Making Patriotism Democratic in the Face of Barbarism

Pledging Allegiance: The Politics of Patriotism in America's Schools

Edited by Joel Westheimer, Foreword by Howard Zinn
Teachers College Press, 2007, 219 pages, $18.95 paperback, $50.00 cloth.
Reviewed by Eleanor J. Bader

During the past five years I've periodically asked the community college students I teach to write about their, or their parents', arrival as immigrants to the United States. I'm always humbled by the responses for, to a one, the students talk about such lofty concepts as freedom, opportunity, and equity. The cynicism and sneers one might expect are missing, and dreams of being given a chance regardless of race, gender, or class abound.

I admit that at first I thought they were shining me on. But deeper probes revealed that The American Dream is alive and well and living in these newcomer's hearts. They believe in a nation where anyone can succeed and where hard work and determination are enough to ensure a rosy tomorrow.

Immigrant voices like theirs are missing from Pledging Allegiance, an intriguing, if limited, collection of essays on post 9-11 patriotism in America's public schools. Also absent are the voices of U.S.-born students. Instead, 27 teachers, social theorists, and writers offer their opinions on the role patriotism should play in educational institutions.

Some, like Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr., approach the issue from the Right and encourage the expression of patriotic sentiment, including the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, as a way to foment national unity. Others, like Robert Jensen and Bill Bigelow, argue the opposite: that uniformity stifles critical thinking and leads to blind acceptance of the status quo. Still others - the majority of contributors - differentiate patriotism from nationalism, seeing a far greater danger from the latter.

California State University professor Cecilia O'Leary's "Patriot Acts: This Isn't the First Time" is particularly instructive in putting today's patriotic fervor into context. She reminds us that Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy did not pen the Pledge of Allegiance until 1891 and that laws against flag desecration did not exist until 1968. "The flag, which stands as the pre-eminent symbol of the nation, lacked any standardized design until the invasion and subsequent conquest of Mexico in 1848, when, for the first time, mass-produced flags replaced the kaleidoscope of homemade flags that creatively placed stars in different arrangements, added other icons, and freely combined a patchwork of colors," she writes. "Reverence for the flag as sacred symbol only became popular during the Civil War."

Post-Civil War, she continues, teachers helped newly arrived immigrants - people speaking a panoply of tongues - to assimilate, and newly created schools became receptive to military-inspired rituals. The goal, she writes, was to create one national identity among the diverse groups pouring into the country. By 1892, 400 years after Columbus's arrival on North America's shores, few argued against repeating a Pledge that heralded a country "with liberty and justice for all." Public schools played a central role in spreading this ethos and were necessary sites for both political socialization and book learning.

The balance between these two responsibilities - deciding how much emphasis to place on the three Rs and how much to place on political engagement - remains delicate, and 150 years later we're still grappling with how best to fulfill the dual roles. Still, a quick look back at the past decade-and-a-half reveals what happens when countries fail to build a meaningful national consensus. As recent history demonstrates, when ethnic or religious loyalties trump national identity, trouble brews. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is now 15 countries, Yugoslavia is no more, and menacing tribal clashes have made most of Iraq and Afghanistan unlivable. These realities demonstrate the tension between love-it-or-leave-it boosterism and ethnic pride and are evidence of the fragility of nation-states that are held together by geography rather than evolving, deeply-felt, and unifying belief systems.

At the same time, knee-jerk patriotism can bleed into fascism, not democracy. University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen sees nationalism and patriotism as two sides of the same evil coin. "There is no way to rescue patriotism or distinguish it from nationalism," he argues, "which most everyone rejects as crude and jingoistic….Any use of the concept of patriotism is bound to be chauvinistic at some level. At its worst, patriotism can lead easily to support for barbaric policies, especially in war. At its best, it is self-indulgent and arrogant in its assumptions about the uniqueness of U.S. culture and willfully ignorant about the history and contemporary policy of this country." Worse, he concludes that patriotism "retards" moral development.

Editor Joel Westheimer of the University of Ottawa disagrees, at the same time offering an example of patriotism gone awry. He hones in on a November 2001 decision by the Nebraska School Board to impose a uniform social studies curriculum that includes "instruction in the superiority of U.S. forms of government, the dangers of communism and similar ideologies, the duties of citizenship, and appropriate patriotic exercises. The Board further specified that middle school instruction should instill love of country…and include exploits and deeds of American heroes, singing [of ] patriotic songs, memorizing The Star Spangled Banner and America, and reverence for the flag." It's shocking stuff made more disturbing by Westheimer's assertion that 25 states presently require daily recitation of the Pledge, as if this alone will promote engaged, freedom-loving people.

For Westheimer, it is a question of whether the patriotism proffered is authoritarian or democratic. "Authoritarian patriotism is a resigning of one's will, right of choice, and need to understand to the authority…. [It] asks for unquestioned loyalty," he writes. Democratic patriotism, he continues, is the opposite and requires inquiry and debate over ideas and strategies.

Mills College instructors Joseph Kahne and Ellen Middaugh call it constructive patriotism and urge educators to inculcate a love of country within students so that they can "critically assess what is needed and make it better." For them, and for the majority of Pledging Allegiance contributors, patriotism means working to eradicate racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and political disaffection. Their arguments are important and well-presented. Nonetheless, the volume would have been stronger had the voices of immigrant and native-born students and their teachers been included. It should also have informed us how Nebraskan educators and their unions have responded to the mandated curriculum. For example, have daily Pledge requirements been enforced? What about those who have resisted?

At the same time, Pledging Allegiance asks important questions about the role of schools and school employees in promoting a national identity and in debating whether patriotism can be compatible with democratic ideals. While it makes no attempt to settle the score, the arguments included are cogent and leave readers to decide for themselves what role civic concerns should play in both the school room and the public square.

Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn-based teacher, writer, and activist. She is the coauthor of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism (St. Martin's Press, 2001).

Winter 2007
Vol. 22, No. 4 :

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