Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Patriotism for grown-ups

The title for this post comes from Eric Liu, the founder of Citizen University and former White House speechwriter for President Clinton. It comes at the end of an article he wrote back in October of 2014 at the height of the fury in one Colorado school district over the new AP US history framework. It is my understanding that the College Board intends to review the feedback they received this year and will announce a new edition of the AP US history framework. But I don't feel like waiting for that.

Saturday is the 4th of July. And this has been an historic month-- the shooting in Charleston, Obama's intense eulogy, the historic Supreme Court decision of last Friday, and another black church in flames last night, even as Confederate flags have come down. All these events occurring just as we get ready to celebrate our nation's ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence....

And so I write this post to echo the points made by Eric Liu in the article mentioned above (which you can read here). His point is that is rather childish to hold to a view of our nation as one that can do no wrong. True patriotism cannot simply point out where our nation has gone wrong. But neither should patriotism lead us to blindly extol our nation's virtues and triumphs without mention of its flaws and defeats. If we are responsible for teaching patriotism to children, he suggests, we must "behave like adults. Which means admitting that even though we Americans have done good things, and still do, we have also done bad things and still do."

If you think about it, even kindergartners can understand that. Which makes me wonder why so many politicians and pundits think AP high school students wouldn't.

So whether you are teaching college students, high school students--in an AP class or not--or middle school, you are teaching young adults. And our young adults can handle the fact that our history has highs and lows, heroes and villains, and everything in between. If pretend otherwise, we are insulting their intelligence.

Furthermore, we risk losing their trust. Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident who became the first president of Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism, writes, "Lying can never save us from the lie. Falsifiers of history do not safeguard freedom but imperil it."

Sometimes I think it is precisely because of the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence that Americans have such a hard time admitting the bad stuff. Every nation and every group of people has its dirty laundry. The U.S. is no exception. But the idea of American exceptionalism has perhaps made it harder for us to come to grips with that. The Declaration of Independence promises so much. It is uncomfortable when we see evidence of not living up to it.

Particularly this 4th of July, because of recent events, there will likely be quite a few interesting articles popping up about this American exceptionalism,and the meaning of liberty. Here is one --"Celebrate Liberty Month: Wanted: American Exceptionalism" worth a read. So keep a look out throughout the holiday weekend, as there are sure to be others. Perhaps one of them will be appropriate for sharing with students in the fall. It could even be a good first day/week activity: to what extent has the U.S. lived up to its ideals? Discuss. Revisit the question at the end of the year.

For ideas about teaching the Declaration of Independence, check out my post, "Ideas for Teaching the Declaration of Independence: Text, Storytelling and Long-term Significance." I'm especially fond of idea #6 and 7 in that post. But there is other good stuff there. Like the great story about Jefferson and Adams both dying on the same day, which happened to be the July 4th, 1826--the 50th anniversary of what became Independence Day.

I will conclude this post with a final thought from Frederick Douglass. In honor of the 4th, check out his famous speech, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July" here. But the words I want to end this post with are from an earlier speech he gave in Syracuse in 1847. He defines--most brilliantly--the meaning of a true patriot. A grown up patriot.

I make no pretension to patriotism. So long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation. In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot; for he is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.

Happy Fourth of July. Here's to becoming an ever more perfect union.

And to a World Cup victory from the U.S. Women's team on the 5th!

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