On one of my first days in the sixth-grade classroom where I’m observing this semester as part of the School of Education’s certification program, I was mildly surprised to see that the children say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. I raised my eyebrows at a custom that I thought had gone out of style, but dutifully got to my feet, placed my hand over my heart and joined in.

Many of the children stood up and recited the Pledge with me. But at least a third of the students in the room remained seated during the Pledge. The amount of students that remained seated really surprised — and annoyed — me.

There’s been controversy over the words of the Pledge for about as long as I can remember. Most of the debate has focused around the inclusion of the words “under God.” It’s a debate that gets people pretty fired up — as most debates about religion do. To pacify the masses, many schools have said that saying the “under God” part is optional when reciting the pledge — which seems reasonable, since commitment to the U.S. should have nothing to do with one’s religious views.

In more recent years, some of the controversy has shifted to focus on whether or not schools can require students to say the Pledge at all, and if it can require them to stand. The argument is that schools shouldn’t force their students to swear loyalty to anything, especially considering that students can come from a wide variety of ethnic, national or religious backgrounds that may prohibit them from saying the Pledge.

There are good reasons to not say the Pledge. There are even good reasons to make the choice to remain seated. But I don’t believe that the sixth graders were making some sort of grand gesture to protest against injustice or that most of them had a religious obligation that prohibited them from reciting the Pledge. At their age, their conceptions of morality just haven’t developed enough to truly understand the implications of devotion to a nation. Rather, it seemed that they were exercising their right to stay seated simply because they could and without real consideration of what remaining seated meant.

The discussion of the Pledge in schools is more often one of why students have the choice to say it and to stand, rather than a discussion of the meaning of the Pledge — both in the words it includes and the importance it carries. Once students are old enough to understand that the Pledge is a solemn oath to remain loyal to the nation, they should also understand that they should have the common courtesy to respect others’ choice to make that oath — even though they are not required to make it themselves. Standing up during the Pledge is a sign of that courtesy.

It’s not just the Pledge. It ticks me off when people at football games in the Big House can’t shut up long enough for the band to play the National Anthem as the Tri-Service ROTC Color Guard raises the flag — and that’s only a few minutes. I glare when people don’t take off their caps. At times like these, fans are offered the opportunity to extend their loyalty to a team to loyalty to a nation — which I guess makes particularly good sense at a publically-funded university. But I digress.

The point is that standing up while the Pledge is recited or taking off your cap and remaining silent during the National Anthem is, if nothing else, a sign of respect for something that so many people hold so dear.

If you’ve ever visited a house of worship for a religion that you don’t belong to, you might get where I’m coming from. In these cases, during services, outsiders remain in a posture of reflection and respectful silence. They stand when the rest of the group stands, they sit when the rest of the group sits. They don’t need to — and probably shouldn’t — recite prayers they don’t understand or believe in. But they do need to recognize that what’s happening is fundamental to their friends’ belief system.

For a lot of people, the Pledge has an importance similar to the importance of a prayer. Granted, few people treat patriotism exactly like a religion. But many do treat it as a guiding principle of life. And it’s a slap in the face to these people to simply disregard the belief that they hold so strongly. Students and adults alike have the right to not say the Pledge if they don’t believe in it. But they should have the respect to stand up.

Rachel Van Gilder is the Daily’s editorial page editor. She can be reached at rachelvg@umich.edu.

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