The Myths of Patriotic Education

The Myths of Patriotic Education
(Democratic National Convention via AP)

A little over eighty years ago, Bertie C. Forbes used the magazine he founded to issue a manifesto on alleged indoctrination in public schools. The ideology he feared? Communism. Its tool of indoctrination? A popular series of history textbooks written by Columbia University Professor Harold Rugg. “I mean to battle against such poisoning of the youth of America,” Forbes declared in “Treacherous Teachings.” “I plan to insist that this anti-American educator’s text books be cast out… it is time for members of boards of education all over the continent to inquire more closely into what is being fed our offspring and to consider seriously what steps should be taken against teachers who have no use for Americanism.”

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The Englewood, New Jersey Board of Education, on which Forbes served, found no hint of communism in Rugg’s textbooks. In a world staggered by the Great Depression and convulsed by radical ideologies, what characterized Rugg’s curriculum was a deeply pragmatic recognition that our country had problems to solve that rising generations of Americans could face and overcome by working together. What could be more patriotic and can-do American than that?

Last month, President Trump punctuated his Constitution Day address at the National Archives with melodramatic declarations that echoed Forbes’s. Schoolchildren are being “instructed from propaganda tracts,” Trump said, and they’re fed a “twisted web of lies” regarding our nation’s history. “The left,” he insisted, “has warped, distorted and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehood, and lies.” “Left wing indoctrination in our schools” must end, he added. Announcing that the National Endowment for the Humanities had awarded a grant “to support the development of a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history,” the President declared, “Our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.”

The allegation that American schools are awash in anti-American leftist propaganda is as absurd now as it was eighty years ago. If anything, schools—both past and present—have sought to cultivate patriotism among students. In addition to presenting American history as a “march of progress,” patriotic education has involved celebrating mythologized national heroes and holidays, rituals such as the Pledge of Allegiance, and occasionally public service. Two things stand out about these attempts at cultivating patriotism. First, they have played a remarkably prominent role in public education, intensified by wars and a desire to assimilate newly arriving immigrants into the mainstream of American society. Second, the grounds for believing that the intentional cultivation of patriotism is needed and beneficial have been remarkably speculative.

Having devoted several years to researching and evaluating the methods and rationales of patriotic education in American schools, we see little merit in the notion that love of country is something that can be taught through celebratory history. Despite the tradition of telling tales of George Washington’s honesty and making daily pledges to the flag, there is remarkably little evidence that such efforts are effective in motivating civic responsibility. What we do know is that the most important factor in people’s obedience to law is their perception that the laws are both fair and fairly administered. So, in the face of overwhelming evidence of racial disparities in police use of deadly force, no one should regard protest as an aberration or imagine that “order” would be advanced by devoting more instructional effort to patriotic education. We also know that experiences of belonging, competence, and self-determination are crucial to sustaining the many forms of constructive civic contribution in which Americans across the political spectrum engage. Motivation matters, and understanding and valuing one’s community, country, and world certainly matters, but national mythologies are as likely to undermine as to enable cooperation in advancing the public interest. 

If patriotism is roughly defined as caring about one’s country, then no region of the country or the American political spectrum has a monopoly on it. Mythologizing American history, papering over the struggle and sacrifice involved in overcoming Jim Crow and the glass ceiling, and treating topics like climate change and racial justice as too controversial to address, leaves the American public ill-equipped to recognize the problems we face and unprepared to work together in solving those problems.

A country can only earn the love of all its citizens by making good on its commitment to advancing equal justice and opportunity for everyone. Schools can best inspire patriotism by being good and welcoming places for all children, where they are accepted as equals, experience progress in their lives, and learn to cooperate and work with others as diverse as society itself. 

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