Opinion: Pledge of Allegiance proposal makes me wonder: Are discussions about civics, dissent 'unpatriotic'?

I am a teacher. And, apparently, I’m still sinister.

State Sen. Adrian Dickey has introduced a bill, Senate File 2043, that would require teachers to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Also included in the bill is a section that limits what teachers can say about the Pledge of Allegiance. The bill states that: “A teacher shall not, while in the classroom with any students in kindergarten through grade twelve, speak about the Pledge of Allegiance in any manner in which the student or students in the classroom may reasonably understand the teacher’s speech to be any of the following: an unpatriotic commentary of the United States, an attempt to politically influence the student or students.”

Before taking my current job, I taught seventh- and eighth-grade social studies. As part of my curriculum, we would talk about the Pledge of Allegiance. I would ask if it was OK to change the pledge. It’s been changed four times. Some were minor changes and some were more significant. The most recent change was the addition of “under God” in 1954. I would ask the question: should “under God” be removed? Students would often state a point of view. I would play “devil’s advocate” and push back on whichever point of view they had.

Is that unpatriotic?

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We would talk about students' rights. Were they required to stand for the pledge? We would investigate the Supreme Court's 1943 finding in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. We would talk about our findings — how they do not have to stand as long as they don’t disrupt the class.

Is that unpatriotic?

We would talk about flag burning. We would look at Texas v. Johnson from 1989. We talked about how the court decided it was “symbolic” freedom of speech. I would ask students if they agreed with the court's finding. Often, students would have a spirited but respectful debate.

Is that unpatriotic?

Being a social studies teacher was something that I loved doing. During that time, I helped to start a Veterans Day program that was almost completely presented by students, and the auditorium was always packed. I initiated the pledge being said at the middle school every morning prior to it being a law. I tell you this so you understand that I do love my country, but I know it has had — and still has — flaws.

Students also see those flaws. They would ask me questions — important, thoughtful, probing questions. I would answer them honestly, and when there were multiple points of view, we would talk about them.

Is that unpatriotic?

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Our nation isn’t in need of more patriotism; patriotism is simple and can easily be faked. Our nation is in need of those who understand what John Adams meant when he talked about the common good. It is in need of a society that actively lives the idea of civic virtue. Both are ideas that the Founding Fathers had in mind when the Constitution was written and this nation was founded. And those ideals are hard. They were even difficult for the Founding Fathers. It is possible to have an important, thoughtful, heated debate without calling each other names or obscene gestures. It is possible to speak respectfully to those who have different opinions than you do. I know because my seventh- and eighth-graders were able to have those difficult conversations.

I propose that a bill be introduced stipulating that “while in the classroom or holding a political office a teacher or legislature/politician shall not speak in a manner that may reasonably be interpreted by a student or constituent to be any of the following: not adhering to the ideals of the common good or holding to the principles of civic virtue.”

That’s the example needed for students and society.

Marieta Irwin
Marieta Irwin

Marieta Irwin teaches special education in northwest Iowa.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Opinion: Is it 'unpatriotic' to have discussions on civics, dissent?