It would be easy to dismiss the campaign in Brookline to forbid the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools as a classic example of out of touch lefties on a spree of self-indulgent moralism. But it's worthwhile to grant the activists leading the anti-pledge charge the courtesy of examining their arguments at face value. As articulated by Martin Rosenthal, co-chair of Brookline-PAX, their case has two prongs: The first is that even though the Pledge is voluntary, there is still subtle coercion on children to recite it; the second that the Pledge has no educational value.
Rosenthal’s first argument is quite absurd. Since the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette in 1943, no school in the country can make the pledge compulsory. While there may be some form of subtle peer pressure on students to participate, it would be a fool’s errand to try to regulate all forms of peer pressure out of existence in schools. And even if one were so inclined to do so, the pressure to say the Pledge is not the most malign, let alone pressing, issue in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Rosenthal’s argument that the Pledge has “no educational value” is more interesting. After all, it does not have a direct or even an indirect link to academics. But it does serve to reinforce another lesson, that, in the words of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, “the Pledge of Allegiance evolved as a common public acknowledgment of the ideals that our flag symbolizes. Its recitation is a patriotic exercise designed to foster national unity and pride in those principles.” Even if Rosenthal disagrees that our nation provides “liberty and justice for all,” it seems an aspiration well worth having and well worth teaching our children.
To some, Rosenthal’s effort to keep the Pledge out of Brookline may seem piddling and silly. But that doesn’t make it illegitimate or unpatriotic. Ultimately, that will be a decision for the people of Brookline to make.
Globe file photo: Schoolchildren recite the Pledge of Allegiance during a trip to the Massachusetts State House.