IS PATRIOTISM good for democracy? Or does a commitment to patriotism threaten democracy? Educators do not agree on this issue. Chester Finn (former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan Administration) argues that, since September 11, "American education has generally made a mess of a teaching opportunity" by focusing on "tolerance and multiculturalism, not civics and patriotism." (1) In an essay titled "Patriotism Revisited," he worries that "it's become a compulsion to pull down America rather than celebrate and defend it." (2) This view aligns with William Damon's perspective that "too many students today learn all about what is wrong with our society without gaining any knowledge of our society's great moral successes. To establish a sound cognitive and affective foundation for citizenship education," Damon writes, "schools need to begin with the positive, to emphasize reasons for caring enough about our democratic society to participate in it and to improve it. Schools need to foster a sympathetic understanding informed by all the facts and energized by a spirit of patriotism." (3)
Other educators see a problem related to patriotism that is very different from the one described by Finn and Damon. Rather than worrying that there is excessive criticism of the U.S. in schools and a lack of patriotism among youths, they point to pressure, exerted in the name of patriotism, on individual citizens and groups to refrain from criticizing the actions and policies of the U.S. government. In addition, they note a growing set of global problems that require international cooperation. (4) These considerations lead some to flat out reject patriotic sentiments in favor of commitments to global citizenship and principles of international human rights. (5)
Is there a problem or not? And if there is a problem, which problem is it? Are schools turning students into critics of the U.S. who can't appreciate the country's strengths? Or is the opposite occurring? Is the push for patriotism in response to 9/11 leading students toward patriotic commitments at the expense of critical analysis and an appreciation of the need to protect human rights and democratic principles? Unfortunately, we have little data to draw on when thinking about these issues. Schools systematically monitor the number of 11th-graders who know the difference between equilateral and right triangles, but we often rely on journalists' interviews with three or four students to assess what high school students think about patriotism and democracy.
For this reason, we decided to take a systematic look at high school seniors' views on patriotism and its relationship to democracy. In doing so, we are hoping to reframe the discussion. "Is patriotism good or bad?" The answer is not one or the other but "It depends." The values, priorities, and behaviors associated with patriotism can vary dramatically. Some forms of patriotism are profoundly democratic, and other forms can undermine democratic ideals. It is therefore very important that we clarify the factors responsible for these different outcomes.
In sorting through the ways to make these distinctions, we found it very helpful to consider the two standards provided by John Dewey for a "democratically constituted society": 1) "How numerous and varied are the interests that are consciously shared?" and 2) "How full and free is the interplay with other modes of association?" (6) In other words, a democratic society requires that citizens recognize their common interests and that they fully and openly discuss their differing perspectives on issues related to these common priorities.
The implications for a democratic vision of patriotism are substantial. Patriotic commitments in a democratic society should be motivated by and reinforce recognition of the variety of interests that citizens have in common. In addition, these patriotic commitments should not constrain what Dewey called "free and full interplay" and what we might call informed debate and discussion that considers a wide range of views. …