In an op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal on Sept. 26, famed Yale historian Donald Kagan asserted that we no longer provide the kind of “patriotic education” essential to democracy. Civic participation, he argued, can only come about when we hold a common set of American values and a shared sense of identity. Kagan is not the only one thinking this. Would-be reformers on the Denver School Board are lobbying for a more “patriotic” AP U.S. History curriculum. Other conservatives are watching closely and in support.
Kagan and his allies argue that today’s curriculums are dominated by leftist scholarship. That’s a legitimate point and one I am inclined to believe. But I find his definition of patriotism vague and disturbing — and so should those who really do love their country.
Leftist scholarship certainly has its problems. Too often it abstains from moral judgment. But when it does consider morality, leftist scholarship swings to the other side of the pendulum, strangling in its own sanctimony when criticizing U.S. foreign policy. Sometimes, it refuses to entertain well-grounded historical arguments if they might lead to claims of American exceptionalism. For example, there is a legitimate case to be made that America’s constitution is remarkable in its foresight and courage.
But reactionaries in the other direction can be just as likely to ignore arguments that might question their underlying assumptions. Leftists may not consider American exceptionalism, but conservatives don’t question it. But history can rarely be sorted into such simple dichotomies. And, more to the point, good historical analysis shouldn’t use sources merely as a way to confirm prior suppositions.
There’s also an argument that the health of our democracy hinges upon the public knowing the ghosts that haunt America’s past.
America codified the enslavement of an entire race of people until 1865. Then, for another hundred years, it consigned them to impoverished second-class citizenship. We interned Japanese-Americans during World War II. We supported autocratic regimes in Latin America and the Middle East. These are powerful narratives, well-supported by good historical analysis of the existing sources. Any curriculum that tries to gloss over these facts does more than evade truth. It ill-prepares students to understand today’s complex realities.
Patriotism is about more than unqualified reverence for one’s country. It is about a commitment to bettering one’s nation and upholding its most sacred values. Some of these stories do not present a savory vision of America. But understanding them is crucial if we as a nation are to solve real and pressing issues that affect us today.
The maxim “ideas have consequences” cuts both ways. After 9/11, Kagan wrote, “most Americans also expressed a new unity, an explicit patriotism and love of their country not seen among us for a very long time.” He seems to be forgetting that this newfound unity and patriotism empowered our leaders to make disastrous decisions abroad, costing our nation both blood and treasure.
Does this mean we should discourage a love of country? Not necessarily. This patriotism coincided with record-high levels of volunteerism and charitable donations across the country. But we need both sides of the story to make a proper evaluation. And only this fully formed version of history can help prevent repeated blunders.
Too often, both sides make the mistake of viewing the pedagogy of history as a zero-sum game. It is entirely possible — in fact, preferred — for students to learn both about America’s many achievements without sugarcoating its past and current moral failings. To suggest otherwise is insulting to students and teachers. But it’s also insulting to America.
I don’t think Kagan gives America enough credit. This country is great enough that it can withstand even the most blistering cross-examination. For every Guantanamo, there’s a moon landing. We’ve cured global diseases, won two world wars and often sent our soldiers to help countries when a natural disasters or epidemics strike.
“Unpatriotic” questions on the AP U.S. History exam are not part of a leftwing conspiracy to undermine American democracy. If one really believes America is exceptional, and that there are facts to prove it, one should have no problem with curricula that challenge our brightest learners and force them to rigorously evaluate history. They will learn about the genocide of Native Americans. But they will also learn about the immigrants who came to this nation in search of a better life and found one. They will learn about the gilded age and its tremendous costs. But they will also learn about the muckrackers who, because of our constitutional rights, were able to strike at injustice with nothing more than a pen and the printing press.
I have faith that accurate education can give rise to accurate patriotism. I have faith that an informed citizenry can not only participate in democracy, but also make it better. I have faith in America.
Aaron Sibarium is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.