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Pledging Allegiance: The Politics of Patriotism in America's Schools

reviewed by Melissa Bass - July 19, 2007

coverTitle: Pledging Allegiance: The Politics of Patriotism in America's Schools
Author(s): Joel Westheimer
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807747505 , Pages: 240, Year: 2007
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In this book, Joel Westheimer brings together a collection of thoughtful and engaging essays on American schools’ teaching of patriotism, both what this means and how it should be taught. With 33 authors contributing short chapters and vignettes, the book conveys the feeling of a meaningful conversation, one with varied perspectives but also a broadly shared belief in “patriotism that embodies dissent” (p. 3). The book’s strength, and what makes it well worth reading, is found in the richly detailed, highly readable, and often personal stories its authors tell. Further, the diversity represented in the collection – across time and geography as well as race and ethnicity – both broaden its appeal and deepen its lessons. The book’s weakness, and what detracts somewhat from its contribution to our understanding of patriotism and education, is that there is so little dissent from the patriotism of dissent. However, if readers engage the book as critically as most of its authors would like us to engage our government, they can learn something valuable even from this shortcoming.

In his introduction, Westheimer places the book in its larger post-9/11 political context. The attacks and subsequent wars brought patriotism and the debate about patriotism to the fore and as he notes, “Nowhere are the debates around these various visions of patriotic attachment more pointed, more protracted, and more consequential than in our nation’s schools” (p. 2). Many of the essays focus on what students should learn about our government, history, values and culture, especially during wartime. Their prescriptions are wide-ranging, drawing on the authors’ own practice and observations of others. For example, Denise Walsh describes teaching the Alien and Sedition Acts together with the Patriot Act; Deborah Meier initiates a year-long school-wide exploration of the question, “Who is an American, anyhow?” (p. 57). Diana Hess and Louis Ganzler compare three teachers’ approaches to helping students value diverse political views, while Gerald Gaff explains the benefits of “teaching the debate” about patriotism (p. 65).

Other essays focus on the influence of law and policy. At the constitutional level, Karen Emily Suurtamm and Edwin C. Darden discuss the First Amendment free speech rights of teachers and students, and how limitations on these rights can stifle a free exchange of views. Others focus on the No Child Left Behind Act, with authors arguing that both its testing requirements and mandate that schools provide access and information to military recruiters narrow and bias acceptable definitions and expressions of patriotism. Still others focus on state laws and local school board policies, and include discussion of laws proscribing how and what teachers may teach to debates over mandatory daily time for the Pledge of Allegiance.

One of the volume’s most interesting contributions comes in an essay by Cecelia O’Leary and another by Peter Deier and Dick Flacks that uncover the lost history of a number of our patriotic rituals. How many students – or parents, teachers, and school board members for that matter – know that the writer of the Pledge of Allegiance was a socialist? Or that the author of “America the Beautiful” wrote it in part to oppose American imperialism?

In their essays, most authors offer their preferred definition of patriotism, either explicitly or implicitly. These range from Diane Ravitch’s and Chester E. Finn, Jr.’s fairly traditional perspective to Robert Jensen’s and Bill Bigelow’s argument against patriotism altogether, with the others typically advocating a critical, questioning patriotism that falls somewhere in between – what Westheimer labels “democratic patriotism.” The exclusion of essays advocating something close to what Westheimer calls “authoritarian patriotism” is not terribly problematic in and of itself. Most books have a point of view and no editor is under any obligation to give equal time to contrary opinion. However, in this case, the editor justifies his choice differently: he holds that “in fact, there is little need to rehearse the arguments that follow this position because the perspective is so well represented in our daily exposure to news, television, advertising, and other manifestations of popular culture” (p. 4). That the news media cover the president’s speeches while ignoring war protests is certainly true, as is the fact that advertisers wrap themselves in the flag and talk radio hosts brand half the nation traitors for their beliefs. These views are powerful and ought to be countered, but they also should be intellectually defended (at least in their less virulent forms), for none of them are actual arguments, understood as reasoned defenses of a position. Authoritarian rants are well represented, in both popular culture and as examples opposed in this book, but there is nothing that takes the ideas behind them seriously, or that would enable the book’s authors to engage with them on the same level in which they themselves are writing.

Some of the authors’ arguments suggest that they do not believe an intellectual defense of the counter-view is possible, that thought will necessarily lead one to support critical patriotism. This is similar to another problem, in which some of the authors present their views in a false or misleading choice. For example, Westheimer juxtaposes patriotic dissent with patriotism understood as “unquestioned loyalty and government support” (p. 3), implying that there is no unquestioned dissent or, more problematically, no questioned loyalty and government support. Others avoid this problem by simply advocating critical thinking, but hint that this will lead to their preferred outcomes. For instance, Noguera and Cohen state that educators should help students “develop informed opinions about the war,” (p. 26) “not to dictate what they should think, but simply to encourage them to think” (p. 33), but they then write that “silence and inaction are nothing more than a form of complicity with the status quo. The war is raging now, and those who do not express opposition are in effect demonstrating complicity if not support” (p. 26). Is it any wonder so many parents oppose teaching critical thinking, believing that it will turn their children away from what they hold dear? Their fear is others’ expectation.

Finally, this approach leads the book’s authors to avoid posing and grappling with some vitally important questions connected to the issues they raise, questions that teachers should be posing to their students. For example: Under what circumstances is war justified? What can government officials do to earn our respect and support? Can we define ‘national interest,’ ‘national security,’ and ‘national defense’ in ways that don’t “entice citizens into subservience to power,” as Howard Zinn claims they do in the volume’s forward (p. xvi)? And if so, how? If one’s answers aren’t “never,” “nothing,” and “no” respectively, the book’s authors – while doing much well – have also lost an opportunity.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 19, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14559, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 4:14:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Melissa Bass
    University of Puget Sound
    E-mail Author
    Melissa Bass is an Assistant Professor of Politics and Government at the University of Puget Sound. Her current research focuses on national service and citizenship, which will be explored in depth in her forthcoming book, The Politics and Civics of National Service: Lessons from the CCC, VISTA, and AmeriCorps.
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