9

THE PLACE OF NATIONAL IDENTITY IN THE AIMS OF EDUCATION 1

Penny Enslin

Should the teaching of national identity have a place in the aims of education? Although national identity, nationalism and nationality have recently enjoyed renewed interest and sympathetic treatment, both in terms of their ethical and cultural significance (Miller 1993; Tamir 1993) and in relation to education (White 1996; Tamir 1992), I argue in this chapter against the promotion of national identity in schools. My central claim is that the teaching of national identity is likely to undermine the educational aims of autonomy and democratic citizenship.

Like most published work in philosophy of education, much of the recent debate about nationalism has taken place in, and is about, liberal democracies. But nationalism and national identity vary according to context. As Anne McClintock observes, ‘there is no single narrative of the nation . . . nationalisms are invented, performed, and consumed in ways that do not follow a universal blueprint’ (1993: 67). Some current expressions of nationalism appear to be quite benign, when contrasted (for example) with the nationalism of ethnic cleansing. In taking current debate about nation building in South African education as my example, the concerns which I raise in this chapter about national identity as an aim of education are more suited to education in societies without strong liberal traditions, especially post-colonial ones with heterogeneous populations and authoritarian traditions. But these concerns do none the less also point to the dangers of nationalism to education in liberal democracies.

For the purposes of this discussion I shall follow Liah Greenfeld’s example and treat nationalism as an umbrella term ‘under which are subsumed the related phenomena of national identity (or nationality) and consciousness, and . . . nations’ (1992: 3). I understand identity to be a sense of self, one’s understanding of who one is in relation to others in a particular place and time. While little detail has been offered by proponents of education for nation building in South Africa (Mkwanazi and Cross 1992; McGurk 1990) of what such a process would involve, I take it that, when schools set out to teach a particular national identity, they set out firstly to persuade children to see themselves as belonging to one nation, which is a constituent part of their understanding of who they are. This has a second, moral implication: children’s identity as members of a nation acquires a moral authority in terms of which ties of loyalty to the nation will influence in a fundamental way their behaviour towards one another, and ultimately the character of the political life in which they will participate. Accepting a certain national identity would persuade people to believe that they belong to the nation and that this membership imposes on them moral obligations to their fellow nationals. Presumably this implies, thirdly, that the school curriculum would include ingredients which explicitly set out to persuade children that they belong to a particular nation.

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