NOT LONG AGO, I was among a group of visitors to a public elementary school in New York City. The school had achieved a certain renown for its programs in the arts, and we came to learn more about what the staff was doing. The principal met us at the door and soon began to speak glowingly about the school's accomplishments. He mentioned that the school was attended by children from nearly 40 different nations and cultures and that it went to great lengths to encourage the students to have pride in their cultural heritage. There were children in the school from Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe, and India. All of them were learning to appreciate the foods, dances, customs, and literature of their native countries. Quietly, I asked him whether the school did anything to encourage students to appreciate American culture, and he admitted with embarrassment that it did not.
This seems to me a great paradox in American public education today. Educators believe that children's self-esteem is firmly linked to a positive relationship to their ancestral culture but not to the culture of the country in which they live and are citizens of and in which they will one day raise a family, earn a living, and participate in elections. How strange to teach a student born in this country to be proud of his parents' or grandparents' land of birth but not of his or her own. Or to teach a student whose family fled to this country from a tyrannical regime or from dire poverty to identify with that nation rather than with the one that gave the family refuge.
The extent to which we abhor or admire patriotism in the schools depends on how it is taught. If we teach it narrowly as jingoistic, uncritical self-praise of our nation, then such instruction is wrong. It would be indoctrination rather than education. If, however, we teach civic education and define patriotism as a respectful understanding and appreciation of the principles and practices of democratic self-government, then patriotism should be woven through the daily life and teachings of the public schools.
Until the last generation, American public schools took the teaching of patriotism very seriously. The school day began with the Pledge of Allegiance, every classroom displayed an American flag, the flag was raised each day over the school, and students learned the songs of the American civil religion--the national anthem, "God Bless America," "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," "America the Beautiful," "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," etc. Since the earliest days of public education, the schools were expected to teach students about the history, culture, and symbols of America and to encourage them to feel part of the nation. If anything, the public schools in the United States were generally viewed by the public as an institutional expression of national pride, because they were considered the quintessential governmental instrument for building a strong and vibrant national community. It was understood that students and families came from a wide variety of national and ethnic origins, and the public schools were expected to teach everyone about the duties and privileges of citizenship in the United States. The public schools were to instruct students about voting and jury duty, about how the government works, and about national ideals and aspirations.
In many ways, American schools were very much like the state schools of every other nation, which invariably teach students to respect the larger community that supplies and funds their education. No state system teaches its children to despise their own government. But American schools probably went further in their patriotic spirit than the schools of other nations, for two reasons. First, other nations are based on ties of blood or religion, but the United States is a social creation, evolving not from common inherited features but from a shared adherence to the democratic ideology embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. …