Reclaiming American history: standards and curriculum
E pluribus unum: Another essential principle of "patriotic" American history

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.

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Mike Hefling

I appreciate your intent with this, and I think you honestly believe this is important and good work. You and I have rarely agreed, but I do not think you are a bad actor. This movement you are latching onto though is destined to do more harm than good.

I love this country. I was born and raised here. Is served in honorably and answered my nations call. I don't say that to achieve superiority, but there are those who think my love is less genuine than theirs even though I have have sacrificed far more than most of my critics.

I do not believe in a parroted and uncritical look at our past honors those who helped build the country though. Their memory is already stained when we ignore and minimize the contributions of those who built the roads, toiled in the fields, took up arms, and tended the flocks in favor of the powerful and monies who designed and codified systems of Oppression for the benefit of the select few. They had pretty words, but their deeds did real harm.

Our nation was not founded on a core principal of the "the dignity of the individual". Not when the founding documents enshrine the right of some individuals to be owned as property, calls the original inhabitants "merciless Indian Savages",and ignores the voice of all women.

the "rule of law" is a founding principal, but it is cliche, weak, and meaningless. Even the most tinpot dictatorship is run by the rule of law (Even if the law changes with each pronouncement from the ruler). What should make America different, richer, and exceptional is the rule of benevolent law, or just law. That is not the system we have, nor was it the system established. Law is rules that govern society. They can be righteous or tyrannical. It is the system that decides and our system has more often than not benefited those in power in almost every case, and those without power only when inconsequential to those. When the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, it has almost always done so fighting the system, not working within it.

Our founders had no core principle in "equality of opportunity". Believing so requires a blindness and deafness that is remarkable for anyone who considers themselves a student of history.

The nation was not founded with a "lightly-regulated economy that provides opportunities for all individuals to excel through hard work, determination, and innovation" It was instead founded on a disorganized system of state regulation of the various and separate economies, some of whom valued hard work and most others that valued the exploitation of the hard work and innovation of others.

If you believe that the government was founded so that it was limited so that no faction can assume too much power and threaten the liberties of others, then please explain where those liberties resided for the Native inhabitants, Women, and slaves when the signatures were still wet? They were not protected from government or the factions therein.

Subsidariatism is a great philosophy to determine local problems, but the founders struggled with where to draw that line. It is not enshrined in the Constitution as a principle. It was debated during passage and the battle still applies today without ever having been determined.

While the founders may have conceded that Republicanism was the most efficient means of forming a government and administering a nation considering the technology of the time, teaching our students that this remains the most effective means of securing the ideals of democracy strips them of the ability to critically examine where we are today.

Most of what you consider to be core founding principals were just platitudes the founders themselves never attempted to live up to.

Social Studies teachers should not be teaching students what to think. They should teach them how to assemble the evidence, make an argument, and listen to the arguments of others. History teachers should be teaching process, not principles, and especially not principles that were false from the very beginning.

Ignoring the blood stained falshoods of your enumerated core principles hurts those kids who would take it without examination as truth. they would be stunted in their intellectual curiosity thinking that all those rich white dudes had their best interest at heart, even while owning, launching war against, or raping that young students ancestor.

As I mentioned at the start, I love our country, Not because we are exceptional or because we were founded as the greatest force for freedom. We are not and we were not. I love it, because despite our missteps, genocidal origination, our unforgivable sin of slavery and oppression, and a thousand other wrongs, we gave our nation a set of ideals and the process to work towards achieving those ideals. We have fought, bled, sacrificed, and gained incremental ground towards greater justice. Our gift to the world and our posterity is not our greatness, but our hope. Let's teach the process and have faith in the hope of our young.

Gary Houchens

Mike, thank you for taking the time to comment in depth. I especially appreciate you acknowledging my sincerity. I can tell that you are also sincere in your concern about and commitment to justice.

I have many thoughts but also would like to pose a few questions if you don’t mind? Your comment came in response to a tweet thread I posted about Robert Reilly’s book America on Trial. It sounds like you find America “guilty” in this trial, at least guilty of many sins, and perhaps believe that America was not, in fact, founded on ideals of equality and freedom for all. You also say that you nevertheless love America.

Can you say just a bit about WHY you love America, if she is not, in fact, and never has been the beacon of hope that I believe she is?

And also, what kind of political system would yield the kind of justice you think America has been systematically lacking? Are there examples that you would point to that are better alternatives?

Thanks. If the comment box is too unwieldy for this feel free to email me instead: [email protected].

Mike Hefling

Why I love America begins with the natural tendancy of most all people to love their homeland and the place they have claimed. I imagine if I were born in Honduras, Belarus, Chad, or Myanmar I would feel great affection for those places as well. If I had chosen to make a home away from where I was born such as Venezuela, South Korea, Croatia, or Liberia I would feel the same about them.

It starts with being home, but as I mentioned in my original response, it grows because of the ideals and hope we offer. "In order to form a more perfect union" is one of the most beautiful lines ever written in a framework for bureaucracy.

I have not read America on Trial, but I suspect I would disagree with the premise. The idea that any nation would have its history put on trial is absurd as EVERY nation would be found guilty if put on trial. We are a nation of people and people are fallible and fallen. Of course America is guilty of a great number of sins. To think we are absolved of mass genocide of Natives, Enslavement of Africans, Colonial expansion and subjugation of islanders, mass murder of innocent Japanese, Global manipulation of the affairs of other countries because...What...we value freedom? that is ridiculous. our history has been one of freedom for the rich and powerful first, then others in descending order of racial and gender willingness to assimilate into the rich, white, male designed norms.

Loving my country does not make me blind to her failures nor does it allow me to apologize for it. It does make me struggle to fight what I can, fix what I can, and for everything else, do as little harm as I can.

Democracy is the only political system that can continue to march for justice, but it can't be the fake, bought and paid for crony democracy we have today. A parlimentary system of many parties and factions with decentralized power and influence, removal of corporate citizenship, shortening the election cycle, removing gerymandered bastardized districts, restoring congressional power that has been slipped to the executive for far too long, and a host of other smaller reforms would go a long way to finally, and for the first time, making our government one of, for, and by the people.

Gary Houchens

Mike, the combination of your two comments here makes it clear to me that there’s not really that much difference between your views and mine.

I’ve never once advocated for a “parroted and uncritical” view of American history. I encourage you to read what I’ve written over the last several months and see if you can find such a view on my part. Every time I write about this topic I say as much. See my post citing Patrick Deneen’s ideas about the critical patriot:

Nor will you find me “absolving” our ancestors of any of their past sins.

I think perhaps you assume things about my position that simply aren’t true.

It sounds to me like you do actually believe in America’s Founding principles. You just believe that many of our ancestors failed pretty spectacularly to live up to those principles. And here you are correct. They did.

You are also right that the rich and powerful got the first blessings of all those principles. They did. That’s usually the consequence of being rich and powerful.

But it’s also true that a full reading of our national story is the steady and relentless expansion of those principles to be applied to more and more people. Why were we able to end slavery less than a century after the founding? Because the moral order written into our founding documents made slavery impossible in this republic, something that many of the founders precisely intended. Our progress has been messy and not linear but inevitable nonetheless, so much so that millions of people have come to this land and still do seeking the freedom and opportunity that is our national birthright. There’s still so much progress to make, but the very fact that we know what to keep striving for is because our core values have made us, as Wilfred McClay calls his beautiful new textbook on American history (review coming soon), the “Land of Hope.”

That’s what I want to restore in our teaching of American history: temporal continuity. Which means memory (of both the bad and the good) and hope that we can continue to strive to be a City on the Hill. More here:

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