To Pledge or Not to Pledge

Investigating the mystery of the decline of the Pledge of Allegiance.

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The first few minutes of third period are utilized for morning salutations, school announcements, and the occasional dad joke, but 30 seconds are designated for a purpose that is increasingly flying over the heads of Stuyvesant students—the Pledge of Allegiance. While the routine was prevalent, and maybe even required, in their early years of schooling, more and more Stuyvesant students have become reluctant to participate. Is there an explanation related to the political developments of recent years? Or is it simply no longer cool to pledge?

The Pledge has been recited in schools since it was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy. However, the structure, public reception, and political prominence of the Pledge, have been all but steady. It has been met with changes in wording (the inclusion of “under God,” “the flag of the United States of America,” etc.), disputes over its legitimacy under the Constitution, and even alterations in the hand gestures one must perform while reciting it. In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled the requirement to recite the Pledge unconstitutional, making it clear that the Pledge’s status in American society and schools has historically remained fluid

It should be noted that participation for the Pledge in high schools has been declining for a while. “The trend over the years has been a petering out of standing [for the Pledge],” Coordinator of Student Affairs and history teacher Matt Polazzo said.

As of late, though, some students have observed a stark decrease in Pledge participation, prominent even among the long-standing downward trend: “[Participation in the Pledge of Allegiance has] definitely been less in recent years,” junior Shreya Das shared.

In 2018, The Spectator published “To Pledge, or Not to Pledge?,” which illuminated a general sense of tolerance in Stuyvesant students regarding the Pledge of Allegiance and its validity in school. Many liberals even cited general support for the pledge, as many believed it represented unity, regardless of political orientation. Since then, however, Stuyvesant has endured a pandemic, a year of remote learning, a change in presidency, and countless more contentious,dynamic circumstances. The presence of so many moving factors has undoubtedly motivated the increasing obscurity of the Pledge.

One possible cause for this trend is the abundance of significant political affairs leading up to this year. Polazzo pointed out that it was only after 9/11 that a noticeable number of students were standing to the Pledge: “After 9/11, things changed a lot. That’s when you started seeing American flags on all the train cars and that’s when they started doing the Pledge,” he elaborated, suggesting that perhaps the popularity of the Pledge serves as a close reflection of the political fervor surrounding the Stuyvesant student body.

President of Stuy Patriots and senior Jackson Mushnick shared his experience with those who refused to Pledge in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement: “A few years ago during the Black Lives Matter movement, there were only a few kids in my middle school class who didn’t stand for the Pledge and [...] I would ask them, ‘Why aren’t you standing up for the Pledge?’ and they would say ‘Because there isn’t fairness in America,’” Mushnick said. “So that was clearly driven by political beliefs, by political ideology.” Recent developments, such as the spotlighting of Black Lives Matter, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021, the 2020 election, and more, have brought rise to another upsurge in political awareness. They potentially illustrate why we are observing yet another notable shift regarding Pledge of Allegiance.

Consequently, as students associate the image of America with patriotism and conservatism after the presidency and political reputation of Donald Trump, students, especially in a predominantly liberal city like New York City, are reluctant to promote American values. “There’s been a decline in patriotism among New Yorkers so I think it’s sort of like a slow steady [decline]—it’s almost like the American flag has come to be sort of associated with Donald Trump or what have you,” Polazzo said.

In a similar sense, students like junior Snigdho Somprity aren’t compelled to stand for the Pledge because of America’s current trajectory. “America has definitely been taking a turn for the worse recently,” Somprity said. “With Roe v. Wade, January 6, and everything else that seemed to deteriorate after the pandemic, it’s been really difficult to feel any sense of pride in [America].”

Others, however, interpret the Pledge differently. Mushnick believes that the Pledge serves as a building block to better America—to not only preserve the positives of American history, but to unite us all and strive toward a greater future. “The benefits [of the Pledge] are a sense of a social fabric that’s missing in this country, some kind of collective identity that is inspiring and a source of values and a sense of history, a sense of memory, and a sense of destiny—the values we are trying to achieve and the accomplishments,” he said. “[Like] these are the values and the destiny that we are trying to achieve and these are the things that we prize.”

Moreover, in the fierce social inferno of high school, social dynamics certainly play arole in compelling students to stand. “I think that if there were anyone who wanted to stand for the Pledge, they’d have to be a pretty strong-minded individual to do so. I think that there’s definitely peer pressure,” Polazzo said. “They wouldn’t want to mark themselves out as like a weirdo or a Trumpist.” Given Stuyvesant’s clear leftist political tendencies, to openly support a practice implicitly associated with right-wing values might set you behind in the unspoken competition for social credibility.

From the perspective of one who does engage in the Pledge, officer of Stuy Patriots and senior Comson Cao shared that it is often an extreme minority of students who willingly recite the Pledge. “During my junior year and this year [...], when the announcements would come on I would be the only student standing for the Pledge. Everyone else would be sitting down. This year it’s me and some other student,” he said. As Polazzo said, to make the choice to stand up and hint at your political standing takes an ample amount of courage. The fear of being that outlier within the classroom may be amplifying an already existent disinterest in the Pledge.

However, perhaps the reason for the Pledge’s descent into obsolescence is simply apathy and indifference. “We had online learning, and then we returned to school. Everyone’s readjusting to school life, everyone’s tired, and now when they say to stand for the Pledge, Stuyvesant students are like, ‘I’m not feeling it,’” Cao added.

Das seems to not participate in the Pledge out of disinterest as well. “Recent political events haven’t really affected my view of America because my view of America was pretty neutral to begin with,” Das said. “I’m neutral about the Pledge.”

Somprity’s experiences suggest that the social dynamic of high school culture has contributed to a collective disregard for the Pledge. While indifference may be born out of neutrality or just plain laziness, the increasing disregard for the Pledge may be correlated with the social environment of high school, where political judgment is amplified, social awareness is intensified, and most importantly, the Pledge is no longer held to the same standard as it once was in early years of schooling. “Leading up to high school, I’ve honestly always just done it out of obligation. [...] It was never explicitly stated that we had to rise for the Pledge, but since everyone else was doing it, you had to,” Somprity shared. “In recent years, though, I haven’t even felt an obligation to rise for the Pledge. Since no one else really does it, it’s easy not to.”

With just 22 words, the Pledge of Allegiance serves as an insightful window into a complex web of political and social motivations. Its use of diction incorporates religious themes and promotes American ideals, inspiring some, and deferring others. As one untangles this puzzle, the question remains: Does Stuyvesant’s attitude towards the Pledge mirror the school’s collective politics or the abandonment of a greater, aging tradition?