[Over the last few months, I’ve had the chance to talk about my new book in a number of settings, and as always every such talk has led to distinct and interesting follow-up questions and ideas. So this week I’ve reflected on those continuing conversations, leading up to this special July 4th weekend post on debates over patriotism, history, and education in 2021!]
On education, history, and patriotism.
A few weeks back, I had the chance to chat (mine is Episode 3) with Kelly Therese on her excellent new Unsung History podcast. We mostly talked about the episode’s specific focus, the amazing and inspiring Susie King Taylor. But toward the end of the conversation, Kelly generously asked me to talk a bit about Of Thee I Sing, and I couldn’t help but start with the ongoing June (and very much still July) 2021 debates over whether and how to teach difficult American histories. The case I made there is similar to the one from this HNN piece of mine: that in our current debates, teaching history and teaching patriotism are too often framed as distinct and opposed emphases. The 1776 Commission Report articulated this black-and-white perspective succinctly: “Universities in the US are often today hotbeds of anti-Americanism…that generate in students and in the broader culture at the very least disdain and at worst outright hatred for this country”; and instead the Commission sought to “restore patriotic education that teaches the truth about America.”
Obviously I understand where folks like those on the 1776 Commission are coming from in advancing this dichotomy: they exemplify mythic patriotism; and as I argue throughout the book, that form of patriotism features both an exclusionary vision of American history and a complementary narrative that anyone who disagrees with that vision is unpatriotic. But I’ll admit to being frustrated that so many critics and opponents of said mythic patriotism still uphold the dichotomy, just from the other side of the equation: that is, that for many scholars and educators (at least as they express their perspective on social media and in other public scholarly forums), teaching our hardest histories does indeed mean not teaching patriotism. This narrative equates patriotism with mythic patriotism, not only in its argument that America’s more difficult (and often excluded) histories are incommensurate with a patriotic perspective, but also and even more tellingly in its argument that to teach patriotism would mean to teach unquestioning obedience to the national mythos (which is a core element to mythic patriotism to be sure).
Just as mythic patriotism isn’t the only form of American patriotism, however, mythic patriotic education is far from the only way to link patriotism to historical education. As Mark Rice articulates so powerfully in this USIH blog post, it’s quite possible—although certainly not easy, but what important thing ever is?—to teach critical patriotism. Indeed, I would go further: teaching critical patriotism as part of American history (and literature, and studies) classrooms links one of the most important skills we seek to inculcate in our students (critical thinking) to an engagement with both the complex and difficult realities of American history and the (to my mind absolutely vital) sense that we are all part of this community and have a responsibility to help it move forward and live up to its ideals. Indeed indeed, I would go further still: teaching American history (and literature, and studies) as fully and thoughtfully as we can is one of the best ways to create a more collective and shared sense of critical patriotism, with equal emphasis on both words in that concept. The more I talk and think about this book, the more I feel certain that critical patriotism will be essential if we are to move closer to being a more perfect union—and that means linking, not separating, history and patriotism in our work as educators.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Ideas for other settings or audiences with whom I could share the book?