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July 2020

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:

The principles and values of "patriotic" American history


Update: Portions of this post recently appeared in an essay for The Imaginative Conservative called, "What is Patriotic Education?"

In a recent series of posts I've been arguing that, given widespread efforts to rewrite American history and portray our Founders and the Founding itself in the worst possible light, schools need to rethink the way we teach this vitally important subject. I argued that we should be approaching the study of American history in a way that is, in the words of political scientist Eliot Cohen, both "critical and patriotic." 

I don't presume to know exactly what the process of establishing such a critical and patriotic approach should look like. This endeavor requires the input of history scholars, social studies teachers, school and civic leaders, local and state boards of education, and political officials who share a common commitment to revitalizing the study of the American past. On this blog, however, I'd like to try to stake out the key assumptions, issues, concerns, and components of an intentionally patriotic approach to our story as Americans, and invite further discussion and dialogue with others.

Most recently I suggested that any discussion of a more patriotic approach to the teaching of history first requires a fresh look at our standards for social studies, and then a deeper look at the curricula schools use to address those standards. This will be the topic of future posts. 

In the meantime, I've heard from a handful of educators, mostly social studies teachers, who have responded with deep concerns about what I'm proposing. So in the next few posts I'd like to elaborate a bit on what we're talking about when we say we need a more intentionally patriotic approach to U.S. history - and also what we do not mean. As I acknowledged in my first post on this topic, taking a patriotic stance toward American history will undoubtedly be controversial. But it's important that we don't misunderstand what we mean and make this seem even more controversial than it actually is.

I am not entirely surprised that social studies teachers have pushed back on me about this topic. It's easy to read this as a criticism of how they've been doing their jobs. And I won't pretend that shifting our focus doesn't have critical implications for the way we've been teaching history. I just think the vast majority of social studies teachers aren't intentionally trying to undermine their students' attitudes toward America. They are teaching the way they've been taught, the way textbooks are often organized, and have come to take for granted the myth that the delivery of history can and should somehow be unbiased. Before all the logistics of how we take a more patriotic approach to this subject, it's first important to note that what are talking about is a philosophical stance, full of explicit values and assumptions. These assumptions include, but are not limited to, the following:

The belief that America's Founding was a good thing. This includes believing that the events of 1776, and the subsequent efforts to iron out a workable constitution, and the next 244 years of trying to help the U.S. live up to its founding ideals, represent a significantly positive development in human political and social history. It includes the assumption that the United States is an exceptional country, not in the sense that it is better than any other nation, but that it is unique, and offers a uniquely valuable model of political organization that is worth cherishing and defending. This does not mean that we hide, in any way, the complex character of our Founders, who were clearly flawed human beings and products of their own time. It does not mean that we gloss over or neglect the many ways that we have failed to live up to our Founding principles. In fact, the story of extending basic political rights and equal opportunity to all Americans is a key to our history. But it does mean rejecting ahistorical ideas, such as those presented by the 1619 Project, that America's "true" founding was based entirely around the institution of slavery and white power, or that our Founding itself was irredeemably flawed, as were the Founders, because of their moral blind spots and costly errors. It means, as the organizers of the 1776 Unites project declare

[We] uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery. We seek to offer alternative perspectives that celebrate the progress America has made on delivering its promise of equality and opportunity and highlight the resilience of its people. Our focus is on solving problems. We do this in the spirit of 1776, the date of America’s true founding.

This core belief that America's founding is something worth defending and admiring, along with the beliefs articulated below, does not require us to force students to share this belief. They may come to their own conclusions about America's worth in the world. But this assumption should be a starting point that guides our selection of curriculum materials, our instructional methods, and our goals for what we seek to accomplish through the teaching of history.

The understanding that America's political traditions are inextricably linked to an older English heritage. The American Revolution did not happen in a vacuum, but rather reflected key political beliefs that can be traced back through hundreds of years of English common law, dating all the way back to the Magna Carta and beyond. There was a great diversity of political philosophies at work in the American Founding, of course, as Yoram Hazony has documented, but the general consensus was that the American experiment was building on values and institutions that preceded it (updated: see Ofir Haivry's discussion of this topic here, and Daniel McCarthy's here). This is why Americans rejected the bloodbath that become the French Revolution, which sought to destroy every existing institution of civil society and ultimately led to a totalitarian state under Napoleon. Americans have a rebellious spirit, yes. But as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830's, they also have a reverence for tradition and the institutions of civil society that make a republican form of government possible.

A confidence that our founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and their historical antecedents like the Magna Carta, represent a uniquely valuable roadmap for political organization and human progress. To the extent that America needs to always be reformed, it is ideally done so through the same mechanisms established by these documents and the core principles that animate them.

And that means a faith in the core principles of the Founding. These principles include, but may not be limited to, the following:

  • the dignity of the individual
  • the rule of law
  • equality of opportunity
  • a lightly-regulated economy that provides opportunities for all individuals to excel through hard work, determination, and innovation
  • government that is limited so that no faction can assume too much power and threaten the liberties of others
  • subsidiarity - the belief that decisions should be made at the most local level possible to adequately address policy problems, embodied in our concept of federalism
  • republicanism - representative democracy as the best method of securing the values noted above
  • an understanding that human flourishing is about far more than politics; that the institutions of civil society like family, religious organizations, civic groups, small businesses, etc., are where true happiness is found and where humans are formed in the virtues necessary to participate in and maintain a republic embodying all the other virtues described above

These are the guiding principles and assumptions of a patriotic approach to the teaching of American history, along with the express goal that graduates of our K-12 schools should understand and appreciate these principles, even if they don't completely share them. In the next post I'll say more about how patriotic history accepts that it has biases and can defend them, and rejects the idea that there are any "unbiased" approaches to this subject. I'll also try to say more about what patriotic American history is not: it is not ignoring or explaining away the social and political sins of our past; it does not require us to assess the depth or quality of students' patriotism; and it does not dictate nor proscribe specific instructional methods, although methods should take into account the underlying assumptions noted above.

I especially welcome the continued feedback and dialogue of social studies teachers to these ideas, as none of this is possible without a well-educated, passionate, and independent-minded cadre of history teachers to carry out the work.

Related posts:


Reclaiming American history: standards and curriculum


Tomorrow is July 4th, America's Independence Day, traditionally a celebration of the great blessings of freedom and prosperity our nation enjoys. As I wrote earlier this week, Independence Day 2020 comes under a cloud of deep civil and social unrest as the United States struggles mightily under the weight of a global pandemic and widespread urban violence. 

I joined the voices of millions who raised alarm at the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It was a needed moment to once again review the many racial disparities in America, reflect on their sources, and seek out common sense policy solutions that can help us progress as a united people. But peaceful protests soon decayed into violence, looting, and anarchist takeovers of public spaces. Leaders of the U.S. Senate proposed the most sweeping federal police reform bill in American history, only to see their effort go nowhere, while in the streets of American cities and towns mobs tore down statues of...George Washington. It has become clear that a fair number of people do not want to see us move forward as a nation, and that in fact, they view America itself as the problem.

It is not my intent to argue why this is a deeply flawed and dangerous point of view. I'll leave that argument to others. I will simply state my own position, which I believe is shared by millions of Americans of all skin colors, that despite the deep flaws and social sins of our past, despite the work that still needs to be done, the United States has made incredible progress in terms of creating equal opportunities for every citizen, and remains the greatest nation in the world. It is the values and political institutions of America, which were founded, fought over, and defended by brilliant and courageous - if deeply human - people like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses Grant, that should be honored and defended.

My own sphere of expertise is education and education policy. As I argued earlier this week, it is within our schools where we must meet the challenge of helping future generations understand our complex national past, develop the citizenship skills to help us keep striving toward our national ideals, and appreciate - even revere - the founding principles, the history, and institutions of the United States. In this on-going series of posts I'd like to reflect on how to best accomplish this, including through education standards and curriculum, everyday school practices, and the role of local communities and boards of education.

Sadly, to insist that our schools teach an American history that is both "critical and patriotic," we will likely make them once again battle grounds in the culture war that is raging in our media and in the streets of our cities. But our schools are already battle grounds for these kinds of disputes. The question is not whether we are to fight in them, but how. Otherwise, we will cede our schools, as we have unconsciously been doing so for decades, to powerful forces of anti-Americanism that have led us up to this seemingly intractable place as a country.

The first place to start this discussion is on the condition of state standards for the teaching of American history. This is a topic I've been deeply immersed in. I am a former social studies teacher and hold a Master's degree in history. As a member of the Kentucky Board of Education from 2016-2019, I chaired the KBE Curriculum, Instruction, and Assesment Committee while the Department of Education led the process of developing new social studies standards as laid out by the General Assembly in 2017 legislation.

The first thing to say is that the new Kentucky Academic Standards for Social Studies are vastly superior to the vague, nearly content-free, standards that preceded them for many years. I made this argument against sharp criticisms of the standards from my colleague Richard Innes, education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute (where I also sit on the Board of Scholars), and others who were especially concerned about the lack of content specificity or presentation of certain topics. Several of my fellow board members also expressed criticisms of the standards but, probably because of my passionate defense of both the process by which the standards were developed and their outcome, they were eventually approved by a unanimous KBE vote.

You can read my complete defense of the new standards here. I was deeply honored late last year to receive the Meese Award for Leadership in the Social Studies from the Kentucky Council for the Social Studies, in large part for my support of the standards.

But I was wrong on one critical issue. One of the key points I made is that there is a distinct difference between standards and curriculum. And I still believe that local curricular decision are far more important for ensuring a rich delivery of social studies content. But now, in light of the complete rewriting of American history that seems to be underway in some political quarters, I believe I was mistaken about how much we should rely on local curriculum to ensure that every Kentucky student has a sufficient grasp of both the founding principles of our nation and the contributions of key historical figures.

When it becomes necessary to publicly defend Abraham Lincoln's role in ending slavery and bringing seismic racial progress in the United States, perhaps it is time to be explicit in asking every Kentucky student to know who Lincoln was and why he is to be revered by every American. Lincoln is not named in Kentucky's ground-breaking social studies standards. His role is implied by the events of the Civil War. But clearly in light of recent events that is simply not enough (nor is it enough to imply, but not name, the role of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the civil rights movement, for example).

In future posts I'll discuss further what some of these additions to Kentucky's standards should look like, and especially how local curricula must be carefully selected to ensure that the gallery of America's heroes (of all colors and backgrounds) are taught and celebrated in Kentucky's schools. Doing so does not in any way ignore the dark parts of our collective past (and present), but rather encourages a balanced view that helps us appreciate how far we've come, and how far we need to go, as Americans.

Update: See my expanded discussion of the deficiencies in Kentucky's social studies standards here and the deeply biased materials used to train teachers in their implementation here.

Related posts: