Education, Autonomy, and Democratic Citizenship: Philosophy in a Changing World

By David Bridges | Go to book overview

2

NATIONAL MYTHS, DEMOCRACY AND EDUCATION

John White

DEMOCRACY AND NATIONAL SENTIMENT: THE COMPATIBILITY THESIS

Among the political aims of education, many liberals give a key place to preparation for democratic citizenship. Not all of them, by any means, also favour the cultivation of national sentiment. It is not surprising, given the bellicose history of the twentieth century, that supporters of liberal democracy have so often lined up against enthusiasts for the nation. Liberal democrats have stood for such values as personal self-determination, limited government and a politics based on the use of reason rather than force. Twentieth-century nationalists have subordinated individuals’ interests to those of the nation, loyalty to which has been presented as one’s highest duty; and have too often been quick to resort to war and to internal repression to promote their chauvinist goals.

In the last few years, the often taken-for-granted inconsistency between democratic and national ideals has been questioned. A vital distinction made here is between ‘national sentiment’ and ‘nationalism’. What we recoil against in our recent history is the latter, that is, the notion that one’s own nation is in some way superior to other nations and in the light of that demands our supreme loyalty. We have seen countless examples of this, from Hitler’s Germany through to Bosnia. But attachment to one’s nation need not bring with it the idea that it is better than others—any more than attachment to one’s family or workplace need be associated with such competitiveness. Patriotism is not necessarily nationalism.

Other features associated with national sentiment in our times also seem to be contingent. An ethnic basis, for instance. The violence which ethnic nationalism can unleash is all too familiar. But some nations, the Swiss for instance, have heterogeneous cultural origins. What binds a nation together is not necessarily ethnic pedigree or a common language (Switzerland again), but the shared beliefs of its members that they belong together, have a common history and look forward to a common future. All this is perfectly compatible with liberal-democratic values. National communities can be run (more or

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