Yesterday, the president revealed a new commission that would be used to teach patriotism in the classroom. The 1776 commission’s mission seems to be to counteract the 1619 project that some schools are adopting. He said there is an emerging classroom narrative that “America is a wicked and racist country.” The commission’s goals would be to reemphasize patriotism and what has become known as American exceptionalism.
Admittedly, I am a historian in the strictest sense of the word. History was officially my minor for my undergraduate degree, but the state of Texas requires at least 24 hours in two teaching fields, so according to my degree plan I was practically a double major. All that being said, most of my course work was on the World History side and I spent far more time teaching World History than U.S. History.
In the show “The Newsroom” Jeff Daniels (as Will McAvoy) makes a famous speech when a student asks what makes America the greatest country in the world. The short version of his answer is that we aren’t the greatest country in the world. The long version lists a litany of reasons that we aren’t and outlines factual evidence that we aren’t.
The education business is dominated by the rubric. We use rubrics to grade student work. The district uses rubrics to assess teacher performance. The state uses rubrics to grade school and district performance. A rubric is just a fancy word for developing a systematic way to assess performance. Ideally, the student, teacher, campus, or district knows exactly what they will be graded on before the final grade comes out. Therefore, I can tailor my performance accordingly.
What rubric do you use to grade a nation? How do we decide who is the greatest? Some folks don’t even bother to ask the question. They just naturally assume we are the greatest. This is usually what historians and political scientists refer to as nationalism. Nationalism is the overwhelming belief that you live in the greatest country in the world. Germans think Germany is the best. The French think France is the best. The Chinese think China is the best. We can literally do this until the end of the post.
There certainly is no harm in loving your country. There certainly is no harm in being proud of your country. The United States has done plenty of good here at home and throughout the world. However, a number of folks would point out that we’ve done some bad things too. Pointing out the good and the bad is not a leftist agenda or liberal propaganda. It’s what good history teachers do. They give you as complete a picture as possible.
The best analogy I can give as a history teacher is comparing history to being the fan of a team. No one really argues about whether their team is the greatest team in the league. The standings and playoffs do that just fine for us. A few people have the belief that you never say anything bad about your team, but most people think that’s just silly. We yell at the television when they make a mistake. We call in to call in shows and complain about the coach/manager when they make a decision we disagree with. Sports history buffs often go back and debate what the best and worst trades were in franchise history. We obsess over decisions made 20, 30, or 50 years ago. There are far too many parallels between regular history and sports history.
The temptation is to treat this latest presidential decree like the announcement for space force. Most of the people in the space industry are laughing at space force and most observers seem to think it will go away as soon as he goes away. Certainly, he wouldn’t be the first president to make an announcement that is self-serving and backed by nothing. This is what presidents do.
I can’t do that with the 1776 commission because I know there are legions of politicians and influential people that buy into this idea. Essentially, you teach kids that America is great, has always been great, and always will be great. Anyone saying anything to the contrary wants to destroy America and has to be stopped at all costs. Any history teacher that looks at a negative event or an event where a decision was made that had a negative impact on people is teaching anti-American propaganda. They are just a nasty liberal.
So, imagine the sports analogy again. Imagine you are a Texans fan. Obviously, they are the best team in the league. Why did they lose all of those games? Well, they were cheated by the league and by the officials. If it had been a fair fight then they would have gone 16-0 and waltzed all the way to a Super Bowl title. Remember those trades everyone said were stupid? Fake News. They were brilliant. You just don’t understand why. Anyone saying anything bad about Bill O’Brien or any of the Texans are just Cowboys fans in disguise. If you don’t support everything the Texans do then move to Dallas you filthy carpetbagger.
I think you get the idea. When you remove critical thinking from the equation you never grow. If the Texans don’t figure out that management is making mistakes they will never get better management. If we as historians never talk about the negative aspects of our history, those negative aspects never quite go away. If we deny the presence of racism then we never do the work to rid ourselves of racism. If we deny that we have treated people unfairly then we don’t correct those mistakes and we continue to treat people unfairly. It’s really that simple. It’s okay to love your country and to be proud of your heritage. In fact, that’s a good thing. It’s not okay to gloss over those negative things because people are afraid you might not love your country as much as you once did. A truer and deeper love requires that we love everything. We own everything. We accept everything. What we choose to ignore will continue to fester.