The Heart of this Nation

My brother, Frank, will be ninety in December. He was a math teacher in high school for ten years and a teacher of rhetoric, speech, and theatre in college for thirty years. He lives in a nursing facility in Florida, where with the help of nurses, nurses’ aids, doctors, and the kindness of strangers his mind is active despite a frail body.

I, his baby brother age seventy-six, am his power-of-attorney and speak to him as often as I possibly can.

Yesterday I spoke to him early in the day, and he was completely dispirited.

“Babe,” he said, “I can’t bare it any more. That horrible incident in Oregon crushes me. Would you do me a favor? Would you write something that I have been preaching for decades now?”

“I’ll do anything I can for you,” I answered.

“Maybe you could send it to the Op-Ed page of The New York Times or The Saturday Review?,” he said.

“The Saturday Review is not likely, Frank,” I said without explaining. “But I will send whatever you say to The Times.”


“This is what I want to say,” he said.

For years now teachers have been asking students, children, to recite The Pledge of Allegiance To The Flag Of The United States Of America. As worthy an impulse as that might be, it is nothing to the children. It is a fraud. They don’t really know what they are pledging allegiance to, because they are asked to honor a symbol rather than the real thing, an image only. What makes our united states The United States of America is the constitution, and what defines the constitution is The Preamble. The children should be asked every day of their lives, not just their school lives, to recite that preamble. It is just a few lines:

WE THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES,
IN ORDER TO FORM A MORE PERFECT UNION,
ESTABLISH JUSTICE,
INSURE DOMESTIC TRANQUILITY,
PROVIDE FOR THE COMMON DEFENSE,
PROMOTE THE GENERAL WELFARE,
AND SECURE THE BLESSINGS OF LIBERTY
TO OURSELVES AND OUR POSTERITY,
DO ORDAIN AND ESTABLISH THIS CONSTITUTION
FOR THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

Therein rest the values and responsibilities of all our citizens and residents. The teachers should teach each individual phrase so that the young can know and understand what the heart of this nation is, and what their responsibilities are. They have to be taught what is expected of them — no alibis or excuses. No child asked to pledge allegiance is too small or too young to understand each syllable of that preamble if the teachers will take the trouble to understand it themselves, and then communicate that understanding to their charges. Rose Lee and I have no children, Howard, but you have children and grandchildren, and you can’t afford to let that fundamental principle of this society go unattended. Will you do that for me?

At the end of the phone conversation, I was reminded of a moment in Boston in 1954 or thereabouts when Robert Frost came to the Ford Forum, and before he began to “say” his poems, asked the audience to indulge him in a response to Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Frost said he didn’t know precisely to whom he should be loyal: San Francisco, where he was born? New Hampshire where he spent so much of his young life? New England which he considered his hunting ground? The Eastern Seaboard? The United States? The Western Hemisphere?

Frost said that such a question reminded him of an ancient Asian story about a child who confronted his father with that very question, “To whom should I be loyal?” The father answered, “You should honor your mother and father, and their mothers and fathers, and the mothers and fathers before them.” The child asked, “But suppose my mother and father are wrong?” The father answered, “Tell them.”

I have told them, Frank. I hope they heard you.

Howard Stein
Professor Emeritus
Columbia University

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