Impact Kentucky Survey: Improving feedback and coaching
Reclaiming American history: standards and curriculum

Our schools need patriotic American history now more than ever


As a citizen, a father, and an educator, I have never been more concerned about the future of our country. Amid an economy-crushing pandemic, outrage over the police killing of George Floyd has erupted into something sinister and dangerous that amounts to an existential threat to the American republic. A legitimate concern about hundreds of monuments to the racist regime of the Confederate South has morphed into widespread mob attempts to destroy statues of George Washington, Ulysses Grant and St. Louis and to even remove a statute of Abraham Lincoln commemorating his Emancipation Proclamation. It has become necessary to actually point out the historical fact of Lincoln's role in the ending of slavery, in response to those who believe that, contrary to all available data, America has made no progress on racial issues, and that in fact the entire American experience is rooted in irredeemable racism. Whereas Martin Luther King, Jr. once called Americans to live up to the ideals of our nation's founding, the blatantly neo-Marxist leaders of the Black Lives Matter organization condemn the entire American enterprise and promise to "burn down this system."

And all of this happens with the tacit, or sometimes explicit, endorsement of elite, liberal media and political leaders.

Of course racism does still exist in the United States. Racial disparities in educational opportunity and attainment, in criminal justice, in housing and employment, whatever their origins, are obvious. Personally and professionally I am most familiar with the devastating legacy of education achievement gaps based on race (but also based on socio-economic status). These gaps persist for many reasons, including perhaps many unrecognized biases on the part of educators who unconsciously lower their expectations for students of color, but even more so because of an insufficient sense of urgency to change our practices and coordinate all the resources of our local communities to do better by these students.

We need a stronger collective commitment to honestly examine both the existence and the origins of disparities in education and criminal justice and to set this aright as far as we can do so in public policy. But if that should happen it will be because of our unified self understanding as Americans. Now more than ever, we need a stronger understanding of the founding principles and values of our nation and how those principles actually point us toward a society that is more prosperous, free, and with far more equitable outcomes than any historical alternative. The lack of this national self understanding can be laid, in part, at the feet of our education system. And reclaiming a national identity will require a far more intentional and comprehensive approach to the teaching of American history.

We don't have to sugar coat our past. We can and should be honest with ourselves about the social sins of America, past and present. But we should also be honest and explicit in teaching our students about the great blessings and accomplishments of this nation, which its past both illustrates and proves. In short, we should once again explicitly teach kids to be proud of their country and the men and women of all ethnic backgrounds who made it a place worth defending as Americans.

Eliot Cohen, writing in this year's noteworthy collection of essays, How to Educate an American, calls this approach to American history both "critical and patriotic:"

Civic education is inextricably interwoven with patriotism, without which commitment to the values that make free government possible will not exist. Civic education depends not only on an understanding of fundamental processes and institutions (why there is a Supreme Court, why only Congress gets to raise taxes or declare war) but also on a commitment to those processes and institutions, and on some kind of admiration for the country that created them and the men and women who have shaped and lived within them. In a crisis, it is not enough to know how the walls were constructed and the plumbing laid out in the house that Madison, Washington, and Lincoln built. One has to think that the architects did remarkable work, that as their legatees we need to preserve the building even as we modernize it, and that it is a precious edifice like none other.

Sadly, these words are likely to divide, rather than unify us, precisely because there appear to be so many people willing to exploit the very real issues of racial injustice, not just for political purposes, but for the purpose of actually tearing down not just the symbols of America, but the structures itself. This is not an exaggeration. Listen to their rhetoric, and more importantly the larger cultural anti-Americanism that pervades our campuses and the media. As Andrew Sullivan writes, their goal may be some kind of Maoist utopia, but just as the followers of Mao discovered, such impulses always end in tyranny. 

The movement’s destruction of even abolitionist statues, its vandalism of monuments to even George Washington, its crude demonization of figures like Jefferson, its coerced public confessions, its pitiless wreckage of people’s lives and livelihoods, its crude ideological Manichaeanism, its struggle sessions and mandated anti-racism courses, its purging of cultural institutions of dissidents, its abandonment of objective tests in higher education (replacing them with quotas and a commitment to ideology), and its desire to upend a country’s sustained meaning and practices are deeply reminiscent of some very ugly predecessors.

This is why we need to choose patriotic history even if it is controversial, and insist that it be taught in our schools. Doing so will actually increase the likelihood of having meaningful discussions about race, power, and injustice in our society, and how we continue to heal these issues as Americans.

In upcoming posts, I'll reflect on how our education system slowly arrived at this point, and what we can do about it, especially on a local level.

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