Last year, I counted six different languages among the fourteen students in my classroom. One student had moved back to Wisconsin after spending most of his life in Mexico. One walked here by himself after a cartel murdered his mother. Several fled violence in Somalia and refugee camps in Ethiopia. A few others are descended from Hmong refugees. Each one had recently immigrated to Wisconsin and come to my class to learn English as a second language.
My classroom could house a proxy war of political controversy. Should it be English only? Should I turn in the students whom I know are in the US illegally? Should I encourage assimilation? What should I teach? The question most pertinent today, however, is whether I should encourage these students to love their new country, the United States of America.
While helping my students with their social studies homework, I have noticed a trend: their projects and readings often cast America as the villain. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this perspective comes from an activist theory of education, wherein the teacher’s role is not to teach content, per se, but to deconstruct the social norms and oppressive structures in society, thereby allowing students to create their own. Thus, America is the villain to be deconstructed. There are two major issues with this: it stunts the reformist mindset that many educators hope to pass on to the next generation and instills a pessimistic worldview that harms individual students.
I am not suggesting we mandate superficial rituals like the unconstitutional requirement that students stand for the pledge—a demand which has been ably debunked elsewhere in this magazine. I don’t require my students to stand for the pledge: I only ask that they remain silent out of respect for those who do. Instead, I recommend something more expansive: that American luminaries, such as Edgar Allan Poe and John Coltrane, be incorporated into literature and music classes as pinnacles of artistic achievement; that our geography and national parks be used not just as vehicles to criticize agencies and corporations for environmental degradation, but also appreciated for themselves; and that the ingenuity of the American political system be emphasized, as much as its faults. This is a question of pedagogy and curricula, not of arbitrary rituals.
Having observed countless immigrant students over the course of my career, I find it bizarre when Americans express scorn for their country on its day of independence. My students have far better reasons to hate the countries from which they came: fathers with missing limbs from machete attacks, mothers killed by cartels, abject poverty. Nonetheless, when I ask them if they want to move back once they graduate, every single one of them says yes. Some of them miss the culture and landscape. Others want to bring their western education to bear on the problems their home countries face. Each of them loves her country despite its imperfections and seeks not to destroy but to correct it.
Compare that to the attitude of Beto O’Rourke, who recently said that “this country was founded on white supremacy.” Similarly, the New York Times’ 1619 Project is predicated on the assumption that America began as a nation in the year 1619, when the first slaves arrived, and so its fundamental principle is racism. To deny America’s stained past is ignorant—but so is this insinuation that these flaws are the reason for its foundation. While I lament the long history of oppression of women and people of color, reformers sought to change America by using the country’s founding principles—equality before the law, human dignity, individual liberty and regulated government—not in spite of them.
Appealing to American ideals in his address “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,“ Frederick Douglass asks if “the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to [slaves]?” The principles didn’t but he desired their expansion. He esteemed the founders of America as “simple, dignified and sublime,” and knew that the abolition of slavery would be an extension of their legacy not a repudiation of it.
In a letter to Henry Pierce, Abraham Lincoln addresses the views that the pro-slavery politicians held about Thomas Jefferson’s ideals, writing that “one dashingly calls them ‘glittering generalities’; another bluntly calls them ‘self-evident lies’; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to ‘superior races.’” Lincoln knew that it was only by renouncing the nation’s founding principles that slave owners and racist politicians could justify their positions.
America’s founding principles and chattel slavery are antithetical to each other—so much so that the conflict pushed the country into civil war within a century of the Constitution’s writing. Our foundations and slavery could not coexist.
During the push for women’s suffrage, Susan B. Anthony made ample use of the preamble to the constitution. During a speech made while she was under indictment for voting, she argues that “it was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union.” She sought not to deconstruct the founding principles, but to perfect their manifestation.
In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton provides a poetic explanation of the driving force behind the aforementioned American reformers. He applies a common Christian motif—that a thing should not be loved because it is great; it becomes great because it is loved. Discussing Pimlico, a neighborhood of London and in Chesterton’s mind a “desperate thing,” he writes:
It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case, he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico … If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.
When Trump told four congresswomen to “go back to where they came from,” it sparked a debate on the right over whether or not immigrants should feel a special sense of gratitude to their adoptive country. Parsing out how much gratitude someone owes his country is asinine, yet there is a utilitarian benefit to loving one’s country. It was Frederick Douglass’ love of the country’s founding principles that led him to push for abolition. It was Susan B. Anthony’s belief in the constitution that led her to advance the cause of women’s suffrage. It was Lincoln’s adherence to America’s principles that kept him from succumbing to resignation.
I wonder what part education has had to play in socialism’s increasing popularity in America. If our country is truly irredeemable and detestable, it doesn’t take much of a logical leap to justify completely restructuring the system. Without a love of country, utter deconstruction follows naturally.
America has many problems: an epidemic of mass shootings, homelessness, a history of imperialism and racism, ongoing racial disparities and rising suicide rates, to name a few. However, if we teach our children about these issues without instilling a concurrent love of the country, we risk losing the drive that inspired our greatest reformers. Patriotism doesn’t blind people to their country’s wrongs—it encourages them to correct them.
The attitude one takes towards one’s country doesn’t just affect the trajectory of that country as a whole. To inculcate an antipathy towards their own country is to risk engendering an unhealthy fatalism in students. In the educational world, we call this learned helplessness. If students believe that they can succeed, they will try. If failure is assumed, they won’t.
What happens, then, when we tell students that the country in which they live was founded in opposition to them? Is it not a kind of fatalism to teach that seemingly insurmountable barriers and systemic racism almost predestine certain students to secondary status? Normally, theorists assume that students develop learned helplessness after being given too many tasks that are too difficult to complete and denied proper support too many times, thus teaching them to expect failure. I worry that this kind of messaging risks causing the same result.
This isn’t merely an academic issue. Stories abound of schools in chaos. I myself have broken up countless fights, watched students crawl around under their desks during class, and heard stories about fecal matter smeared on walls. Think pieces blame lack of funding, changing discipline structures, antiquated or ineffective content, lackluster teaching and a host of other causes. In his book Discrimination and Disparities, Thomas Sowell blames a generalized cultural rot that followed the 1960s, caused by a sense of entitlement to welfare, broken families and a lowering of behavioral expectations influenced by cultural relativity. This fatalism risks spreading a similar cultural toxicity.
Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler have studied the effects of fatalistic beliefs on moral behavior. They gave one set of participants texts with fatalistic implications and the other texts that affirmed individual agency and free will. They then gave both sets of participants various tasks to complete, during which seemingly unintended opportunities for cheating occurred. Those who had read the fatalistic texts were more likely to either cheat or misrepresent their results. This led the researchers to conclude that a belief in free will and a sense of agency encourage moral behavior.
This study suggests that we should be wary of encouraging a pessimistic view of the country among our students. If tests are biased against certain cultures, why put in the effort? If banks will deny mortgages and businesses reject applications from certain groups, why pursue the academic success that could pave the way to homeownership and entrepreneurship? If you’re destined for prison whatever you do, why choose the moral but difficult life? For our students to succeed, it is necessary that they believe that they can. When students love their country and see their potential within it, it will foster a natural drive towards success.
During my graduate studies, many students and professors lamented the current state of history education in America, accusing schools of whitewashing our corrupt past. However, the narrative that America is fundamentally broken is equally lamentable. We should replace both with the accurate narrative: that America has fallen short of a glittering ideal. In addition, in history, literature and geography classes, students can learn about those things that elicit a natural love of our country: mountain ranges, jazz music, national pastimes, founding principles and the like. America is imperfect, but far from a villain. We need to remind our kids of that.