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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Jefferson, Patriotism, and Civic Education

At The Wall Street Journal, Donald Kagan writes:
Jefferson was convinced that there needed to be an education for all citizens if they and their new kind of popular government were to flourish. He understood that schools must provide "to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; to enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts, and accounts, in writing."
For Jefferson, though, the most important goals of education were civic and moral. In his "Preamble to the 1779 Virginia Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" he addresses the need for all students to have a political education through the study of the "forms of government," political history and foreign affairs. This was not meant to be a "value free" exercise; on the contrary, its purpose was to communicate the special virtues of republican representative democracy, the dangers that threatened it, and the responsibility of its citizens to esteem and protect it. This education was to be a common experience for all citizens, rich and poor, for every one of them had natural rights and powers, and every one had to understand and esteem the institutions, laws and traditions of his country if it was to succeed.
Jefferson meant American education to produce a necessary patriotism. Democracy—of all political systems, because it depends on the participation of its citizens in their own government and because it depends on their own free will to risk their lives in its defense—stands in the greatest need of an education that produces patriotism.

I recognize that I have said something shocking. The past half-century has seen a sharp turn away from what had been traditional attitudes toward the purposes and functions of education. Our schools have retreated from the idea of moral education, except for some attempts at what is called "values clarification," which is generally a cloak for moral relativism verging on nihilism of the sort that asserts that whatever feels good is good.

Even more vigorously have the schools fled from the idea of encouraging patriotism. In the intellectual climate of our time, the very suggestion brings contemptuous sneers or outrage, depending on the listener's mood. There is no end of quoting Samuel Johnson's famous remark that "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," but no recollection of Boswell's explanation that Johnson "did not mean a real and generous love for our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest."

Many have been the attacks on patriotism for intolerance, arrogance and bellicosity, but that is to equate it with its bloated distortion, chauvinism. My favorite dictionary defines the latter as "militant and boastful devotion to and glorification of one's country," but defines a patriot as "one who loves, supports, and defends his country."