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"How to Be Thankful for Being Free": Searching for a Convergence of Discourses on Teaching Patriotism, Citizenship, and United States History

by Margaret A. Nash - 2005

Immediately after the events of September 11, 2001, there was a dramatic upsurge in exhibitions of patriotism, most generally in the form of flags prominently displayed on houses, storefronts, and automobiles. There also was a renewed zeal for inculcating patriotic feelings in children at public schools across the country. This paper, based on a study of teacher credential candidates at a large urban midwestern university, suggests that there may be a need to create a new discourse of patriotism. Such a project might integrate patriotism, the discourse on citizenship education, and the discourse of multicultural education, into a coherent whole. This new discourse on patriotism might, then, ground the emotionalism of patriotism in the responsibility of citizenship, employing the critical thought generated in discourses of multiculturalism.

Immediately after the events of September 11, 2001, there was a dramatic upsurge in exhibitions of patriotism, most generally in the form of flags prominently displayed on houses, storefronts, and automobiles. There also was a renewed zeal for inculcating patriotic feelings in children at public schools across the country. This paper, based on a study of teacher credential candidates at a large urban midwestern university, suggests that there may be a need to create a new discourse of patriotism. Such a project might integrate patriotism, the discourse on citizenship education, and the discourse of multicultural education, into a coherent whole. This new discourse on patriotism might, then, ground the emotionalism of patriotism in the responsibility of citizenship, employing the critical thought generated in discourses of multiculturalism.

Immediately after the events of September 11, 2001, there was a dramatic upsurge in exhibitions of patriotism, most generally in the form of flags prominently displayed on houses, storefronts, and automobiles. There also was a renewed zeal for inculcating patriotic feelings in children at public schools across the country. The yearning to find strength and solace in a group, to look for safety in numbers during a time of threat, and to feel as though everyone is pulling together in a united front at a time of crisis, all are understandable. After the crisis of 9/11, as those events are now spoken of in shorthand, many people looked to schools to promote patriotism. As one measure of this, in the months following September 11, at least seven states considered new bills to make leading students in the Pledge of Allegiance mandatory; half the states already had such laws (‘‘Lawmakers Push,’’ 2002). Schools have long been asked to teach patriotism, and they do so in multiple ways. In the present climate, patriotism is highly visible, and teacher certification candidates need to be prepared.

As an instructor in a teacher education program in an urban midwestern university, I wanted to know how teacher candidates conceptualize patriotism. I asked my class to reflect on their beliefs and experiences regarding the teaching of patriotism in K–12 public schools and to articulate their understanding of the term ‘‘patriotism.’’ What I found is that, for this group of teacher candidates, patriotism is an amorphous concept, tricky to define, and emotionally charged. Without exception, these candidates related patriotism to symbols (e.g., the flag), to symbolic acts (e.g., saluting the flag), and to feelings of love for one’s country. Many also linked patriotism to knowing certain touchstones in United States history.

All of these facets of their understanding of patriotism—symbols, symbolic acts, love of country, and knowledge of key people and events in national history—hold great emotional resonance. Many of these candidates also plan to teach about citizenship, and plan to help children think critically; many expressed a desire to teach in ways that are respectful of various cultures. But they seldom spoke of these in tandem with patriotism. For very few candidates did patriotism concern itself with concrete acts of good citizenship, the promotion of cultural pluralism, or clear conceptions of democracy. When using the discourse of citizenship, they spoke of contributing to society in useful ways, and when discussing teaching history, they sometimes used the language of multicultural education and critical thought. Neither of these language codes crossed over into the arena of patriotism; there, they used an emotion-laden discourse of love and unswerving loyalty.

Integrating the discourses of citizenship, cultural pluralism, and patriotism is important for understanding and safeguarding fundamental American freedoms. When the discourses are separated, it seems as though ‘‘citizenship’’ and ‘‘tolerance’’ are the discourses of peacetime, while ‘‘patriotism,’’ with its unquestioning loyalty, is the discourse of times of national crisis. A recent poll revealed that one third of all Americans believe that the president may suspend the Bill of Rights during wartime (‘‘Senate Vote,’’ 2003). This type of erroneous belief fits neatly into a prevailing discourse of ‘‘patriotism.’’ Yet it is during times of crisis that our basic rights most need protecting. If students in our schools are to develop a sense of patriotism that combines national loyalty with critical reflection, then we need teachers who are able to think deeply about this issue. The task for teacher educators, then, is to ground the emotions of patriotism in a thoughtful and analytical understanding of the responsibilities of citizenship and the meanings of pluralism.


A vast body of literature exists on the themes of education for democracy, citizenship education, and civics education. All of these are valuable contributions to an important project, and I will provide a very brief overview of some of this literature. However, one thing readily apparent in a review of these works is that patriotism seldom is explicitly discussed. This is not to fault this body of literature, but rather to acknowledge that there is a gap—more noticeable in today’s climate—that teacher educators would do well to address. The discourse of patriotism too often is separate from discourses of democracy, citizenship education, and civics. If my students are representative, teacher candidates might not make connections between and among these discourses without modeling and guidance.

Both conservatives and liberals call for an increase in citizenship or civics education. For many, this would involve teaching students the practice of democracy and of republican government. There is, of course, wide divergence in how various constituencies think such courses ought to be taught. Often this breaks down to a question of whether the emphasis should be on individual rights or on responsibilities. Despite different perspectives, there does seem to be widespread agreement that some version of civics or citizenship education needs to be taught more often and more thoroughly than it has been in recent decades (Bennett, 1998; Milbank, 2002; Salomone, 2000).

Many scholars have devoted themselves to the difficult tasks of defining these terms and articulating just what it is that should be taught for students to emerge as ‘‘good citizens’’ who promote and sustain ‘‘democracy.’’ Westheimer and Kahne (2002) group the various approaches by the apparent goals of their advocates. One type of program or curriculum sets out to create personally responsible citizens—those who embody the characteristics of hard work, obedience to laws, and honesty. A second type calls for participatory citizenship—that is, active involvement in community-based organizations, religious associations, and political processes. Finally, a third approach seeks to create a justice-oriented citizen, one whose modes of critical inquiry lead to a commitment to eradicate social inequity.

Policymakers also have addressed citizenship education, and have considered what content knowledge is important for students. Former President George Bush’s America’s Education Goals, developed in 1989, included education for citizenship. Subsequently, national standards for citizenship education (along with standards for other aspects of the curriculum) were established, and those standards have become the basis for national assessments in civics (Bahmueller, 1995; National Assessment Government Board, 1996). Those standards, not surprisingly, have received substantial criticism. Gonzales, Riedel, Avery, and Sullivan (2001) analyzed the National Standards for Civics and Government and found them to be too heavily focused on individual rights and freedoms, and lacking in emphasis on responsibility to the public good, civic virtue, and political participation. They contend that, according to the National Standards, the ‘‘good citizen’’ is one who is relatively passive. Merelman (1996) also criticized the National Standards for too little attention to civic participation, and for an emphasis on shared political values, rather than on diversity of perspectives regarding values. More recently, in June 2003 the United States Senate passed the American History and Civics Education Act, which would set aside $100 million to set up academies to further the teaching of these subjects (‘‘Senate Vote,’’ 2003).

Still another approach to teaching democracy is a movement for ‘‘democratic schools.’’ This approach calls for modeling democratic practice within the school and not relying wholly on formal curriculum on the various forms of government to teach democracy to students. This particular permutation on citizenship derives from John Dewey’s (1916) emphasis on the classroom as a laboratory for the practice of democratic values and principles. Advocates of this model also suggest that teachers and students together should examine the meanings of democracy, citizenship, and the role of schools in a democratic society (Apple & Beane, 1995; Aronowitz & Giroux, 1991; Goodman, 1992; Sehr, 1997; Shor, 1992).

Many thinkers in this field critique concepts of citizenship that are modernist and individualist, and promote instead a view of citizenship that is postmodernist, connected, and community-oriented (Houser & Kuzmic, 2001; Noddings, 2001). Bloom (1998) argues that democracy is constantly changing, and therefore so also is the ‘‘citizen’’ who inhabits and supports that democracy. Schudson (1999) provides historical perspective on how the concept of ‘‘citizen’’ has changed over time in the United States. Postmodern understandings of citizenship emphasize multiplicity and fluidity (Stone, 1996) and warn us against ‘‘reinscribing normalizing practices,’’ or of reifying the concept of ‘‘the good citizen’’ as though there is only one model (Cary, 2001, pp. 420–421; Popkewitz, 1998).

There is a plethora of evidence that whatever schools have been doing is inadequate. Most often cited in recent years is the National Assessment of Educational Progress. According to the 1998 test results, 75% of high school seniors were not proficient in civics (Vail, 2002, p. 15). Marciano (1997, p. 537; 2001) concludes that ‘‘civic illiteracy’’ is rampant, due to history lessons that are governed by ‘‘patriotic and military propaganda.’’ Uncritical patriotism, he argues, undermines prospects for a thoughtful and active citizenship.

The discussion on civics and citizenship education is rich, and is engaged in by people in various places along the political spectrum. Yet very little has specifically addressed the relationship between citizenship and patriotism, and patriotism itself seldom is defined or explicitly discussed. The state of Michigan, for instance, requires education for citizenship; patriotism is one part of the official definition of ‘‘Core Democratic Values,’’ but patriotism is nowhere defined (Michigan State Board of Education, 1995). Similarly, the Social Studies Standards for the state of Ohio includes a standard on Citizenship Rights and Responsibilities; for second graders, patriotism, along with honesty, self-assurance, respect for the rights of others, and persistence, is listed as one of five traits of citizenship, but it is not defined (Ohio Department of Education, 2002). Ohio’s standards for high school students include units on movements for civil rights, and seem to encourage critical thought. The point I am making here, however, is that patriotism remains undefined, and therefore its link to critical thought is never made clear. It is supposed to be taught, but what it is is seldom discussed. There are exceptions, however. Robert Stevens (2002) contrasts ‘‘belligerent patriotism,’’ which is chauvinistic and xenophobic, with ‘‘thoughtful patriotism,’’ which is focused on a meaningful understanding of love for country. Making a distinction such as this helps complicate notions of patriotism.

Patriotism often is associated with the symbol of the flag. California requires daily ‘‘patriotic exercises’’ in its public K–12 schools; the only example given in the Education Code of an exercise that would satisfy this requirement is the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag (California Education Code). The Utah State Board of Education requires ‘‘patriotic education’’ in all grades, and defines it as that which will help students ‘‘identify, acquire, and act upon a dedication to one’s country.’’ The content matter is solely tied to the flag: learning the history and etiquette of the flag, and learning the Pledge (Utah State Board of Education). The National Council for Social Studies, the premiere organization for teachers of social studies, offers a myriad of resources and curricular materials on its website, including many thoughtful and provocative articles on teaching about the events of 9/11. In the data bank of user-submitted resources, though, there is one educational tool on patriotism: a videotape for the elementary grades called The Young Patriot’s Multimedia Educational Series on the American Flag. This video includes information on the ‘‘proper way to handle the flag’’ and a visit to the home of Betsy Ross (NCSS DataBank).

There is nothing wrong with teaching children about their country’s flag. The problem is synecdoche: letting a part stand for the whole. Flags and flag salutes, or other symbols and symbolic acts, should not be the sum total of our definition of patriotism. One supporter of mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, Missouri State Senator Ted House, called it ‘‘a quick and easy way to start thinking about what it is to be an American’’ (‘‘Lawmakers Push,’’ 2002). Others worry that ‘‘quick and easy’’ forms of patriotism do not cultivate depth of thought about ‘‘what it is to be an American.’’ As Kathleen Vail (2002, p. 14) phrased it, ‘‘the flurry of flag-waving could be obscuring the need for deeper lessons of democracy and civic duty.’’ This current study documents good reason for this concern.

In addition to using discourses of citizenship education and patriotism, the teacher candidates in this study used a discourse of multicultural education. Definitions of multiculturalism abound, and I will not here provide a comprehensive review of that literature. The discourse favored by these teacher candidates is one of liberal multiculturalism, and relies on an infusion model. Multiculturalists have agued that history and social science in most K–12 classrooms and textbooks exclude the voices, perspectives, and stories of people of color, women, people with disabilities, and others (Sleeter & Grant, 1987; Banks, 1989; Nieto, 1992; Banks & Banks, 1995). Liberal multiculturalists, then, want to infuse the historical narrative with these additional voices. Critical multiculturalists believe an infusion model does not go far enough, and want the curriculum to address issues of power (Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1997; McLaren, 1997). This current study supports the contention that simple infusion is not enough, as it does not change the overall narrative and does not necessarily lead to an understanding of social context. This study suggests that methods of teaching history need to do more than infuse diverse perspectives and pay attention to issues of power; in addition, historical lessons need to be linked to thinking critically about contemporary issues.


The group of undergraduates who participated in this research were enrolled in a junior-level course called Sociocultural Foundations of Education. They were, with a few exceptions, juniors in a teacher education program at a midwestern urban university. They had just begun field experience in classrooms, and would begin student teaching in the next semester or two. Two of the 31 students had already earned BA degrees in content areas and were working on a combined MA and teacher certification program. All but one were females enrolled in an elementary education program. The one male student was enrolled in a multiage physical education licensure program. Most students were white, while only two were African American. Although the majority were traditional age students, six were returning adult students.

In the spring of 2001, I collected data in several formats. First, as an in-class writing exercise that was neither required nor graded, twenty-seven students responded to a variety of open-ended questions regarding patriotism:

● What do you think patriotism is?

● In your own K–12 experience, how did you learn patriotism?

● How do you imagine teaching patriotism when you are a teacher?

● What expectations do you imagine your school might have for you regarding teaching patriotism?

● How do you feel about those expectations? What concerns do you have about teaching patriotism?

● What do you need to know in order to teach it the way you want to?

The second form of data consisted of an opportunity to earn extra credit at the end of the semester. Teacher candidates had answered the above questions by referring to ‘‘important events’’ in United States history, so I wanted to find out what they knew about these topics. On this extra credit sheet, I listed, in alphabetical order, fifteen terms, comprising events (e.g., Boston Tea Party), celebrations (Independence Day, Memorial Day), landmarks (Ellis Island, Liberty Bell, Mount Vernon), and key documents (Bill of Rights, Emancipation Proclamation). I invited students to write anything they knew about these terms: what or who the item was, why it (or he or she) was important, and when the event occurred (or when the person lived). Finally, because students had emphasized the need to know about United States presidents to be patriotic citizens, I asked them to name as many as they could, and include, if possible, the dates those presidents served in office. Thirty out of 31 class members filled out this sheet.

The third form of data was another opportunity to earn extra credit. At the end of the semester, I handed out a sheet with several possible essay topics, one of which was on teaching patriotism. They could choose to write on one, several, or none of the topics at all. Eight chose to write essays on teaching patriotism. For this essay, I gave them the following instructions: “Write a 2-page paper reflecting on the ways that patriotism is (or can be) taught in elementary school classrooms. What activities might teach children about patriotism? What goals should teachers have regarding teaching patriotism? What problems might there be? Who might object to teaching patriotism, and why?” Eight teacher candidates chose this option.i

This group of future teachers is quite solemn and serious about teaching patriotism to children. Patriotism, teaching patriotism, and teaching it well genuinely matter to these future teachers. For the most part, they do not want mere rote memorization and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance; they want children to understand the words they are reciting.ii They want children to learn obedience to rules and laws, but they want informed, not ignorant, obedience. They want children to know and appreciate the benefits of life in the United States, and they especially want children to understand what the cost has been, in terms of lives lost in battle, for contemporary Americans to have these benefits (which they almost always describe as ‘‘freedom’’). If they are at all indicative of other future teachers across the country, they need a great deal of help before they will be able to teach patriotism in a way that fosters an informed enthusiasm for democratic principles.


How do future teachers think of patriotism? What do they think patriotism is? This group of teacher candidates used a discourse of patriotism that was steeped in emotion and symbolism. For them, patriotism meant feeling love, respect, and loyalty, and demonstrating those emotions by saluting the flag. Although some also made efforts toward incorporating elements of multicultural awareness, they had difficulty combining these two discourses.

The most commonly used phrase to answer the question of what patriotism is—a phrase used by eleven of the future teachers—was ‘‘love and respect.’’ This took slightly different forms. At its most basic, patriotism was defined as ‘‘loving and having respect for the country you live in,’’ or simply ‘‘loving your country.’’ Following closely on the heels of ‘‘love and respect’’ was the word ‘‘pride.’’ Six candidates used this term, and all of them did so in a broad, nonspecific way. They wrote that patriotism is, simply, pride in your country. Two explicitly mentioned national symbols; one defined patriotism as ‘‘knowing and understanding the symbols of our country,’’ while the other said it was ‘‘pride for [sic] our flag & the symbols of our country’’ (see Table 1).

Loyalty was another major theme in the answers. Six candidates mentioned loyalty. Three of them defined patriotism as loyalty to one’s country, while three defined patriotism as loyalty to certain ideals presumably held by citizens of one’s country. One wrote that patriotism means ‘‘understanding & believing in democracy and freedom,’’ while another said it is ‘‘respect for America and what it stands for.’’ One wrote that stating a willingness to die for a country is nationalism, but a willingness to die for ideas is patriotism. What those ideas worth dying for are was seldom specified. They talked about love of country, but less often about what made this country worthy of their love. The only ones who did, mentioned freedom, and a vague ‘‘for what this country has done and will do’’—a sentiment that implies a good deal of faith and trust, as well.


Most candidates wrote that patriotism is displayed through symbolic acts. People show patriotism by ‘‘symbolic things (flag, red/white/blue), like we see around July 4th,’’ by ‘‘having a flag, [saying the] pledge [of allegiance],’’ by ‘‘symbolic mannerisms, [such as] saluting the flag.’’ This is not surprising, given that, when asked to reflect on how they learned patriotism in school as a child, virtually everyone in the class (23 out of the 27 who responded) said they learned it by saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Five candidates also mentioned singing patriotic songs, especially the national anthem.

These candidates plan to teach patriotism by requiring their students to salute the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Sixteen identified these as the primary ways they would teach patriotism. One asserted that ‘‘showing respect for the flag’’ was not something they would limit to ‘‘one day a year,’’ and another asserted that ‘‘I will have my students say the pledge every day’’ [emph. in original]. Unlike their teachers, however, they plan to make sure that youngsters understand what it is they are saying: ‘‘I think it is important to teach about the history & why we say the pledge and what it exactly means,’’ said one; ‘‘I want the children to above all have a clear understanding of why we pledge allegiance to the flag & what the words mean,’’ wrote another. A few were less concerned with explanations, and more concerned with action. One candidate asserted that her class would say the Pledge ‘‘with respect, hand over heart, looking at flag,’’ while another stated simply, “The pledge will be said.” Two candidates mentioned the additional symbolic acts of singing patriotic songs and celebrating national holidays as ways they would teach patriotism.

Even when given a chance to elaborate, they did not widen their definitions of patriotism. Eight wrote extra credit essays on patriotism, but seldom moved beyond the definitions given in the short-answer questionnaire. Everyone put saluting the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the forefront of their answers; several also described flag-making activities. No one suggested that questioning governmental policies or actions could ever be considered patriotic or could be the mark of a good citizen. One wrote that it is ‘‘important to remember to have an energetic attitude when supporting our country;’’ not supporting all policies was not an option. Another wrote that ‘‘love and devotion’’ are feelings and that children cannot be forced to feel those feelings for their country. But through education ‘‘about America’s history, people and the symbols, songs, and rituals,’’ students can ‘‘see for themselves what a great country America truly is.’’ In this instance, it is not at all apparent that ‘‘love and devotion’’ might coexist with critical questioning.

All the respondents fully expected to be asked or required to teach patriotism by the schools that employed them. Most expected to be asked to lead the class in saluting the flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and none of them expressed any discomfort with this. ‘‘I think the expectations are fine because our children do need to know the pledge & what it stands for. They should respect the flag & also what it stands for,’’ said one. Administrators will ‘‘expect me to be a model citizen, teach & enforce rules & respect. Have them learn about the Presidents, history, etc.,’’ wrote another. ‘‘I agree with all the expectations that will be enforced.’’

Rather than having any qualms about mandated forms of patriotism, the only concerns expressed were about uncooperative students or parents, or principals who might not be patriotic enough. ‘‘I have really no concerns except running into a child that doesn’t care and that will upset me,’’ wrote one. Prior to doing this writing exercise, as a group we had discussed the possibility of having children in a classroom whose religion forbade them from engaging in the symbolic acts of patriotism. Some future teachers expressed a desire to accommodate those students. Some wanted to know ‘‘what to do if there are children in my classroom that are not allowed to fulfill those expectations (pledge, national anthem) due to personal and/or religious beliefs’’ or how to handle the situation ‘‘if not all students share the same beliefs/cultures.’’

Some of this group of future teachers expressed a desire to teach patriotism in culturally sensitive ways. One wrote, “The only concern I have is not offending a child of another culture. I would need to be educated about different countries and their culture,” while another acknowledged needing ‘‘support & a lot of knowledge on cultural differences.’’ A third was concerned ‘‘about other religions or cultures that challenge the status quo (ex: refusing to say the pledge). I want to have a good understanding of that religion before I teach it to my students,’’ while a fourth wrote that ‘‘if there are different cultures in my class, [I need] to be sensitive to that.’’ Others felt that cultural sensitivity has been taken too far: ‘‘[W]e seem to be at times fearing of stepping on others [sic] toes for what I believe this country was founded on. I think that if I teach those principals [sic] it could be possible that some parent will get upset & it will be taken out of context and an uproar could be made out of it. . . . I need to know what can & can’t be taught in a Public School System.’’ A related concern was ‘‘in learning the limits of talking about God or saying ‘one nation under God.’ “

Others, however, expressed impatience with such concerns. One was troubled by the thought of having ‘‘children tell me that their religion is more important. Me [sic] being a teacher I can’t tell them that that is wrong, but I would hope I can let them see a different side of patriotism and that it is as important as religion.’’ Another was concerned about ‘‘having a child/ family who doesn’t believe in it’’; the concern was not regarding how to accommodate that child, but rather fearing a situation in which the teacher insisted on the child participating and ‘‘having school not cooperate w/ me.’’ Another wrote that ‘‘there is no need’’ to get parental approval before requiring students to say the pledge, because ‘‘everyone who lives here has chosen to live here so everyone can learn about our history and how to be thankful for being free.’’ Another found it ‘‘sad’’ that some schools ‘‘do not find it mandatory to recite the Pledge,’’ and hoped that she would ‘‘get ‘lucky’ and have a principal who is passionate/concerned about patriotism.’’

These answers reflect an uneasiness that arises when the emotional discourse of patriotism bumps up against a discourse of multiculturalism. Several sets of issues emerge. First, among these candidates there is a limited understanding of tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism. They expressed the need to know what to do ‘‘if ’’ not everyone in their classes shared the same beliefs, implying an expectation that most of the time everyone will share the same beliefs. One candidate wrote that a problem could exist if there is a student in the classroom who is not from the United States and therefore ‘‘does not believe what Americans believe,’’ implying that all Americans hold the same beliefs. If a student objects to patriotism being taught, continued this writer, then ‘‘the teacher will need to establish that the student understands that they are living in the United States and they need to respect our beliefs.’’ The inference that there is a cohesive ‘‘us’’ holding ‘‘our’’ beliefs is inimical to an understanding of pluralism. Further, the notion that saluting the flag is a sine qua non of showing respect for the country, and that all Americans agree that flag salutes are this fundamental, reflects a very narrow construction of patriotism and citizenship.

Among this group there was a sense that patriotism trumps religion. Candidates expressed consternation that someone’s religious beliefs could preempt their participation in symbolic acts of patriotism. Yet the fact is that various religions proscribe saluting the flag. The person who wrote, ‘‘I can’t tell them that that is wrong,’’ was implying that she would like to tell them exactly that; she did, however, plan to direct them toward seeing that patriotism ‘‘is as important as religion.’’ Those in the group who were upset at the thought that some schools might not force all students and teachers to say the Pledge of Allegiance apparently are not aware that the United States Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that such a requirement is unconstitutional (Glasser, 1992). Not only did the 1943 Barnette case establish the right not to salute the flag or recite the pledge, but recent court cases have questioned the constitutionality of the pledge’s ‘‘under God’’ phrase. Legislators across the country have taken few steps to reiterate the United States Supreme Court ruling against mandatory flag salutes and recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. Twenty-five states currently require recitation of the pledge during the school day. Of those, 12 have written statements excusing conscientious objectors from reciting the pledge, but only 3 states have statements excusing those who object on religious grounds (Education Commission of the States, 2001).

Future teachers need to be aware of these issues. But beyond following the letter of the law, teachers should understand the spirit of the ruling: citizens in this democratic state cannot be forced to engage in a symbolic act of patriotism. Courses in foundations of education (‘‘School and Society’’ courses, for instance) could help future teachers think this issue through: Why did the Supreme Court rule the way it did? What would freedom and democracy mean, if citizens were forced to violate their religious or other principles to symbolize their national loyalty with a flag salute?

Teachers could integrate the discourses on cultural pluralism, including an understanding of religious difference, into the discourses of both patriotism and citizenship. This would mean taking seriously the protection of liberties even in times when emotions run high. Religious minorities may be targets of anger and suspicion when they hold tenets that restrict them from the sorts of symbolic acts now in vogue. During times of crisis, minority groups often are targeted for persecution. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, were tarred and feathered by mobs during World War II for such rebellious acts as not saluting the flag (Glasser, 1992). Surely ‘‘freedom’’ and ‘‘liberty’’ also mean the freedom not to participate in flag salutes. Groups that do permit members to salute the flag still may be targets of violence based on a presumption of antinationalistic sentiment due to a person’s religion or national origin. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported a 1,600% increase in anti-Islamic violence in 2001 (FBI, 2002). Clearly, more needs to be done to broaden the public’s understanding regarding religious difference. The media and various local, state, and national public and private organizations certainly need to provide strong leadership. Schools are not the only institutions to address this issue, but they can play a major role.

Teachers might give their students lessons in alternative ways of showing one’s love of country. Throughout our history there have been people who have declined, for reasons other than religious affiliation, to participate in voting. In the antebellum era, a group of abolitionist white men who had the legal right to vote, chose not to exercise that right. Believing that politics had become too corrupt to be salvageable, they publicized their nonvoting stance as a form of protest (Ginzberg, 1990). Ardent lovers of freedom, democracy, and their country, they worked hard to create a country they could be proud of. Few today would call those men unpatriotic, yet had there been such a thing as a Pledge of Allegiance to the flag (there wasn’t—that did not begin until 1892), it is unlikely that they would have joined the crowd in reciting it. Today there are people who refuse to vote because of what they see as limited options among candidates; for them, nonvoting is not apathy, but a protest against the vast sums required to run for office, which thereby narrows the field to a small group within a limited socioeconomic bracket. Teachers can help students acquire a range of perspectives on why some people do or do not vote, why they do or do not salute the flag, and on why people have different definitions of good citizenship. Such a discussion could take place in classes on civics, citizenship, and history. But it also could be explicitly linked to the discourse on patriotism. Doing so would help ground the emotions of patriotism in a more analytic discourse, and thereby model a merger of ‘‘love’’ and ‘‘loyalty’’ with thoughtful critique.


Although flag-related activities were the primary way this group remembered learning patriotism and planned to teach it, there was another common method. Sixteen teacher candidates remembered learning patriotism through history lessons, and thirteen planned to use history to instill patriotism in their students. Few were specific about what types of history lessons they had. The only two comments on these classes were that they learned ‘‘about what others did to fight for freedom & equality in our country,’’ and that a fourth grade class put on a play about ‘‘our National Heroes.’’ This person also remembered lessons on Lincoln, Washington, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Several group members listed classes in government or social studies along with history. One candidate said that she learned to love her country in part through religion classes, where she learned that ‘‘God created this land & the people to run it.’’

These candidates planned to instill in young people a sense of the sacrifices made by generations before them. One wrote, ‘‘By teaching about what others did (fighting, suffering just for our rights) they may learn to appreciate and respect what we do have now,’’ and another wrote that patriotism is important ‘‘because of the people who died for our country,’’ and therefore the history of those people must be taught. One planned to do this by having veterans and other community members come speak to the class. The history they planned to teach was a great-people-and-events approach to history. Students need to know the ‘‘past, great heroes, that helped our country.’’

Two explicitly commented on the need to teach about America’s uniqueness and greatness. One wrote, ‘‘I think more activities need to be done to emphasize that we are so fortunate to live in the U.S. I think multicultural lessons will teach children what it would be like to live in another country.’’ The other wrote that she would teach patriotism the same way she was taught it: that God made this country great. One wrote that giving children ‘‘a better understanding of alternative cultures’’ would give them ‘‘a reason to believe in the nationalism that we hold so dear,’’ and that by comparing the United States to other countries, students ‘‘will become aware of a pride that the Americans hold.’’ Another wrote that children should be taught that this country is superior due to God’s intervention. For these candidates, the primary function of teaching about other cultures was to showcase the superiority of the United States.

To find out what this group of future teachers knew about the ‘‘key events’’ they stated as being important, I offered extra credit for answering any of a list of items regarding United States history. They could earn credit for any ‘‘good faith’’ answer, whether or not it was correct. They had incentive, then, to answer as many as they could. They were asked to explain what the item or event was, why it was significant, and when it happened. Except for one person who was not well, everyone in the class chose to participate to some extent; thirty candidates handed in these sheets. Although the terms were presented in alphabetical order on the worksheet, I am now grouping them thematically.

One set of terms included popular and visible landmarks. Because so many in the class clearly associated patriotism with symbolism, I wanted to know what they knew about some of the dominant symbolic landmarks in the United States. Landmarks on their list of terms included Ellis Island, the Liberty Bell, Monticello, Mount Vernon, and the Statue of Liberty (see Table 2). A second set of terms centered on ‘‘major people and events’’ of United States history, including the Boston Tea Party, Gettysburg, and Valley Forge (see Table 3). A third category of terms explored candidates’ knowledge of important documents in United States history, such as the Bill of Rights and the Emancipation Proclamation (see Table 4). The last category of terms returned to the theme of symbolism. The Fourth of July is a patriotic celebration, and members of my class intended to teach about it. But what, exactly, does it commemorate? Memorial Day also was included in the list, as was the African American celebration of Juneteenth Day (see Table 5).

These candidates indicated that they planned to teach patriotism by teaching about United States Presidents. I invited them to list as many Presidents as they could, along with when he served. Twenty-seven candidates did so. The number of names they listed ranged from 5 to 41, with an average of 14.7 names listed by each person. Ten candidates could list only ten or fewer presidents, while three listed 30 or more names. Seven answers included Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, and then jumped ahead to Reagan, Clinton, and the two Bushes. One list of 12 included Presidents Grover and Franklin, and another list of 12 included President Lindenberg; a list of 11 included President Thomas Edison.




This group was adamant that ‘‘patriotism’’ and national history needs to be taught, and there clearly was an emotional aspect to their associations with landmarks in U.S. history. The emotional resonance did not necessarily cohere with factual knowledge. Of course, students doing poorly on history tests is not news; this has been a perennial complaint. Most recently, last spring, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that only one in ten high school seniors scored well enough on the National Assessment of Educational Progress to be considered proficient in United States history (2002).

A bigger concern than not remembering specific facts (Is Monticello a famous painting? Did Lewis and Clark discover the Gaza Strip?) is teacher candidates’ not seeming to grasp important concepts or the deeper meaning of symbols. For instance, although 26 candidates wrote about the Boston Tea Party, only 17 of them knew that it revolved around the issue of taxes; of those, most thought that the colonists’ objection was to the high rate of taxes. Only one person mentioned the principle of ‘‘no taxation without representation,’’ yet the important principle of refusing to be taxed without being represented in government is an essential ingredient in defining this nation’s origins and this nation’s stated philosophy of democracy. Objecting to high taxes is one thing; objecting to a lack of representation is far more central to establishing democratic principles.

Similarly, this group held a narrow view of immigration. For instance, 19 teacher candidates knew that Ellis Island was a processing point for immigrants. Some expressed it in simplistic language: ‘‘that is where the boats let them off.’’ Only one indicated any awareness that hundreds of thousands of other immigrants did not come anywhere near Ellis Island. Their view of immigration seems to be largely Eurocentric, reflecting no knowledge of Asian immigrants who arrived on the West Coast, or of Mexican, Central, or South American immigrants who crossed the Mexico-U.S. border. It may be that had I asked them to write about immigrants generally, rather than about Ellis Island, their answers would have been far more inclusive. Still, their answers could have incorporated more specificity about which immigrants came to Ellis Island.


One candidate believed that immigrants came to Ellis Island ‘‘to finalize citizenship,’’ implying an erroneous ease in acquiring citizenship. A different candidate, however, did reflect the uncertainty of arrivals: immigrants either were ‘‘accepted’’ or ‘‘sent back if they didn’t pass the test.’’ The nature of any such test was not specified, but at least this person did recognize that all immigrants were not necessarily warmly received—even if they were, as seven candidates wrote, ‘‘welcomed’’ by the Statue of Liberty.


The narrow vision of immigration implies something about who they believe ‘‘real’’ Americans are, a vision that is reinforced in references to Native Americans. Only 17 candidates attempted an explanation of the term ‘‘Wounded Knee,’’ 1 who was entirely facetious (‘‘what I have two of ’’) and 4 who simply wrote something indistinct about a battle. Of the 12 remaining, 3 made a distinction between Indians and ‘‘Americans’’: It was a ‘‘major battle between Indians and Americans,’’ a ‘‘famous Indian who helped Americans and Native Americans to peace,’’ or ‘‘a battle between Native Americans & the other Americans.’’ These responses suggest a chasm between Indians and Americans, and that the former certainly cannot also be the latter.

Aside from factual and conceptual challenges, this group of teacher candidates also holds fairly limited views of what it means to teach history. One candidate defined the teaching of United States history as the teaching of ‘‘important dates,’’ rather than concepts. Teacher candidates relied heavily on the great-heroes approach to history. When they specified anything more definite than the need to teach ‘‘U.S. history,’’ they were most likely to mention teaching about presidents and teaching about the ‘‘people who fought for this country.’’ Some future teachers attempted to accommodate different perspectives. One candidate wrote that ‘‘it is vital to teach about both sides of history, and [the teacher’s] own personal biases are not welcome.’’ While the sentiment is generally a good one, it too reflects a simplistic understanding of history. There are not only two versions of any historical event, and various viewpoints are not always in opposition to each other. This comment echoes other research that notes a too-simplistic reliance on ‘‘a two-sided polemic model rather than a search for multi-dimensional, complex perspectives’’ (Bohan & Davis, 1998, p. 186). Others have criticized history that ‘‘emphasizes origin myths over interpretation and consensus over controversy’’ (Levitsky, 1997, p. 48). Furthermore, one’s personal biases can’t simply be willed out of the classroom; teachers need to develop more thoughtful ways of teaching with, through, and in spite of their biases.

This exercise suggests that more work needs to be done to prepare teacher candidates to teach history. Social studies curricula includes far more than rote memorization of ‘‘great people and events’’ in United States history. Genuine understanding of this country’s past and present depends on a multiplicity of perspectives on those ‘‘great people and events,’’ as well as comprehension of their contexts. John Wills (2001) has written eloquently about the need, not just for alternative histories, but for the histories of the interactions of diverse groups. This helps students contextualize the bits and pieces of facts, and helps students see agency and choice on the parts of actors. Our future teachers need this sort of context for their historical knowledge. Linda Levstik (1997) suggests ‘‘perspectival history,’’ in which even very young students (5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds) participate in the process of historical inquiry.

A nuanced understanding of history also requires telling stories about some people who have not entered the canon. This is not to argue for a simple add-on version of great heroes from diverse backgrounds, all of whom might be considered likeable, courageous, and praiseworthy, although broadening the scope of people children look to as heroes may be a good thing. My suggestion here is for history lessons also to include discussion of people and groups who have been considered dangerous, anarchic, and frightening. One of the hallmarks of a true democracy is protection of the rights even of those ‘‘we’’ (whoever that happens to be at any given moment) do not like or trust. Students can think critically about why certain individuals or groups may have been perceived negatively by others. In the context of developing broader conceptions of patriotism and citizenship, teachers also can help students understand the meanings of ‘‘freedom’’ and ‘‘liberty’’ when those terms apply to unpopular, or even unlikable, characters and causes, and not just to historic figures who have been so oversimplified in history lessons that they represent only the most wholesome and upright of all human beings. The events of September 11, 2001, and the aftermath provide such a challenge.


Patriotism as these candidates experience it is, first, an emotion, and it calls out visceral responses in people. Without clearly forging links between this discourse and those of citizenship and cultural pluralism, teachers who attempt to apply critical thinking to this topic are likely to meet a lot of resistance. Michaelinos Zembylas and Megan Boler (2002) suggest that teachers first need to address the emotion-laden responses many of their students are likely to feel. Citing the need for a ‘‘pedagogy of discomfort,’’ they call for critical emotional literacy in addition to the rational thought of media literacy or cultural criticism. Reliance on flag salutes and teaching about symbols is evidence of the emotional nature of patriotism. The teacher candidates in my class seemed to have an emotional response to, for instance, the flag, the idea of Independence Day, and the image of the Liberty Bell, without knowing much of substance about any of these symbols. Teacher educators might encourage candidates to discuss their emotional connection to these symbols. What emotion is evoked, and why? How did that occur? What relationship do those symbols have to their concepts of being a ‘‘good American’’?

Heightened emotions can cloud the link between United States history and patriotism. Candidates who might be willing to approach history in a critical way when they use the discourse of multicultural education, for instance, may be less willing to do so when they shift into the existing discourse of patriotism. The current discourse of patriotism seems to require its users to adopt a noncritical stance, and demands such nebulous responses as ‘‘loyalty,’’ ‘‘respect,’’ ‘‘love,’’ and ‘‘pride.’’ Teacher educators can help candidates envision the coexistence of discourses: love of country and multicultural perspectives of United States history. Such a view does not need to lessen in any way one’s attachment to the nation. But as long as the emotional discourse of patriotism is framed as being in opposition to the rational discourse of critical thought, candidates will be more likely to teach their students monolithic and exclusive versions of history.

There are frequent complaints that ‘‘liberals’’ want to emphasize the negative stories in United States history. Especially in a period of national crisis, anything other than adulatory perspectives can be seen as disloyal and distinctly unpatriotic. The choice then seems to be, either teach a great heroes approach and be a patriot, or teach a critical and multicultural approach and work to tear this great country apart. Teacher educators can help disassemble this dichotomy. Dismantling this polarization is why all teachers, but especially those who primarily teach social studies, need to understand concepts, and not just know a few isolated facts about ‘‘great heroes.’’

History can help us grapple with important questions: What is democracy? How did various individuals in the group we think of as the founding generation conceptualize democracy? What does it mean that they did not all agree? What does lack of agreement in any historical moment mean for us today? Do we all need to hold identical views and have identical interpretations of what is best in a democracy? What does this imply about pluralism? In short, teacher educators might find ways to take the emotions associated with patriotism and connect them in meaningful ways to bigger concepts.

Many teacher candidates in this study suggested that they would teach patriotism by bringing in speakers who were veterans of the armed services. This is a fine project, but the military should not be the only form of service to one’s country that is valued. Pride in one’s country does not arise from military victories alone. Pride also can stem from seeing the way that individuals and groups have wrestled with difficult issues and ideals, overcome adversity, and improved our country. One teacher, well before the events of 9/11, used the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. to exemplify contested meanings of patriotism. Going beyond a liberal multicultural infusion model of simply adding a notable African American to a great-heroes approach to history, this teacher focused on King as ‘‘troublemaker’’ with a record of arrests, as well as on King’s contributions to civil rights laws. He asked students to consider whether King was ‘‘a patriot, or an unpatriotic troublemaker’’ (Shapiro, 2003). This tactic allowed his class to examine multiple meanings of citizenship and patriotism. King is an example of someone who can be seen from multiple perspectives, either as someone who stirs up trouble or as someone who is a courageous patriot. The key here is linking the discourses of citizenship and patriotism and analyzing what an unpopular patriotism might look like.

Perhaps this is the place to begin: with teacher educators and future teachers developing a new discourse of patriotism, and relating it effectively to those of citizenship and democracy. Teachers might, for instance, draw links for their students between symbolic acts of national pride and sustained and responsible citizenship. As it is, it seems as though the discourse on citizenship is largely one of rules and laws. Among the teacher candidates in my class, only two wrote that they learned patriotism through learning the responsibilities of good citizenship. Both of these candidates defined good citizenship as following rules and obeying laws; they did not include civic participation, dissent, protest against injustice, or civil disobedience as part of the definition of a good citizen. Two additional candidates referred to activities in which the good citizen might engage; one used the vague phrase ‘‘tak[ing] part,’’ while the other defined citizenship as ‘‘doing good deeds,’’ such as writing letters to soldiers. Similarly, another learned patriotism ‘‘by being involved in community functions.’’ Only one person in the entire group mentioned that ‘‘mock voting & registering to vote was offered in our history class.’’

Some studies suggest that students ‘‘exhibit a strong sense of duty’’ by becoming involved in their communities as volunteers. Follow-up research might tell us whether this has a long-term impact on citizen participation. There is some evidence that students who take a civics class based on a model curriculum designed by the federally funded Center for Civic Education, are more likely to grow into active, involved, adult citizens (Fletcher, 2002). One program for high school students is a national voter registration program. As one student leader said, ‘‘Democracy only works when people participate’’ (Relin, 2002).

In a pluralistic society, participation must be a matter of choice and conscience. Pacifist religions ban adherents from military service, and some religions see voting as evidence of misplaced trust in democracy over theocracy (rule by God). If classroom teachers speak of patriotism only, or primarily, in terms of flag salutes, voting, and military service, then the quiet citizenship of some religious communities is rendered antipatriotic. Yet these are the measures most often discussed. As we have seen, patriotism is heavily associated with the flag, and this group of teacher candidates also planned to bring in veterans as guest speakers to promote patriotism. Voting is cited frequently as a prime indicator of ‘‘good citizenship’’ (Torney-Purta, 2001; Engle & Ochoa, 1988). Vail (2002) noted as an indication that ‘‘our democratic health could be at risk’’ the statistic that fewer than 20% of young adults age 18 to 24 voted, and that only 26% of young people believe that voting is ‘‘extremely important.’’ I do not mean to imply that voting is not important; indeed, without it, there is no democracy. I do mean to imply, however, that voting in and of itself may not be a strong determinant of ‘‘good citizenship.’’ In fact, some theorists argue that voting is a ‘‘woefully partial’’ definition of good citizenship, and that voting may be more comparable to being a good consumer than to being a good citizen (Hess, 1979; Parker, 1996, p. 9).

Broad views of both patriotism and citizenship are needed in a pluralistic society. Three candidates discussed teaching patriotism in terms of preparing children to participate in democracy. One of them thought patriotism could be taught by keeping up on current events and learning about the government, while another moved into the realm of action, suggesting that young people should ‘‘interact with the nation, become involved in the community.’’ Finally, one invoked the name of Dewey, and saw an application of Dewey’s ideas to her classroom: ‘‘I think Dewey’s theory of setting up the class as a mini democracy is a great way to start.’’ Two class members felt that teaching respect was also a way to teach patriotism. Children should be taught respect ‘‘for our country as well [as] for other cultures & people.’’ Rather than erode patriotism, she asserted, this would increase it. In addition, patriotism could come from ‘‘treat[ing] people equally in the classroom.’’ Another teacher candidate felt that being a consistent and nonhypocritical role model would be a good way to teach: ‘‘to practice what I preach inside & outside of the class.’’ These comments suggest that some teacher candidates do understand that a pluralistic and democratic society requires broad definitions of patriotism.

This study is exploratory, and not an in-depth investigation of future or current teachers’ beliefs, attitudes or practices regarding patriotism. To the extent that it illuminates the field, the light it sheds is only partial. It does suggest, however, that more work waits to be done. Other studies might look in more depth at both policies and practices regarding patriotism. Curricular studies might more thoroughly investigate the relationships already spelled out between and among citizenship, patriotism, and nationalism. Future work might be geared toward assessing what messages children take from saluting the flag, holding mock elections, hosting military veterans as guest speakers, or being involved in various community projects. Which activities are more likely to foster a belief in young people in the importance of participating in democracy? Which units and activities foster genuine understanding of pluralism? Why might some activities be more successful in these regards with some groups of students than others?

Helping children to become adult citizens who make conscious and informed choices, and who have a genuine and well-rounded understanding of their country and of their own individual rights and responsibilities, surely is a goal that all teachers share. Teacher educators can help future teachers learn a new discourse of patriotism, one that is grounded in thoughtful understandings of history, citizenship, and democracy.

Heartfelt appreciation to those who generously read and commented on various versions of this manuscript: Sharon Hobbs, Christine Woyshner, John Wills, Susan Harlow, Bob Calfee, Begoña Echeverria, Regina Lark, Barb Bitters, Reba Page, Ruth Nash, and Bob Ellis. Many thanks to Lyn Corno and the anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments. Thanks, too, to the group of colleagues who were there at the beginning of this project: Mary Ellen Edwards, Martha Kransdorf, Sandra Spickard Prettyman, and Carolyn Chryst.


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MARGARET A. NASH is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. Her research interests primarily are in the history of women’s education in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Earlier work appears in the Journal of the Early Republic and History of Education Quarterly.


i Follow-up interviews with the teacher candidates no doubt would provide a more full view of the meanings they held of patriotism. Future studies might benefit from more extensive data collection.

ii There are sources to help them do just that. Bill Bigelow (1996) suggests teaching students the history of the origins of the Pledge, and provides questions as a jumping off point. For instance, Why did the Pledge begin to be said in schools when it did? Who did and did not have ‘‘liberty and justice’’ in 1892, when the Pledge began? One fourth-grade teacher led her class in a discussion of the Pledge in a way that raised awareness for students about why some children might not feel comfortable speaking the words (Lyman, 2001).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 1, 2005, p. 214-240
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11695, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:17:55 PM

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