Director’s Note: What Should Be Part of a Patriotic Education?

November 2, 2020

Some of the participants in the sixth installment of the ‘Civic Conversations’ program series, which took place virtually over Zoom.

This conversation focused on a topic that was inspired by the President’s recent declaration that he was establishing a project to create a patriotic educational curriculum for the United States. The President did not elaborate on what he wished to see, but did suggest that he wanted American educators to focus less on America’s flaws, and more on its greatness. What does this mean, we decided to ask. What should it mean?

The group started by exploring what exactly patriotism is, and this issue really defined the conversation as a whole. We began with pride; pride in our country and our culture, suggested the first conversant. But it was also suggested, that pride cannot really be based on an incomplete picture of who we are. It must rather come out of a comprehensive and complete view. In a country that claims to be founded on ideals, our intentions matter, but our failures to meet them must also be examined. Asked if one can criticize our county and still be patriotic, one participant suggested that not only was the answer yes, but critique was a necessary component of patriotism. It was clear that those who feel this way often also feel accused of not being patriotic by others.

We talked about the emotion-based modes of patriotism: love and/or passion, which some feel and others, frankly, do not. Not unrelated to this was a consideration of how connection to place plays a role in patriotism. “What’s love got to do with it?” one asked. “We are a nation of consent, not descent.” It was suggested that we are a nation not tied together by our blood ties, or a long relationship with the land (most of us), but rather by our agreement to be here and abide by our laws and norms. Passion and a display of enthusiasm is one modality of patriotism, affirmative consent to our civic structures is another.

We talked about the distinction between the nation (its land and people) and the state (the government). One may have allegiance to either, or both, or neither. For the original inhabitants of this land, suggested a participant who is of Narragansett Nation heritage, the connection is to the land, and not necessarily the state. One participant opined that while most of us are not tied to this place by generations of residency, knowing and connecting to our history is something any immigrant can do – making that “deeper” relationship with place possible for anyone.

We also talked about the difference between patriotism and nationalism, with nationalism potentially defined as exclusive, focused on delimiting who is and is not American, while patriotism is potentially more open, flexible and less easy to define. It was suggested that when you decide how another American expresses his patriotism, you are potentially doing that person harm.

Nationalism, some thought, is what we are displaying when we aggressively wave the flag, and when a sense of place gets associated with whiteness, or the native-born, or Christianity. Nationalism is what is expressed when one hears “you are not patriotic if you do not stand for the pledge.”

As we moved to think about the idea of teaching patriotism, it seemed clear that both the sources and the setting for “teaching,” or “generating” patriotism is not just the schools. A participant whose origins include African descent pointed out that pride in history, country and place were transmitted within their family, and this is true for the First Peoples as well –values are generated and taught within the family and the cultural group. In fact, in recent history, what is taught in school to populations of color may be anti-incentives to patriotism, as the dominant narrative either omits or vilifies them. In addition, the state itself, separate from schooling, seeks to generate patriotism through displays, rituals and public monuments. But is this patriotism or nationalism?

We asked ourselves specifically what we need young people to know in order to be “citizens, not subjects” of this state. Critical thinking and the ability to analyze and evaluate ideas and sources was the first thing cited. The importance of understanding America’s place in the world, and in history, was emphasized by one participant. We cannot cultivate a sense of true pride in who we are if we only look inward. Another suggested that especially with school-aged kids, we do need to start local and move outward. A local perspective can be a tool for engaging people when the world seems far away and less immediate.

One participant jumped back to ask, “why do/would we teach patriotism?” Why don’t we just concentrate on teaching the facts? Thinking about patriotism as we teach creates the capacity to “weaponize” teaching. Is it done to make the public compliant, to force a perspective onto people instead of allowing them to evaluate? These remarks led to a discussion of the idea of American exceptionalism, which has been a component of our education, and is likely a part of what the President, and others, have in mind when they think about patriotic education. American exceptionalism is a dangerous idea, said more than one participant. It is an unexamined myth about us, and needs to be “picked apart” in an educational process, otherwise we are simply indoctrinating.

The question of exceptionalism lead to a great deal of conversation. No element of America’s government or history is entirely unique, suggested one participant, and the notion that it is, and in particular that this is tied to some divine grace, is entirely mythological. It was also noted that the white supremacy that has been tied to the idea of American exceptionalism has not been helpful to national unity – or a shared sense of patriotism.

But this notion is connected to one of the big arguments that is happening in the country at large today, and one participant put this on the table. If you don’t believe that America is special, does that mean you think it is unredeemable, or not worthy of allegiance? Does it then become just the sum of the worst things it has ever done? And what does that imply about your loyalty as an American — an aspect of patriotism that became one of our final notes. What are we loyal to, if indeed we are loyal to America? The suggestion that rejecting the idea of American goodness means believing in the opposite – believing in America’s essential badness – was rejected by two speakers. It is, and this conversation was, it was suggested, much more nuanced than that.

This conversation was lively and engaging, and almost everyone present had something to say. The threads of the conversation highlighted how many of us think about the country, our various cultures and our communities, and our place within these circles of association. As always, I hope that these shared views were useful and illuminating.

This will be the last Civic Conversation of 2020. We will begin again early in the new year, following an historic election, and likely still in the midst of a pandemic. I look forward to seeing you all again.


Banner: Collins, Marjory, photographer. New York, New York students pledging allegiance to the flag in public school eight in an Italian-American section. New York New York State New York. United States, 1943. Jan. Photograph.