A Difficult Decision

As a high school student, I had to sign a loyalty oath to get my diploma.

Posted Apr 10, 2019

In the fall of 1960, my father told me, “You can go to any college you want—City College, Brooklyn College, Queens College. It’s up to you.” What he meant was that these tuition-free colleges were all our family could afford.

Following an older friend’s advice, I applied to CCNY, where he was already a student. I was accepted and ready to begin in the spring. Shortly before the end of the term, my homeroom teacher presented a loyalty oath for me to sign.

At that time such pledges were fairly commonplace throughout the country, ever since the Red Scare at the end of WWI and crescendoing during the McCarthy period of the 1950s. Many teachers, government employees, and even those in private businesses were required to publicly declare their fealty to the government as a condition of employment.

Despite the widespread use of such pledges, I really hadn’t given them any thought. So being asked to sign a pledge came as a surprise to me. Not my older brother, not my friend, not a single person had said anything about the oath. Only years later did I learn that, in fact, the oath was an issue for some of my classmates. In a commemorative book for my school, I read that the administration had censored articles against the signing a loyalty oath in our school newspaper.

New York City’s oath-signing requirement for a diploma began in 1935. As a contemporaneous article in the Vassar Miscellany News explained, “A diploma will be denied to any high school student who refuses to take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution of the United States and the State of New York.” The article continued, “Although the Board of Education does not have the power to refuse a regent’s certificate to a student who has satisfactorily passed their examinations, the right to obtain a diploma has been reserved for those who ‘comply with the conditions prescribed by the Board of education,’ according to the New York Herald-Tribune.”

I read what my teacher had put before me. I hesitated for a moment before returning it to him. When I did, I said, “I’m not going to sign this.”

Surprised by my response and realizing that I was serious, he said, “You have to!”

“No, I don’t,” I replied.

I think my impertinence was inspired by the unruly graduation ceremony of the previous class. Students heckled and hissed our unpopular principal who, in turn, canceled the event on the spot, sending students home without their diplomas. They had to return later to pick them up from the school’s office. The ruckus was a Page One feature story in the NY Times.

The day after my passive protest I was summoned by the dean’s office to meet with my college advisor. “If you don’t sign,” the big man with the deep voice warned, “you won’t receive your diploma. I see you’ve applied to City College.”

“I’ve already been accepted,” I said proudly.

“City College requires a diploma. You’ll graduate from Stuyvesant, but you’ll receive a certificate, not a diploma. Sign it or City College will withdraw your acceptance. A certificate isn’t good enough.”

I sat there silently. I hadn’t expected this.

“Tell me. Why won’t you sign?”

When I recovered my voice, I said that it made no sense. If I was loyal, signing a piece of paper was unnecessary. If I wasn’t loyal, I’d quickly sign as a way of deflecting my disloyalty. It proves nothing.

“You stand to pledge allegiance every morning in the classroom, don’t you?”

“That’s different,” I responded, not sure exactly why it was but it felt that way. It also felt different than my participation in another absurd requirement: a swim class although we didn’t have a pool.

“It isn’t up to students to decide which rules to follow,” he chided. “What I’m telling you, and I don’t know how to make this any stronger, if you want to go to a city college, you must sign.”

He put the paper in front of me. I gave some thought, then left his office without signing.

Over the weekend, I ruminated on my defiance, keeping it from my parents, not discussing it with anyone.

The Miscellany News says that as far as the New York City superintendent of schools knew “the issue was an entirely theoretical one; no cases of American citizens refusing to take the oath of loyalty had been brought to his attention. He said he couldn’t see why a student receiving an education from the government should refuse to take the loyalty oath; he considers a student who persists in not signing to be one of bad character.”

My refusal wasn’t theoretical for me, and the superintendent was wrong about the nature of someone who wouldn’t sign. I appreciated my public education and looked forward to more of it at CCNY. A forced statement of loyalty and appreciation for what the government had given me weren’t the same thing. Neither did I think my character was wanting. Rejecting the oath wasn’t teenage rebelliousness. While my reason may not have been the greatest ethical principle, as it wasn’t a matter of moral conviction but a concern for my integrity, at least it was reasonably motivated. I was taking a stance against meaningless rules, a petty tyranny. If that meant confronting authority figures who promoted such claptrap, then I was doing the right thing.   

On Monday, when I returned to school, I told my homeroom teacher that I was ready to sign. Losing the opportunity to go to college was simply too steep a price to pay. Putting my objection aside, I capitulated and scribbled my signature. 

As I reflect on my few days of minor defiance, I regret that I lacked sufficient nerve to see my protest through. I wonder if I was what Thomas Paine, the Revolutionary pamphleteer, called a ‘summer soldier’ and ‘sunshine patriot.’ It was easy for me to take a stance when I didn’t know there was a steep price to pay, but when confronted with not going to college, I caved.

To this day I wish I had had more courage, or at least had held out a bit longer. I say this, in part, because New York rescinded the requirement just a few months later and my classmates who graduated that June weren’t presented with the loyalty oath. Whether I gave in out of cowardice or prudence I’ll never know.

Would I do it again, if I had the chance? I think I’d probably make the same decision. The potential loss would likely be too great for such a small victory. There were other outcomes possible, but I can never know what lay down the road I didn’t take. Another university may have offered a scholarship, for example, and my life could have turned out just as well.

If a student came to me today seeking my advice when faced with a similar dilemma, I would ask at least the following questions: What are you fighting for; what do you hope to accomplish; is there a more effective way to achieve your goal; are others willing to join you; what do you stand to lose; are the possible negative consequences proportionate to the goal?

Sometimes the price paid in taking a moral stance is too great. But to say this raises some fundamental moral questions, such as: what ethical principles do you hold most dear, what good can come from your action, and will you be proud of what you have done? When is self-protection justified, when if self-sacrifice morally required?