Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
February 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 5

Thinking About Patriotism

To prepare students to participate in civic life, we must teach them the skills of analysis and exploration, free political expression, and independent thought.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Thinking About Patriotism- thumbnail
Nine of 10 Americans agree with the statement "I am very patriotic" (Doherty, 2007). More than seven of 10 U.S. high school seniors report that they would be offended by someone carrying on a conversation while the national anthem was being played (Hamilton College, 2003). Statistics like these suggest that Americans are in harmony about the idea of patriotism.
But patriotism is never simple. Although many people describe themselves as patriotic, the easy consensus disappears when we ask them what the term means. Some believe that patriotism requires near-absolute loyalty to government leaders and policies. Others see patriotism as commitment not to the government, but rather to such democratic ideals as equality, compassion, and justice. Still others advocate a healthy skepticism toward governmental actions in general, but prefer to close the ranks during times of war or national crisis. Indeed, there are as many ways to express our commitment to country as there are ways to show our commitment to loved ones or friends.
Nowhere are the debates around the various visions of patriotism more pointed, more protracted, and more consequential than in our schools. In Madison, Wisconsin, the parent community erupted in fierce debate over a new law requiring schools to post American flags in each classroom and to lead students in either pledging allegiance or listening to the national anthem each day (Ladson-Billings, 2006). In Detroit, Michigan, a student was repeatedly suspended, first for wearing a T-shirt with an upside-down American flag and then for wearing a sweatshirt with an antiwar quotation by Albert Einstein, before the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a civil liberties suit resulting in the student's reinstatement (ACLU, 2004). And in Virginia, House Bill 1912, which would have required schools to notify parents any time a student declined to recite or stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, passed the House of Delegates with a 93–4 vote before being defeated in the State Senate (Virginia Legislative Assembly, 2005).
As these and many other stories make clear, patriotism is highly contested territory, especially when it comes to the daily activities of school-children. Yet public schools in a democratic society have a particular obligation to provide students with opportunities to think deeply about issues of public importance. So it seems fitting to ask, What and how should we teach students about patriotism? How can we best prepare them to participate in the civic life of their community and nation?

Two Kinds of Patriotism

If you stepped into a school at a moment of patriotic expression, how could you tell whether you were in a totalitarian nation or a democratic one? Both the totalitarian nation and the democratic one might have students sing a national anthem. You might hear a hip-hip-hooray kind of cheer for our land emanating from the assembly hall of either school. Flags and symbols of national pride might be front and center in each school. And the students of each school might observe a moment of silence for members of their country's armed forces who had been killed in combat.
But how would the lessons on patriotism in the democratic nation be unique? What should schools in the United States ask students to consider that schools in China, North Korea, or Iran would not?
Social theorists differentiate betweenauthoritarian patriotism and democratic patriotism (Lummis, 1996; Westheimer, 2007). Although either might employ familiar rituals to foster a sense of belonging and attachment, authoritarian patriotism demands unquestioning loyalty to a centralized leader or leading group. We would not be surprised to learn, for example, that North Korean children are taught to abide by an "official history" handed down by President Kim Jong-il and his single-party regime. Political scientist Douglas Lummis (1996) notes that authoritarian patriotism represents "a resigning of one's will, right of choice, and need to understand to the authority; its emotional base is gratitude for having been liberated from the burden of democratic responsibility" (p. 37). A school curriculum that teaches one unified, unquestioned version of "truth" is one of the hallmarks of a totalitarian society.
One would reasonably expect to see a different picture in U.S. schools. Democratic patriotism entails commitment not necessarily to government institutions, but rather to the people, principles, and values that underlie democracy— such as political participation, free speech, civil liberties, and social equality. Schools might develop students' democratic patriotism, at least in part, through lessons in analysis and exploration, free political expression, and independent thought. And U.S. schools often support democratic dispositions in just such ways.
But patriotism in U.S. classrooms does not always conform to democratic goals and ideals. Tensions abound, and in recent years independent thinking has increasingly come under attack. If being a good U.S. citizen requires thinking critically about important social assumptions, then that foundation of citizenship is at odds with recent trends in education policy.

No Child Left Thinking

In the past five years, dozens of school boards, districts, states, and the federal government have enacted policies that seek to restrict critical analysis of historical and contemporary events in the school curriculum. In June 2006, Florida passed a law that included language specifying that "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable." Other provisions in the bill mandate "flag education, including proper flag display and flag salute" and require educators to stress the importance of free enterprise to the U.S. economy. But I am most concerned that the bill's designers view historical literacy as the teaching of facts. For example, the bill requires that only facts be taught when it comes to discussing the "period of discovery" and the early American colonies. Florida is perhaps the first state to ban historical interpretation in public schools, thereby effectively outlawing critical thinking.
Of course, historians almost universally regard history as exactly a matter of interpretation. Indeed, the competing interpretations are what make history so interesting. Historians and educators alike have widely derided the mandated adherence to an "official story" embodied in the Florida legislation (Craig, 2006; Zimmerman, 2006). But the effect of such mandates should not be underestimated—especially because Florida is not alone.
The drive to engage schools in reinforcing a unilateral understanding of U.S. history and policy—reflecting a "my country right or wrong" stance— shows no sign of abating. For example, Nebraska's state board of education specified that the high school social studies curriculum should include "instruction in … the benefits and advantages of our government, the dangers of communism and similar ideologies" as well as "exploits and deeds of American heroes, singing patriotic songs, memorizing 'The Star Spangled Banner' and 'America,' and reverence for the flag" (Westheimer & Kahne, 2003).
The federal role in discouraging critical analysis of historical events has been significant as well. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Education announced a new set of history and civic education initiatives that President George W. Bush said was designed to teach our children that "America is a force for good in the world, bringing hope and freedom to other people" (Bush, 2002). Similarly, in 2004, Senator Lamar Alexander (former U.S. secretary of education) warned that students should not be exposed to competing ideologies in historical texts but should be instructed that the United States represents one true ideology. Alexander sponsored his American History and Civics Education Act to put civics back in its "rightful place in our schools, so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American" (Alexander, 2003).
I focus on history teaching here, but the trend is not limited to social studies. In many states, virtually every subject area is under scrutiny for any deviation from one single narrative based on knowable, testable, and purportedly uncontested facts. An English teacher in a recent study undertaken by my colleagues and myself told us that even novel reading was now prescriptive in her state's rubric with meanings predetermined, vocabulary words pre-selected, and essay topics predigested. A science teacher put it this way: "The only part of the science curriculum now being critically analyzed is evolution."
As many people have observed, the high-stakes testing mandated by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has further pushed to the margins education efforts to challenge students to grapple with tough questions about society and the world. In a recent study by the Center on Education Policy (Rentner et al., 2006), 71 percent of districts reported cutting back time for other subjects—social studies in particular—to make more space for reading and math instruction. Last June, historian David McCullough told a U.S. Senate committee that because of NCLB, "history is being put on the back burner or taken off the stove altogether in many or most schools" (Dillon, 2006). An increasing number of students are getting little to no education about how government works, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the evolution of social movements, and U.S. and world history. As Peter Campbell (2006), Missouri state coordinator for FairTest, noted,The sociopolitical implications of poor black and Hispanic children not learning about the Civil Rights movement, not learning about women's suffrage, not learning about the U.S. Civil War, and not learning about any historical or contemporary instance of civil disobedience is more than just chilling. It smacks of an Orwellian attempt not merely to rewrite history, but to get rid of it.
The implications Campbell describes are not limited to poor black and Hispanic students. Any student being denied knowledge about historical events and social movements misses out on important opportunities to link his or her patriotic attachments with quintessentially American experiences of struggles for a better society for all.

Let's Talk Facts

The most common criticism of educators who seek to teach students to think and interpret information is that they have no respect for facts, rigor, and standards. Somehow, critics have become convinced that those who say they want students to think for themselves do not care whether students can read, write, or perform addition or subtraction. This is nonsense. But many educators do want students to know more than facts and formulas. They want the knowledge that students acquire to be embedded in the service of something bigger. It is not enough for students to learn how to read; they also need to learn to decide what is worth reading and why. In other words, they need to learn how to think.
Proponents of "factual" history also rapidly lose interest in facts when those facts call into question the "one true story." As an example, we can look at the history of the United States' most revered patriotic symbols and rituals. Although millions of schoolchildren recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day, few know many facts about its author. Francis Bellamy, author of the original 1892 pledge (which did not contain any reference to God), was highly critical of many trends of late 19th-century American life, most notably unrestrained capitalism and growing individualism. He wanted the United States to reflect basic democratic values, such as equality of opportunity, and he worked openly to have his country live up to its democratic ideals.
Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor and poet at Wellesley College, wrote the lyrics to "America the Beautiful," including the words "America! America! God mend thine every flaw!" Bellamy, Bates, and many like-minded reformers throughout U.S. history asserted their patriotism by strongly proclaiming their belief in democratic values, such as free speech, civil liberties, greater participation in politics, and social and economic equality (Dreier & Flacks, 2007).
Yet schools have become increasingly oriented away from the kinds of thinking these historical figures advocated and toward pedagogical models of efficiency that discourage deeper consideration of important ideas. The relentless focus on testing means that time for in-depth critical analysis of ideas is diminished. Social studies scholar Stephen Thornton (2005) notes that by "critical thinking," school officials too often mean that students should passively absorb as "truth" the thinking already completed by someone else. Current school reform policies and classroom practices often reduce teaching and learning to the kind of mindless rule-following that leaves students unable to make principled stands that have long been associated with being American. The hidden curriculum of post-NCLB schooling is how to please authority and pass the tests, not how to develop convictions and stand up for them.

Teaching About Patriotism

There are many varied and powerful ways to teach a democratic form of patriotism aimed at improving people's lives (see "Online Resources for Teaching Democratic Patriotism"). Longtime teacher Brian Schultz's inspiring efforts with his 5th grade class in Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project area included having his students conduct research on improving conditions in their own neighborhood, especially with regard to broken promises to build a new school. His students studied historical approaches to change and, rejecting passivity, demonstrated a deep attachment to their community and neighbors (Schultz, 2007).
Bob Peterson, a one-time Wisconsin Elementary Teacher of the Year, worked with his students at La Escuela Fratney in Madison to examine the full spectrum of ideological positions that emerged following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Instead of avoiding the challenging questions his 5th grade students posed, Peterson encouraged them, placing a notebook prominently at the front of the classroom labeled "Questions That We Have." As the students discussed their questions and the unfolding current events, Peterson repeatedly asked students to consider their responsibilities to one another, to their communities, and to the world. Through poetry (Langston Hughes's "Let America Be America Again"); historical readings (the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the 1918 Sedition Act); and current events (photographs of September 11 memorial gatherings, protests in the United States and abroad, newspaper editorials), Peterson allowed students to explore political events surrounding the September 11 attacks and their effect on American patriotism and democracy (Peterson, 2007; Westheimer, 2007).
El Puente Academy in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, ties the entire school curriculum to students' and teachers' concerns about the community. Named a New York City School of Excellence, El Puente boasts a 90 percent graduation rate in an area where schools usually see only 50 percent of their students graduate in four years. El Puente principal Héctor Calderón attributes the school's success to a curriculum that engages students in efforts to realize American ideals of justice and equality, reverse the cycle of poverty and violence, and work toward change in their own neighborhood. Students study environmental hazards in the area, not only because they care about the health of the natural environment, but also because these hazards directly affect the health of the community to which they are deeply committed.
In one unit, students surveyed the community to chart levels of asthma and identify families affected by the disease. Their report became the first by a community organization to be published in a medical journal. Students and teachers also successfully fought a 55-story incinerator that was proposed for their neighborhood (Gonzales, 1995; North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2000; Westheimer, 2005).
These approaches to teaching about patriotism share several characteristics. First, teachers encourage students to ask questions rather than absorb pat answers—to think about their attachments and commitments to their local, national, and global communities. Second, teachers provide students with the information (including competing narratives) they need to think about patriotism in substantive ways. Third, they root instruction in local contexts, working within their own specific surroundings and circumstances because we cannot teach democratic patriotism without paying attention to the environment in which we are teaching it. This last point makes standardized testing difficult to reconcile with in-depth thinking about patriotism.

An Invitation to Action

To return to my earlier question, what makes a classroom in the United States or any democratic country different from one in an authoritarian state? For democratic patriotism to properly flourish, educators must convey to students that they have important contributions to make. In a democracy, patriotism is not a spectator sport.
The exit of the Canadian War Museum bears the following inscription:History is yours to make. It is not owned or written by someone else for you to learn. … History is not just the story you read. It is the one you write. It is the one you remember or denounce or relate to others. It is not predetermined. Every action, every decision, however small, is relevant to its course. History is filled with horror and replete with hope. You shape the balance.
I suspect many readers could imagine teaching students to think about patriotism by beginning a discussion with just such a quotation.
References

Alexander, L. (2003). Remarks of Senator Lamar Alexander on the introduction of his bill: The American History and Civics Education Act, March 4, 2003. Available:www.congresslink.org/print_expert_amhist.htm

American Civil Liberties Union. (2004). Michigan school reverses suspension of student for wearing "anarchy" T-shirt [online press release]. New York: Author. Available: www.aclu.org/StudentsRights/StudentsRights.cfm?ID=15672&c=159

Bush, G. W. (2002). President introduces history and civic education initiatives [online press release]. Washington, DC: The White House. Available: www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/09/20020917-1.html

Campbell, P. (2006, October 18). Ballot initiatives, democracy, and NCLB. Transform Education [blog]. Available:http://transformeducation.blogspot.com/2006_10_01_archive.html

Craig, B. (2006). The coalition column: History defined in Florida legislature.Perspectives, 44(6), 16. Available:www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2006/0609/0609nch1.cfm

Dillon, S. (2006, March 26). Schools cut back subjects to push reading and math.New York Times, p. A1.

Doherty, C. (2007). Who flies the flag? Not always who you might think: A closer look at patriotism. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Available: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/525/who-flies-the-flag-not-always-who-you-might-think

Dreier, P., & Flacks, D. (2007). Patriotism's secret history. In J. Westheimer (Ed.),Pledging allegiance: The politics of patriotism in America's schools (pp. 165–169). New York: Teachers College Press.

Gonzales, D. (1995, May 23). Alternative schools: A bridge from hope to social action. New York Times, p. B2.

Hamilton College. (2003). Hamilton College patriotism poll. Clinton, NY: Author. Available:www.hamilton.edu/Levitt/surveys/patriotism

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). Once upon a time when patriotism was something you did. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(8), 585–588.

Lummis, C. D. (1996). Radical democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. (2000). Viewpoints: Vol. 7: Small by design—Resizing America's high schools. Naperville, IL: Learning Points Associates.

Peterson, B. (2007). La Escuela Fratney: A journey toward democracy. In M. Apple & J. Beane (Eds.), Democratic schools: Lessons in powerful education (pp. 30–61). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Rentner, D. S., Scott, C., Kober, N., Chudowsky, N., Chudowsky, V., Joftus, S., et al. (2006). From the capital to the classroom: Year 4 of the No Child Left Behind Act. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.

Schultz, B. D. (2007). Not satisfied with stupid band-aids: A portrait of a justice-oriented, democratic curriculum serving a disadvantaged neighborhood. Equity and Excellence in Education, 40(2), 166–176.

Thornton, S. (2005). Incorporating internationalism in the social studies curriculum. In N. Noddings (Ed.), Educating citizens for global awareness (pp. 81–92). New York: Teachers College Press.

Virginia Legislative Assembly. (2005). Pledge of Allegiance HB 1912. Available: http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?ses=051&typ=bil&val=hb1912

Westheimer, J. (2005). Real world learning: El Puente Academy and educational change(Democratic Dialogue occasional paper series). Ottawa, Ontario: DemocraticDialogue.com.

Westheimer J. (2007). (Ed.). Pledging allegiance: The politics of patriotism in America's schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2003). Reconnecting education to democracy: Democratic dialogues. Phi Delta Kappan Online. Available: www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0309wes.htm

Zimmerman, J. (2006, June 7). Revisionists, get out of Florida. Los Angeles Times, p. B13.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image 108024.jpg
Teaching Students to Think
Go To Publication