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.
- Our schools need patriotic American history now more than ever
- Reclaiming American history: standards and curriculum
- E pluribus unum: Another essential principle of "patriotic" American history
- Memory and hope: Restoring temporal continuity in our teaching of American history
- Fighting racism; rejecting critical theory
- Kentucky's social studies standards need more work
- Kentucky teachers are being trained to use "inquiry methods" to indoctrinate students in Leftist attitudes
- More misuses of inquiry learning to propagandize K-12 students
- See for yourself: Biased Kentucky teacher training materials for social studies
- Two books help fight back in the war on history