should we teach patriotism?

I suspect that most Americans want schools to teach patriotism. However, experts on education are, for the most part, leery of this goal. In a CIRCLE working paper (pdf), William Damon writes:

The final, and most serious, problem that I will mention has to do with the capacity for positive feelings towards one society, with a sense of attachment, a sense of affiliation, a sense of purpose fostered by one’s role as citizen. This is an emotional capacity that, since the time of the ancient Greeks, has been known as patriotism. This is not a familiar word in most educational circles. In fact, I would guess that patriotism is the most politically-incorrect word in education today. If you think it’s hard to talk about morality and values in schools, try talking about patriotism. You really can’t get away with it without provoking an argument or, at the least, a curt change of subject. Teachers too often confuse a patriotic love of country with the kind of militaristic chauvinism that 20th Century dictators used to justify warfare and manipulate their own masses. They do not seem to realize that it was the patriotic resistance to these dictatorships, by citizens of democratic republics such as our own, that saved the world from tyranny in the past century and is the best hope of doing so in the future.

Along similar lines, Harry Brighouse quotes a British official, Nick Tate, who complains about his experience on a UK curriculum committee: “There was such a widespread association between national identity, patriotism, xenophobia, and racism that it was impossible to talk about the first two without being accused of the rest.” The Civic Mission of Schools report (a consensus statement that I helped to organize) does not use the word “patriotism.”

The question can be divided into two parts: Is patriotism a desirable attitude? Is it an attitude that should be promoted by public schools? I would answer both questions with a qualified yes.

Patriotism is love of country. For most people, it is not a passionate and exclusive and life-altering love. It’s more like love for a blood-relative, perhaps an aunt. It doesn’t involve choice. It doesn’t require a tremendously high estimate of the object’s intrinsic qualities. (You may admire Mother Theresa more than your Aunt Theresa, but it is the latter you love.) It implies a sense of obligation, including an obligation to understand and be interested in the object. It also implies a sense of entitlement: you can expect your own aunt, or your nation, to help you in ways that others need not. Both the obligation and the entitlement arise because of a sense of identification, a “we-ness,” a seeing of yourself in the object and vice-versa.

I think that people should love large human communities in this way. You may put your family first, but to love only them is too exclusive. Loving all of humankind is good, but it doesn’t mean the same thing as love for a concrete object. For instance, you cannot have an obligation to know many details about humankind.

A nation works as an object of love. One can identify with it and feel consequent obligations and entitlements, including the obligation to know its history, culture, constitution, and geography. Love for a country inspires, enlarges one’s sympathies, and gives one a sense of support and solidarity. I would not claim that these moral advantages follow only from loving a country. One can also love world Jewry, one’s city, or one’s fellow Rotarians. But love of country has some particular advantages:

1. Patriotism promotes participation in national politics, including such acts as voting, joining national social movements, litigating in federal court, and enlisting in the military or serving in the civil service. In turn, broad participation makes national politics work better and more justly. And national politics is important, because national institutions have supremacy. A system that devolved more power to localities would need less national participation, and hence less patriotism. But it would have its own disadvantages.

2. Patriotism is a flexible concept, subject to fruitful debate. Consider what love of America meant for Woody Guthrie, Francis Bellamy (the Christian socialist author of the Pledge of Allegiance), Frederick Douglass (author of a great 1852 Independence Day speech), Nathan Hale, Presidents Lincoln and Reagan, J. Edgar Hoover, Saul Bellow, or Richard Rorty. All these men believed that they could make effective political arguments by citing–and redefining–patriotic sentiments. One could argue that their rhetoric obfuscated: they should have defended their core values without mixing in patriotic sentiments. Brighouse complains (p. 105) that patriotism can be “used to interrupt the flow of free and rational political debate within a country.” But I am not so much of a rationalist as to believe that there exist stand-alone arguments for all moral principles. Rather, reasonable political debate involves allusions and reinterpretions of shared traditions; and patriotism provides a rich and diverse store.

3. It seems to me that a democratic government can legitimately decide to instill love of country, whereas it cannot legitimately make people love world Jewry or the Rotary Club. Local democratic governments can also promote love of their own local communities, and that is common enough–but it doesn’t negate the right of a national democracy to promote patriotism.

4. Patriotism has a role in a theory of human development that Damon has elsewhere defended. (See W. Damon. “Restoring Civil Identity Among the Young,” in Making Good Citizens, ed. D. Ravitch and J. Viteritti. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001). This theory holds that being strongly attached to a community or nation as a child increases the odds that you will care enough about it to scrutinize it critically when you become a young adult. In my own case, as a young boy in the Nixon era, I thought G-Men were heroes and wanted to be one. Now I am a strong civil libertarian. I believe my initial attachment to the US has kept me from simply withdrawing from it, like Robertson Jeffers. However, I’m just one person–and a white, male, middle-class person who has been treated justly by the state. Damon’s developmental theory may not work as well for children who face evident injustice.

Thus, as a moral sentiment, patriotism has benefits. However, it can also encourage exclusivity or an illegitimate preference for one’s fellow citizens over other human beings. Like all forms of love, it can blind you to faults. These problems are serious, but they can be addressed. After all, some forms of American patriotism identify our particular nation with inclusiveness and the fair treatment of foreign countries.

The teaching of patriotism in public schools raises special problems, several of which Harry Brighouse explores in chapter V of On Education. Here I mention the two most serious concerns:

1. Legitimate government rests on the sincere or authentic consent of the governed. If the state uses its great power over public school students to promote love of itself, that consent is inauthentic. Brighouse (p. 109): “the education system is an agent of the state; if we allow the state to use that system to produce sentiments in the populace which are designed to win consent for it, it thereby taints whatever consent it subsequently enjoys as being non-legitimizing.”

This is a serious concern, requiring constant vigilance; but I believe it should be put in context. Schools do not have a monopoly on students’ attention. They compete against politicians (many of whom love to denounce the national government), religious leaders (who believe that true sovereignty is God’s), and big commercial advertisers (who promote consumption instead of political engagement). Within schools there are plenty of teachers and administrators who hold negative views of the national government. I think the dangers of brainwashing are slight, and it’s helpful to present students with an ideal–patriotism in its various forms–that they and their teachers can argue with.

2. A patriotic presentation of history requires whitewashing and distorting the truth about what happened and why. For instance (p. 112) “an educator who has anywhere in her mind the purposes of instilling love of country will have a hard time teaching about the causal process which led up to the Civil War in the US.” That’s because pursuit of the truth requires one to consider that the Civil War was perhaps faught for economic reasons–a dispiriting thought for a patriot. Likewise, Brighouse thinks that textbooks depict Rosa Parks as a “tired seamstress” instead of a “political agitator” because the former view (while false) better supports patriotism (p. 113).

Obviously, Brighouse has a point–but a close look at his cases shows how complicated the issue is. For example, as an American patriot, I find it deeply moving that Rosa Parks was trained at the Highlander Folk School, whose founder, Miles Horton, was inspired by Jane Addams, whose father, John (double-D) Addams was a young colleague and follower of Abe Lincoln in the Illinois State Legislature. That’s only one lineage and heritage in the story of Rosa Parks. It is, however, a deeply American and patriotically “Whiggish” one–and it’s truer than the clich? of a tired seamstress. It connects Parks to the profound patriotism of Lincoln (who redefined the American past at Gettysburg) and the pacifist patriotism of Jane Addams.

In any case, why study Parks at all unless one has a special attachment to the United States? If the issue is simply nonviolence, then one should study Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still very much alive and in need of support. I think every young American should know the true story of Rosa Parks, and my reasons are essentially patriotic.

To put the matter more generally: history should be taught truthfully, but it must also be taught selectively. There is no such thing as a neutral or truly random selection of topics. Selecting topics in order to promote patriotism seems fine to me, as long as the love-of-country that we promote is a realistic one with ethical limitations.

Finally, the causal mechanisms here are a little unpredictable. Ham-fisted efforts to make kids patriotic can backfire. But rigorous investigations of history can make kids patriotic. I always think of my own experience helping local students (all children of color) conduct oral-history interviews about segregation in their own school system. They learned that people like them had been deliberately excluded for generations. They took away the lesson that their schools were worth fighting over, that kids could play an active role in history, and that their community was interesting. One girl told a friend from the more affluent neighboring county, “You have the Mall, but we have the history!”

Again, the purpose of our lesson was not simply to teach historical truth and method, but also to increase students’ attachment to a community. We were like educators who try to inculcate patriotism, except that we were interested in a county rather than the nation. Our pedagogy involved helping kids to uncover a history of injustice. The result was an increase in local attachment. The moral is that truth and patriotism may have a complex and contingent relationship, but they are not enemies.

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  • It’s worth distinguishing between “patriotism” and “nationalism” in this conversation. Having a public education system that instilled nationalism would probably be a bad idea. But patriotism, understood as the desire to do right by one’s country, has high positive value. See “Patriotism and Nationalism” by Matthew Yglesias.

    There’s no need for a K-12 patriotism-centered history curriculum to completely whitewash US history. After all, there aren’t many good ways to whitewash slavery and Jim Crow. But the important thing, from a teaching patriotism, is that the country eventually makes things right, because the public wants their country to Do The Right Thing. You can easily have a patriotic curriculum that soft-pedals the bad stuff in the early years, to help instill a positive vision of the country, and then cover the rougher periods in more detail at the high school years.

  • Peter Levine

    From Eric Witte, via email:

    The US Founders shared one thing in common: they all betrayed their country, England. How exactly do we promote loyalty to a country that was founded on the principle that we should cherish principle above loyalty to country? At least to an American, it is hard to overlook this conflict.

    And if we teach principles ? equality before the law, ruling by the consent of the governed, accountability to the public, etc. ? do we really need to teach patriotism? Can we not let each student draw her own conclusions about the importance of mutual aid and civic participation?

    I?d like to think so. But I acknowledge that this philosophical question is influenced by two factual questions: What is the role of emotion in education? And how much “social cohesion” do we need for self-preservation?

    I suspect that emotion has an irreducible place in education. I forget facts, but I remember stories that pit “us” good guys against “them” bad guys. (E.g., colonists resisting king?s taxation without representation.) The story helps me remember the facts. Only later do I try to shrug off the story so that I can analyze the facts from other points of view. (E.g., king taxed colonists to defray cost of defending them during the French & Indian Wars; king could have taxed people in England to cover this debt, but that would have meant taxing the relatively poor people in England for the benefit of the relatively rich people in the colonies.) Does education really require emotion-laden, us-vs-them stories? And if so, are there any less pernicious ways of defining “us” than by nationality?

    How much cohesion do we require as a nation? To me, a divided society is a healthy society. During the 2000 elections, the US is about as divided as it gets. Dissent was everywhere. The news reflected concerns that “racial profiling” was violating individual?s rights. Following the attacks of 9/11/01, in contrast, the US was largely united. We adopted the Patriot Act, people began being arrested and held without charge indefinitely, and concerns about racial profiling evaporated. We patriotically rallied to promote the collective interests of society, even at the cost of individual interests.

    Patriotic rallying looks like an adaptive response to threat, but a maladaptive attribute otherwise. How little patriotism can we get away with to ensure an adequate supply during emergencies, but no more than an adequate supply?

  • Peter Levine

    From Andrew Olmsted, via email:

    I’d like to respond to Eric Witte’s claim about the U.S. Founders. While in a legal sense it may be true that the Founders rebelled against their country, they did not see themselves as citizens of England any longer, but as citizens of America. (I believe it was Franklin who, when told he was English, responded that while an ox might appreciate being called a bull, he’d much rather have restored what is rightfully his.) The Founders considered the actions of Great Britain to have severed their claim to the citizens of the Americas and that, de facto, the Founders were now members of a new nation. So I’m not sure that patriotism and our history necessarily must be opposed, particularly in view of the fact that America is unlike any other nation in that we ultimately revolve around certain ideas rather than geography or ethnicity. Witte has a valid point, that teaching certain principles is an important part of education, but I’m not sure that such teachings are at odds with patriotism. Certainly what I love about America is as much its potential as its reality; who among us doesn’t see things about America that we think don’t live up to our idealized view of what America should be. Indeed, that’s why I don’t think that teaching about our failures should take away from patriotism: our failures and our eventual overcoming of those failures are an important part of who we are as a people, and serve as an important reminder of what we can do to contribute to our country.

    I appreciate your interesting take on this issue, and I’ll look forward to seeing what else you may have to say on it in the future.