Columbian Editorial: Understanding the Pledge will benefit democracy

Republished in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

Contrary to commonly held belief, public classrooms throughout Washington are expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance each day.

The Revised Code of Washington (28A.230.140) calls for “appropriate flag exercises to be held in each classroom at the beginning of the school day … at which exercises those pupils so desiring shall recite the following salute to the flag: ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ “

It is likely that most adults can still recite that pledge. But rote recitation is not the same as understanding.

That is the idea behind Senate Bill 6205, which currently is in committee in the Legislature. Recommended by a class at Eatonville Middle School, south of Tacoma, the legislation would call for teaching the meaning and the history of the pledge at each school level by the 2025-26 school year.

It is a good idea, and it would meld with continuing work throughout the state to improve civics education. In an effort to strengthen our democracy, lawmakers in recent years have approved efforts to bolster public understanding of American political systems.

Such curriculum has diminished throughout the nation in recent decades, and the results have been predictable. A 2022 analysis by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 13 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in U.S. history — down from a peak of 18 percent in 2014. Not that adults are more enlightened; surveys show that less than half of American adults can name the three branches of government or are aware that a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling becomes the law of the land.

It is easy to draw a line from such ignorance to the political discord that has fractured our democracy. If people do not understand the machinations of the Electoral College, for example, they are more likely to believe lies in an attempt to upend that process. As George Washington reputedly asked: “What species of knowledge” is more important than “the science of government?”

Of course, any effort to teach and understand American history is likely to quickly become embroiled in political differences. As two professors wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post last year: “U.S. history and civics curriculums have long been attacked from the political right as insufficiently patriotic and from the left as woefully incomplete and discriminatory. In short, Americans have never agreed about what should be taught when it comes to our nation’s history and government.”

We would not expect that a bill requiring the teaching of the Pledge of Allegiance would close that divide. “Indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” has different meanings for different Americans. And the “under God,” clause, which was added to the pledge in 1954 as the Cold War led Americans to differentiate themselves from “godless Communists,” continues to spark debate. Clark County residents got an up-close look at a similar controversy in 2015, when county councilors voted to emblazon “In God We Trust” on the council hearing room, leading to contentious discussions.

But such disagreements reflect what it means to be an American. While we might not agree on the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance, having students ponder that meaning is better for our democracy than expecting them to thoughtlessly recite the words.