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Backstory: Is America pledging less?

The schoolkid's mantra is more legally mandated than ever, but recited less than ever.

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A familiar "Good morning" rings over the Hansen School loudspeaker, calling the children of Claire Lund's first grade class to their feet. Ms. Lund reminds her pack of 6- and 7-year-olds to place their pint-sized paws over their hearts, face the stars and stripes, and pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

It's a slice of Americana: Little kids mangling big words as they're introduced to the patriotic principles of liberty, allegiance, and an indivisible republic.

It's also an American ritual: Every morning, kids from kindergarten to high school recite the 31-word salute.

Or do they?

A generation ago, it was nearly impossible to get through the American public school system without learning the oath – and equally impossible to forget it after so much practice.

Today, though, ask kids if they know the pledge and you're increasingly likely to get a blank stare. Veronica Baccki, a talkative second-grader in a Needham, Mass., public school flies through "of the United States of America" just fine. But then there's a long pause. She stares at the ceiling with her mouth open, then gives an embarrassed smile and covers her eyes, working to summon the next line.

"We learned what the pledge means, but it was a while ago and I forgot," she says, regaining her confidence after finally puttering to the pledge's end. "Some people in my class forget the words too. They look at the signs in the front of the room with words on it. Even some fifth-graders [who lead the rest of the school] will sing it and forget."

But fifth-graders aren't the only big kids scratching their heads. Ask the under-30 crowd to recite the pledge, and you might get an embarrassed petering out at around "... for which it stands."

So is the pledge fading into folklore? Waning like the words of the national anthem?

"Certainly since the Vietnam War, the pledge has decreased in influence and meaning," says Bruce Schulman, a professor of modern American history at Boston University. "A lot of 20- and 30-year-olds can't even recite it now."

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