In a somber back-to-school season gripped by the pandemic, President Donald Trump late last month announced a commission to promote a “patriotic education.” He provides a bleak picture of our nation’s classrooms, a radical wasteland where “left wing” teachers indoctrinate children to “hate America.” And despite a growing movement of educators calling for a more culturally diverse curriculum that acknowledges the impact of slavery and systemic racism in our country, Trump decries this push toward truth as “a form of child abuse.”
We, five of our nation’s teachers of the year, are deeply troubled by this.
A “patriotic education,” as we see it, is one where we embrace and value all students’ worth and dignity while creating spaces for them to consider the realities of our country, past and present, to build a better tomorrow. As teachers, we know that in our classrooms, we can hold our national victories, struggles, accomplishments, and missteps close while promising to fight together for a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people.” This is patriotism; this is American.
As educators, we know the exact opposite of the president’s accusations of indoctrination to be true. This is what teachers worth their salt actually do:
As educators, we know the exact opposite of the president's accusations of indoctrination to be true.
We teach our kids to embrace truth not by ignoring the ghosts of our country’s past, but by letting them guide—rather than haunt—us. We confront the uglier legacies of our history, including those people silenced and slaughtered in eras of genocide, slavery, and segregation. And we show how marginalized groups survived and thrived to carve their identity into what it means to be “American.” We do not shy away from or whitewash our national tragedies because doing so locks us into the status quo, unable to move on and learn from our past mistakes, and it robs students of truth.
We embrace multiple perspectives in our analysis—not just the white ones immortalized in mountains or statues. We honor the powerful voices that have too long existed in the margins of our textbooks. Beyond acknowledgment, we mourn their suffering, empathize with their struggle, and celebrate their joy. When envisioning an equitable future, we center their wisdom to light us through darker times.
We don’t teach students to hate our country. We help students think about and navigate complicated and sensitive life topics, from pandemic to protest.
We question how to teach with truth in our toxic political climate, one that increasingly assails our craft, especially on matters of science and history, as unpatriotic, dogmatic, and biased.
We provide empowered students with the tools to protect and improve upon the world they’ll inherit. We encourage them to question the actions of our country and to speak up against injustice, not because we’re unpatriotic but because we agree with 19th-century American statesman Carl Schurz’s understanding of the phrase “My country, right or wrong.” Schurz wrote: “If right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
We teach our kids to embrace our country but avoid blind nationalism that renders us too weak, too unwilling, or too incapable to envision progress.
We create spaces of unity where all students are allowed to love themselves and their fellow humans. We commit to this not only because so many in positions of power and influence work to dehumanize and divide us, but also because we realize that our solutions are found through, not in spite of, each other.
As practitioners of truth and evidence, we teachers have an obligation to teach through discomfort. We must help students be able to pose significant questions and solve problems within the confines of truth. Only then can they design solutions to our most pressing collective problems, be they the next pandemic, global inequality, or climate disruption. After all, the future of our nation, and our world, depends on their action.
So this fall, virtual and otherwise, we’ll be unpacking hard truths with our students, from how vulnerable populations bear the brunt of COVID-19 to how George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests echo the cries of pain from our nation’s racist past. Because that’s what patriotic teachers do.
We, as teachers, do this because we owe this to our students and to our nation. And we do this better with the support of our country’s most powerful leaders.
A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 2020 edition of Education Week as The Real ‘Patriotic Education’