Should schools teach “patriotism”? Not so long ago, simply asking this question would have prompted surprised looks. The answer would have been, “Of course.” Today, things are much murkier. The term “patriotism,” once innocuous, is now ideologically charged. The idea of teaching patriotism has become controversial, supported by the right (See “History, Critical and Patriotic,” in the Spring 2020 Education Next) and greeted with skepticism on the left. Both sides ultimately suggested that finding middle ground would require thinking about patriotism as something more complicated than “love of country.”
For those on the right, patriotism was a question of appreciating the sacrifices that have afforded Americans comfort and freedom and of all the things that unite us. In their view, patriotism is the foundation for civic instruction. On the left, “teaching patriotism” was seen as jingoistic and an excuse to downplay America’s failings. Referencing the current political climate, those on the left also saw “patriotism” as a term freighted with partisan meaning, tinged with xenophobia, and invoked by Republicans as a partisan rhetorical device. Indeed, some of the progressive participants argued that asking immigrant or minority students to be patriotic is immoral—that America needs to be worthy of patriotism before schools should teach it.
There were some intriguing efforts to devise middle ground on this score. On the right, one teacher acknowledged that because “patriotism” is such a loaded term, he prefers to talk about teaching students to be “invested” in their communities. He reasoned that patriotism is less important a goal than “stitching children into the public sphere,” thereby cultivating a sense of gratitude for our system of democracy and teaching student to appreciate our institutions without necessarily insisting on the kind of emotional attachment often implied by patriotism.
On the left, a participant suggested the much of the controversy surrounding patriotism could be sidestepped by distinguishing between patriotism and nationalism. He argued that American-style patriotism should be about loving the nation’s foundational values more than the nation itself. Translating that into practice, he argued teachers can teach students to love the ideals of America without insisting on a love of nation. After all, he observed, “teaching kids to love their country” is something that China or North Korea do—American “love of country” is something that should arise organically. Whether such approaches can help overcome the divide is an open question, but they open an opportunity worth exploring.