What’s included in a ‘patriotic’ education?

To many Americans, I’m sure Trump’s “1776 Project” to create pro-American history curriculum seems reasonable. After all, why wouldn’t you teach kids to love the country they live in? 

Won’t that instill loyalty and good citizenship down the road?

Don’t we need loyalty and good citizenship to ensure our national security?

And isn’t it preferable to teaching kids “hateful lies about this country,” to quote Trump?

Like most polarizing sound byte topics — especially in 2020 — there’s a lot more to this issue.

I don’t want to offer a knee-jerk response to this idea (you can find that if you want it all over social media), and I don’t want to dismiss the concerns of those who think we need to instill more patriotism. I do hope that I can help you consider what Trump is advocating — and how that compares to best practices in social studies education — especially if you haven’t been in a high school classroom lately.

I’ve been a public high school social studies teacher in Minnesota for 24 years. These days, I teach economics and psychology, but I’ve also taught U.S. Government, U.S. History, and Civil Liberties — which I taught for 15 years. 

So I know a little about civic education — what it is, what it isn’t, and what I think it should be.

Here’s what I think it should be. 

Children who grow up attending American public schools clearly must learn the truth about our shared history. 

They should learn the positive, yes — the constitutional ideals about personal liberty that we cherish, the heroes who built our nation, the ways in which we’ve moved closer to achieving our ideals over time, and the ways we have promoted liberty and democracy worldwide. 

But kids also must learn the negative — that this nation was built using the labor of enslaved people, that people in power have oppressed other people in many ways over time, that even our heroes were, in most cases, deeply flawed human beings.

This is not an either/or. Our future citizens need the whole truth. Our children should learn to wrestle, personally, with the conflict between America’s lofty ideals and the reality of living in an imperfect country. 

American children also must learn to think critically about whose stories are told and celebrated in our history and civics books and whose stories are left out — and why. History is all about considering the evidence and drawing thoughtful conclusions.

Our children should learn that different people have different experiences living in this nation, so I can no more claim to understand the lived experience of a person growing up in the Ozarks or the Bronx — just because we’re all Americans — than the lived experience of a person growing up in Mumbai.

To do that, our children need to build empathy and both read and listen to diverse perspectives, sometimes painful ones.

Finally, our children must learn how the “American system” works and how to work that system, so they all have a shot at becoming impactful citizens when they grow up. That’s always been my goal.

I hope you’ll agree with me that this is not an anti-American perspective. In fact, it’s completely aligned with the vision of our Founders, who wanted us to discuss, debate, question and think critically about their legacy. 

To quote Thomas Jefferson: “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive.”

The Founders knew they were launching an experiment in 1776 (and more significantly, in 1788, when the Constitution was ratified) and that it would not be perfect. They argued about it, sometimes bitterly. (See The Federalist Papers)

They embraced democracy but feared the tyranny of the majority. 

They believed in rights but understood they needed to be limited. 

They intentionally curbed the president’s power, knowing all too well the danger of demagogues.

They also made some tragic mistakes, like not abolishing slavery.

So what about Trump’s proposal?  

First of all, I don’t believe — and I don’t think many social studies teachers believe — that President Trump really wants us to stop “teaching lies.” It seems clear to me that he wants us to only teach part of the truth, the part that glorifies America’s past.  

And frankly, most U.S. history classrooms today still do too much of that — not too little. I think if you went into most classrooms (or picked up a textbook), you’d be surprised by how little has changed.

Second, I fundamentally disagree with the implication that if we do understand our history — in all its nuances and ugly chapters — we couldn’t possibly still love this country. 

To me, that view implies a very superficial kind of patriotism at best, and one with frightening implications. Taken to an extreme, this view implies that if we want loyal citizens in the future, we can only teach only a very false and distorted version of U.S. history. 

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive.”

Thomas Jefferson

In that version, pioneers settled a wide open west — where there were never any American Indians to displace.

In that version, Lincoln always believed in emancipation, and Nixon never lied.

In that version, our founding fathers didn’t enslave anyone. Or if they did, it was because no one at that time thought slavery was wrong. And Jim Crow laws never happened. And schools were always desegregated. And so on.

Reinterpreting our past to erase anything ugly is, basically, impossible. You have to erase everything that actually happened. You have to erase things that happened to actual people, whose descendants are sitting in our classrooms. 

And that’s a terrible idea. That’s education for autocracy, not for democracy.

Finally, the whole question of good v. bad (or pro- v. anti-American) history really misses the point. 

History education is being transformed in this country — just not in the way that Trump says.

The best kind of history education doesn’t settle for teaching a litany of facts and dates anymore. Instead, it emphasizes student-led inquiry, open-ended discussion, the use of sources and a focus on critical thinking. 

It encourages all the practices I mentioned above — getting students to read and discuss and think deeply understand our country’s history, the good and the bad.

Social studies education is patriotic precisely when it teaches students to think about and question our Founders, our current leaders, and our whole system of government. To do anything less is, frankly, un-American.