The principles and values of "patriotic" American history
Memory and hope: Restoring temporal continuity in our teaching of American history

E pluribus unum: Another essential principle of "patriotic" American history


Update, 10/28/20: Portions of this post recently appeared as an essay published by The Imaginative Conservative called, "What is Patriotic Education?"

My on-going series (see parts 1, 2, and 3 linked below) of posts calling for a more patriotic approach to the teaching of American history has generated a range of reactions, some very negative, from a handful of educators. In a Twitter exchange with a social studies educator, I was admonished for using the term "our collective identity as Americans." He claimed that the phrase "sounds awfully racist."

His suggestion that it might be racist to believe we have a national identity that is bigger and more encompassing than our individual racial, religious, or other identity-group affiliations perfectly illustrates why I think we need a more comprehensive and appreciative approach to American history.

In my most recent post, I articulated the key values, principles, and assumptions of patriotic history, and I argued that those were also the exact same principles, values, and beliefs that motivated the American Founding and its central documents and structure of governance.

But evidently I overlooked another essential principle, which is encapsulated in our national motto, "E pluribus unum" - "from the many, One."

For the American republic to function, we do indeed need to have an understanding that while we or our ancestors came from many different places and in many different ways, while we are plural in our religious traditions and ways of life, we nevertheless share a common bond as Americans.

And it is through that bond - forged in faith that our Founding principles are good and true and enduring enough to be defended and to guide our path forward to a "more perfect union," that we will overcome our on-going economic, social, cultural, and political challenges.

Few Americans embodied that faith better than Martin Luther King, Jr.

Commemorating the MLK holiday earlier this year, the Dallas Morning News editorial board celebrated his "audacious faith in the future:"

The central tenet of the American experiment, and really the democratic experiment, is that people are not made to organize themselves into perpetually warring tribes and factions. The promise is that, in a democracy, a plural people can live together in harmony and prosperity in a system where each voice matters.

King believed in that possibility. He believed in the American experiment, even as he viewed it in the unsentimental light of a man who had experienced its oppression, its contradictions and the consequences of the lies about humanity that had made slavery and segregation possible.

Nevertheless, he believed.

As King saw it, the citizen of good conscience had to work not to tear down America but rather to insist that it live up to its ideals, its founding principles of liberty, but that it do this work while facing its failure to fully embrace the promise of equality.

This is what sets MLK aside from today's iconoclasts who seek to destroy monuments to American figures as diverse as Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln, who tell an historically inaccurate version of America that implies we have made no progress as a people, and that in fact the American experiment was corrupt and racist from the start and must be torn down and replaced by....something. Their vision of the future is not audacious, like Martin Luther King's. It is simply a future of violence and silencing of opposition and tyranny.

There is no "America" when there is nothing that unifies us beyond our different identities and divisions.

As I have said repeatedly, this kind of audacious faith in America does not involve "whitewashing" our history, neglecting to explore the contradictions between our professed values and our lived experience. It is rather to tell the whole story of our past, which includes the bad with the good. This is why I have so frequently quoted political scientist Eliot Cohen and his call for a history that is both "critical and patriotic."

Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen, writing just after the events of September 11, 2001 in an essay called Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World Made Strange, thoughtfully explored this dynamic between patriotism and criticism, or what he termed political theory.

Patriotism is not always a good thing, Deneen reminds us. The word theory, he explains, comes from a Greek word that described a specific job in ancient Athens. The theoroi were city officials whose job was to leave the city and study other lands and people. Their position was critical in that they were looking for new ideas, perspectives, and practices that could make Athens better. But this kind of theorist did his work because he first had an "abiding appreciation for the customs and practices of his own way of life:"

These are not mutually exclusive qualities, but intimately connected. A theorist was, by definition a patriot—one who treasured his cultural inheritance and traditions, knew intimately the stories and histories of his homeland, and saw these as fundamentally constitutive of his identity. At the same time, it was by means of deep familiarity and love for that cultural inheritance that the theorist was able to move fellow citizens to a renewed devotion to those practices, in some instances, or to subtle questioning of dubious customs, in others.

Deneen contrasts this kind of critical patriot with the "theorizing" of Rene Descartes, whose approach most closely mimics that of modern cosmopolitans who dismiss patriotism as small-minded and parochial:

Rather than proceeding from a sympathetic stance toward the inheritance of his own legacy, Descartes begins with radical suspicion toward all that has preceded him in act or thought, and especially all that is a result of the common endeavors of a community or a people...Descartes inaugurates modern philosophy’s estrangement from the place where philosophy begins—among, and with, one’s fellow citizens—and ultimately, modern philosophy’s estrangement from the world. He is the very model of the proudly ungrateful anti-patriot.

Deneen concludes his essay be rejecting any patriotism that is also not critical, but also rejects criticism that is not rooted in a deep appreciation for what has come before, including the capacity and right to be critical of those very institutions. "After September 11, it is all the more imperative that we citizens of a democratic country make that 'sacred journey' of the theorist," he writes, "one that intensifies our vision, one that starts and ends in gratitude, and from which we may hope to deepen those devotions that America deserves—and that, through such patriotic vision, it will deserve ever more."

So yes, we are descendents of immigrants from Africa or Europe or Asia, or perhaps immigrants ourselves. We are people of all skin colors and religions. The stories of how we have struggled over those differences and some of our fellow Americans have suffered - and sometimes continue to suffer - immensely as a result are central to our story.

But this nevertheless is "our story," the story of one, immensely diverse and frequently flawed people, who nevertheless keep striving to be e pluribus unum.

Related posts:


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