Flag-draped auditoriums hosted student assemblies, “God Bless America” messages bedecked hallways, and principals and speakers rallied students to be patriotic in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Schoolhouses from sea to shining sea were awash in patriotism, mirroring the sentiment that gripped much of the nation after the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
Those events seem to have created an instant change in many places in the attitude toward civics education and the role of schools in cultivating patriotism, many observers say. What was once a mainstay of public education, but had lost significance and even become controversial because it was viewed as being at odds with a multicultural and inclusive message, came back in a stream of red, white, and blue this month.
Some historians and educators suggest that any apathy toward the importance of the nation’s civic values and the national motto of “E Pluribus Unum” will be jolted, at least temporarily, by a renewed emphasis on the critical role schools play in teaching citizens about American ideals. But disagreement exists over just how much flag-waving is appropriate.
“This kind of love of country is important, but the problem with patriotism is that it often blinds us to the negative side of American history,” argued John Marciano, the author of Civil Illiteracy and books on how textbooks cover the Vietnam and Perian Gulf wars.
Up until the latter part of the 20th century, schools were often looked to for building allegiance to the flag and cultivating a loyal citizenry. Early in the history of universal schooling, American textbooks were rife with patriotic narratives about the struggles of the nation’s founders to create a new republic. In the early part of the 20th century, some states mandated the teaching of the U.S. Constitution and the singing of “The Star- Spangled Banner” in schools.
Some states later required students to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school each day, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional in 1943.
During times of crisis, schools have tended to focus attention on common national beliefs and values, according to Margaret S. Branson, the associate director of the Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, Calif. “Those of us who lived through World War II experienced a greater feeling of brotherhood, and even during the Depression, there was a need to bring the country together,” she said.
Classroom lessons often reflected that public sentiment.
“Up until a certain time in history, Americans considered patriotism an essential public virtue, one that should be taught in school,” said Gilbert T. Sewall, the president of the American Textbook Council in New York City, which reviews the content of history and social studies textbooks. “It’s not gone, but certainly it’s been compromised. ... A lot of educators are allergic to patriotism.”
Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University, said that civics lessons in recent years have been awkward at best, highlighting individual rights and ignoring the responsibilities necessary for the success of a democratic society.
“Now, we’ve seen the overwhelming response of the American people who say they do believe in something larger than our own well-being as individuals,” she said. “This is absolutely going to have an effect on schools.”
Mr. Marciano and other educators say they are concerned such reactions could go too far and lead to collective amnesia about the nation’s often-bloody history both here and abroad. “To be a patriot, we need to also stand up when our government is wrong,” Mr. Marciano said.
In Ms. Branson’s view: “What we’re after with kids is not just being patriotic in a flag-waving sense, but understanding why they are patriotic, why they should be committed to basic principles of democracy. The young people of today have not seen the kind of cataclysmic events of previous generations. This is going to be a very sobering experience for them.”