The recent controversy about how American history should be taught in public schools (in Colorado and elsewhere) has me thinking a lot about patriotism, and what it would mean to teach it -- and why so many Americans seem to think that teaching a fuller version of our national history somehow diminishes it (and us).
I assigned a thought provoking essay by George Kateb in my
Just War Theory class this semester, "Is Patriotism a Mistake," and
that's pushed me a bit too. Kateb argues that patriotism, in its essence, is an attack on the Enlightenment. One's country is an abstraction, not a principle; morally speaking, there is 'no there there.' A moral principle is by definition universal, while patriotism decidedly is not. Patriotism makes self-love and self-concern into an ideal - and the inevitable result, Kateb concludes, is self-preference. And violence.
As an American history professor, I'm
having difficulty figuring out how one 'teaches patriotism,' and indeed whether one should consciously seek to do so at all.
assume that patriotism is defined as love of country -- as opposed
to nationalism or jingoism, which includes an assertion that our
country is somehow 'better' or 'superior' to others -- then I fail to
see how teaching an American history drained of conflict, ambiguity, and
wrongful deeds encourages students to love their country, any more than
loving our spouse requires us to willfully ignore their flaws and
I have been teaching and writing about the history of race,
inequality, war and politics for two decades now, and my patriotism
remains undiminished, though it is tempered and imperfect, like all love
is; how is one to value and respect the lightest parts of us -- the
'better angels of our nature' -- without understanding the dark ones
More to the point, how are we supposed to understand some of the
trials and tribulations of other members of our American community in
the present (patriotism requires us to love them too, yes?) without
opening our eyes to ALL of our history? If America is a country worth
loving, we have nothing to fear from the truth. And if America is NOT a
country worth loving, surely patriotism is indeed a mistake. It is something to be valued as long as valuing it remains consistent with justice; when these two paths diverge, the principled person must plant their seeds in deeper soil. The task
for all of us, of course, is to make our collective enterprise worthy of
love. To me, that's patriotism. A relationship is a process, not a
golden idol requiring genuflection.
- Mark Santow
- I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.