensity. In fact, many of the patriotic symbols and rituals that we now take for granted or think of as timeless were created during this period and emerged not from a harmonious, national consensus, but out of fiercely contested debates, even over the wording of the Pledge. Confronted by the dilemma that Americans are made, not born, educators and organizations, such as the Grand Army of the Republic, Women's Relief Corps, and Daughters of the American Republic, campaigned to transform schools, in George Balch's words, into a "mighty engine for the inculcation of patriotism."

Balch, a New York City teacher and Civil War veteran, wrote what is thought to be the first pledge to the flag in which students promised to "give our heads and our hearts to God and our Country! One nation! One language! One flag!" Balch intended the pledge to teach discipline and loyalty to the "human scum, cast on our shores by the tidal wave of a vast migration." In 1890, Balch published a primer for educators on Methods for Teaching Patriotism in the Public Schools, which called for the use of devotional rites of patriotism modeled along the lines of a catechism. "There is nothing which more impresses the youthful mind and excites its emotions," noted the West Point graduate, than the "observance of form."

To commemorate the first celebration of Columbus Day in 1892 and in preparation for the grand opening of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Youth's Companion magazine charged Francis Bellamy with writing a new pledge. …

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