There is big debate among academics about whether patriotism and nationalism should be a goal of public education. On the surface, the debate is whether nationalism leads to nefarious practices (war, for example), or whether nationalism is a prerequisite for making a sacrifice to the community, which is a prerequisite for distributive justice.

I am very happy to link to Alasdair Macintyre’s book on this topic, After Virtue, because I was in a seminar in college called Theories of Justice, and I absolutely could not keep my eyes open. My need to go to sleep became so painful, and my efforts to stay awake were so huge that I actually started hallucinating in the class and I spoke out of turn, like a psychotic person.

I say this to tell you that in college, sticking to someone else’s schedule for learning was nearly torture for me, and then only reason I could even graduate was that I had all independent studies by my senior year. I look back and think: Of course I was going to homeschool my kids. I just didn’t know it.

Anyway, the debate about teaching nationalism in public school is most interesting to me because there is an assumed quid pro quo involved in the argument: that in exchange for the government providing a free education to children, the government gets to decide what is correct for citizens to learn.

Ironically, with our insanely terrible campaign finance laws, the rich people essentially decide who governs us. And the rich people don’t send their kids to public school.

So now we have a two-tiered indoctrination system where public school kids sit through nationalism diatribes masquerading as history so that they will be better at sacrifice (presumably for the 1% who pay less in taxes than they do). The rich kids, meanwhile, are able to buy their way out of indoctrination and can go on their merry way learning how to be rich kids.

I know I sound like a fringe thinker, but this is not so much because I am saying outlandish things but more because I feel the need to include everything I learned in college about establishing a republic, which is a lot, by the way, because that class with Alasdair McIntyre also featured Socrates and Plato and the boys they had sex with in the name of teaching who then went on to become philosophers.

So really I am mainstream thinking about government and education. In the New York Times yesterday there was an op-ed by Pamela Druckerman about how to become French.  The conclusion is not so much that it’s a passport thing so much as a going-to-school thing. The French indoctrinate the students into being French citizens.

The French have a problem, of course: their language is going the same way that Latin did, only faster now in the Internet Age. In response to this demise, the French Academy outlaws many American words; for example, the word hashtag is banned. So when you see # in writing you must say mot-diese. (There is an accent over the e, which I am not going to figure out how to add because the language is almost dead anyway.)

So with a dying language and an overbearing government (or socialist, depending on your political bent) the French take for granted that one big purpose of the schools is to indoctrinate the children on what being French means.

Not so much in American schools. Druckerman’s piece elicited this response from a reader:

Decades ago, my parents were displaced persons living in Morocco. Shortly after my birth, they were finally able to emigrate: their choice was America or France. My father, who spoke French fluently and had family in France famously declared, “If we go to France, my children will never be considered French. If we go to America, they will be Americans.” His three children are very grateful for his wise choice.

The US is a melting pot. We accept anyone as an American citizen. And aside from racist crazies, we believe that if you get a green card, that’s it: you’re American.

So in the US we don’t need school to teach us to be citizens. Our ancestors came here, with no other place to live out their dreams, and they got to give it a shot in the US. We all come from that. It’s our common thread. Well, except for the Native Americans we continue to torture with preposterously inconsisten laws. (But that’s another post. Just letting you know that I can be politically correct when I want to be.)

Other countries need public schools to preserve their national culture. The culture of the US is ingenuity, bravery, pluck. Because that’s what it takes to leave everything in your home country and start over in the US.

We don’t admire hierarchy, rules, and order. Social mobility, diversity, and self-reliance require an educational system that encourages individualized thinking. We can’t teach that in schools, so we need to make sure school treasures it where we have it.


27 replies
  1. Mark Kenski
    Mark Kenski says:

    From a very early age, we begin to master half the freedom equation: my freedom. We start working on this as toddlers and perhaps reach the natural pinnacle in our late teens or early twenties.

    The other half of the equation though, your freedom, is a bit more challenging. It does not come so naturally to most people. It has to be cultivated and reinforced so that we may all live in freedom.

    The first freedom cannot exist if the second does not. So we have little choice but the protect the freedom of others.

    The reason ingenuity and bravery and pluck, as you say, are what matters in the US, is because people have a relatively high degree of freedom here. Freedom to fail, and that is the same freedom to succeed. It is the freedom to try.

    It is the fact that places without freedom cause these same personal attributes to lead to imprisonment or isolation or death that drives people to America and always has.

    So I suppose I disagree that it is not important to teach “American culture” in schools or in home schooling. I believe it is important to teach our children to be not just residents of a place, but good citizens of this, our, nation. Or at least of our civilization.

    Do schools get it wrong a lot of the time? Sure, Are there problems? Anything with freedom to succeed also has the freedom to fail. You cannot rid a system of failure without ridding it of freedom and that is something there are always factions willing to promote.

  2. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Well damn, that dredged up a lot of crap in me.

    I remember the Pledge of Allegiance and being taught that this is the land of the free and the home of the brave, and that anybody can be President, and that we’re the best country in the world and that things are just and fair here. And so if you just do your part as a citizen it will perpetuate the greatness of this nation.

    And then as an adult I learned that most of that is just not as true as we were taught. Except….that part about doing our part as citizens. We really can make those things true. So apparently the indoctrination we all got in school didn’t work very well.

  3. HomeschoolDad
    HomeschoolDad says:

    The push to teach “patriotism” came from the oligarchy after the turn of the century. They were reacting to the massive immigration wave and feared nothing more than labor unrest. These were the robber baron types after all. They pushed for a massive expansion of schooling so they could Americanize this rabble horde. Students were to learn to be obedient to authority, to learn English and patriotism (e.g. Pledge of Allegiance), and at the same time they were to be severed from not only their cultural heritage, but also from their parents and their religion. All of this is copiously explained and documented in John Taylor Gatto’s terrific books.

  4. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    We have these kinds of conversations in my home all the time. My husband, who is a rocket scientist and huge supporter of my radical unschooling, says that the majority of people WANT to be told what to do and what to believe, they don’t want to be individual thinkers (we use the term freethinking).

    Since he has a much better grasp on how people’s minds work than I do, it is difficult for me to argue with him because I don’t know if it’s true or not. In my own experience I feel that individual thinking is the ultimate freedom in life and so why wouldn’t others want to live that way, why do they simply just do what the masses do?

    He tells me that I am wrong and that we are part of a minority and that even though he agrees with us we can’t expect the same from everyone else, following social norms brings people comfort, in his opinion.

    I’m not sure I agree with it.

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      I think your husband is on the mark. (hehe)

      I miss the days when I trusted the church to tell me for sure the ways of god. It’s lonely and cold and uncertain out here but as much as I miss the comfort I just can’t go back.

      ps. I.LOVE.AMERICA.

      I don’t even care what people say.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        I think you can still love your country even if you know all the ugly truths.

        The issue that I have is that history is being taught in US classrooms with a Eurocentric point of view. Kids learn that Columbus discovered America. What they don’t teach is that the Chinese were in America and all the way down to Peru (the Buddhist monks) 1000 years before Columbus. Very few people know that in the US.

        • karelys
          karelys says:

          I think this is a similar problem everywhere you go.
          In grade school I learned the word expropriation in the context of a Mexican president “heroically” returning the petroleum territories to Mexico.
          I come to the US and in my history class I learned the other side of the coin. Mexico stole it. I was aghast. Who was right? Well it depends on the law of each county.

          In Mexico the gov. can take over your business and your property (legally) if you are not a citizen but have permits to work.
          In the US the gov. can legally take your property if they think you’re involved in a crime but do not have to prove you are.

          It’s nuts.

          But everyone is the hero in their own story.

    • jayson
      jayson says:

      In my experience working with engineers, they do not specialize in how people’s minds work…which is why they are engineers rather than working in sales. ;)

      I agree somewhat with the conclusion, but not the premise. I would argue that most people are smart, they just think about different things and have different priorities. It is time-consuming and (frankly) boring to critically comprehend all information so we all use heuristics or models and glaze over the details.

      Some base assumptions many have are that people in authority are correct so rather than investigating or spending the time to learn contrary views, it’s easier to assume they are correct and stay focused on other tasks.

      I’d argue that the result is the almost the same.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        My husband is like a “people-whisperer”. It has served him well everywhere he goes. It is the only reason why he started earning 6 figures one year after getting his bachelor’s degree in engineering. It’s the only thing that helps him stand out in a sea of MIT, Stanford, and Caltech engineers.

        I admit, I have a very difficult time understanding the way most people think. My faulty assumption that everyone thinks purely logically has made me sound sanctimonious at times. Or as my husband says “You sound so arrogant when you talk.” I honestly don’t mean to sound that way.

        I like your explanation, that makes sense to me. In the busyness of life, some people working 3 jobs you don’t have all the free time to think and question and research to form your own conclusions, this kind of makes me sad.

    • Jessica
      Jessica says:

      You can’t expect the same, but you can respect them.

      Personal Freedom comes with Great Responsibility. Nothing about that is an easy road.

      I believe it was Steve jobs that said once you have the means to be responisible for your dreams life becomes exponentially harder. I know this to be true 100x over.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Sure, this is true. The majority of the people feel a great need to belong. In primitive societies, there was ritual dance to bring unity and group cohesiveness. In modern America, there are college sports and religious worship and military service and occupy wall street to bring group cohesiveness.

      You are an INTJ. For you, it’s: “Let’s all get together at our own
      homes, with books.”

  5. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I agree with PT’s conclusions but not her method. I think that instruction in American culture would be almost unavoidable in homeschooling because it exercises a hegemonic influence over the entire world, so that much of what passes for culture in general is in fact American culture. For example, I am a fan of American literature, so I happily share Twain with my children – as did most parents in Russia for generations.

    Our government doesn’t have to prop up our cinematography industry, because we make movies for the world, and every dirt-floor diesel-generator cinema in the back of beyond plays our movies. The project of familiarity with the basics of American culture, literature, and philosophy could be achieved quite easily – say, by watching the longest running prime-time series in history. It’s all right out there. They don’t have such a luxury in France, where the culture, like the language, needs a little help from the government to survive.

    As far as the intentional instruction in nationalism in public schools, PT has it quite right: it’s just shallow jingoism, at which the upper classes laugh. The idea that it’s an expression of our superb freedom is perhaps an example of its success. I don’t think anybody would be advised to come to the United States to reduce the likelihood of imprisonment, for example – we imprison more citizens than any other country.

    Nationalism, the formation of a national character, and the codification of a common language, are all part of the fundamental project of public schools since they were invented in 18th century Prussia. It is no accident that the unification of Germany and the extension of a uniform educational system happened around the same time. Likewise, the majority of Frenchmen did not speak French at all before compulsory public education was instituted. And in America, public education had the acculturation of our many immigrants and the fabrication of a common nationality as part of their original mission. For the poor and middle class, that is; the rich had other plans.

    One of the big differences between the US and countries like France or Germany is that here, following the English model, the upper class has never sent its kids to public school. The founders of the country didn’t, and the rulers of the country don’t. The founders of public schooling itself didn’t, and the heads of our public school system still don’t. There’s always been one system for the few and another for the many.

    The project of American nationalism is to some degree congruous with this fact: to a greater degree here than in other countries, it’s what you say to the little people while you expatriate capital behind their backs. This may derive from our origins as (and, lately, return to) an extractive economy. The plantation lives on, though its headquarters have been moved to Dubai.

    • jayson
      jayson says:

      Well said. I’d quibble that capital is simply changing ownership and that it’s in plain sight. Expatriation is sometimes a side effect.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s such a fine line. Nationalism doesn’t work without a cohesive social fabric based on beliefs.

      As I write that I think, on the one hand: blah blah blah

      On the other hand I think public school is so integral to the base of our power structures that it’s scary.


  6. sarah
    sarah says:

    I hate it when you write two blog posts I want to comment on in one day. I simply do not have the time to voice myself adequately. I especially hate it when the interent blips and my beautiful word sare swalloed in the vortex and I have to re-type.

    Wonderful thoughts. Enjoyed the post.

    Indians. It is so stupid for our government to try to write laws controlling the indians, because there is no way the police are going out into the heart of the rez to enforce them. If our government feel such a need to police them, then they should help create jobs and give Indians hope of escaping proverty and domestic violence.

    Marijuana. I totally agree with legalizing marijuana. I actually think they should open factories on the reservation, to allow for jobs. However, the problem would be you would wind up just selling to your workers, which does nothing to lift the proverty levels.

    The solution. Tribes should seek to copy the ideas of the Tribe which owns Quest Casino in Spokane Wa. The Casino is located far enough from the Rez that their own people are not gambling there, but are profiting off of others. It is slowly helping the Tribe pull out of proverty and enter into a higher paid class.

  7. Caro
    Caro says:

    “…Our ancestors came here, with no other place to live out their dreams, and they got to give it a shot in the US. We all come from that. It’s our common thread.”

    I’m always amazed that that the now dominant Italian-Irish-English-whatever white Americans forget this and want to stop the flow of immigrants. It wasn’t so long ago that these groups faced the racism and exclusion that they advocate today.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      One might, conversely, imagine that badmouthing the latest flow of immigrants is a perennial American tradition, and wonder why the latest group to be as vilified as once were the Irish and Italians should think they deserve a bye.

      Nobody handed our ancestors pain-free assimilation on a silver platter. That’s also our common thread.

  8. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    The NYT oped by Druckerman was from November. Not yesterday. It matters. I was reading your post and though, really, again? Because I’d remembered reading it…in November.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh. I am very bad with those sorts of details. I’m sorry. What I really meant is I read it yesterday :)


      • Gretchen
        Gretchen says:

        Thanks…I felt bitchy after posting. I appreciate your nice reply : )
        I was like, what, another one from that Druckerman woman!?!

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