Patriotic education is less about the specific curricular concepts that are featured in American history classes, and more about a philosophical stance that informs our approach, one full of explicit values and assumptions. It involves an audacious faith in America and tells the whole story of our past, which includes the bad with the good.
At a recent White House conference on American history, President Donald Trump announced that he was forming a “1776 Commission” to help promote “patriotic education.” Such an effort is needed, the President said, because of the assault of revisionism taking place in K-12 and higher education, largely based on critical theory, that seeks to paint America’s founding and heroes in the worst light possible.
We should welcome the President’s actions. As I wrote recently, our schools are in desperate need of an approach to American history that restores a sense of both memory and hope to the story of our past. At present it is unclear exactly how the 1776 Commission will carry out its mission, because education is still, and rightly so, a local responsibility in which local actors must make key curricular decisions about what should be taught in schools. Nevertheless, the Commission could make a real contribution by providing local schools with better resources and instructional materials that present history in a way that is, in the words of political scientist Eliot Cohen, both “critical and patriotic.”
Of course, members of the education establishment immediately attacked the idea of the 1776 Commission as something sinister and dangerously nationalistic. In a commentary for Education Week, a group of five teachers of the year took the President to task for what he “gets wrong” about patriotic education, claiming that teachers don’t, in fact, indoctrinate students with left-wing perspectives and suggesting that the President’s ideas would lead to whitewashing America’s history and ignoring the sins of our ancestors.
I don’t presume to know what the 1776 Commission will do, but it is utterly unfair to suggest that teaching our students to appreciate the gifts of our national heritage involves overlooking the ways in which our country has failed to live up to its own ideals.
In my mind, patriotic education is less about the specific curricular concepts that are featured in American history classes, and more about a philosophical stance that informs our approach, one full of explicit values and assumptions. These assumptions include, but are not limited to, the following:
The belief that America’s Founding was a good thing. This includes believing that the events of 1776, and the subsequent efforts to iron out a workable constitution, and the next 244 years of trying to help the U.S. live up to its founding ideals, represent a significantly positive development in human political and social history.
It includes the assumption that the United States is an exceptional country, not in the sense that it is better than any other nation, but that it is unique, and offers a uniquely valuable model of political organization that is worth cherishing and defending. This does not mean that we hide, in any way, the complex character of our Founders, who were clearly flawed human beings and products of their own time. It does not mean that we gloss over or neglect the many ways that we have failed to live up to our Founding principles. In fact, the story of extending basic political rights and equal opportunity to all Americans is a key to our history.
But it does mean rejecting ahistorical ideas, such as those presented by the 1619 Project, that America’s “true” founding was based entirely around the institution of slavery and white power, or that our Founding itself was irredeemably flawed, as were the Founders, because of their moral blind spots and costly errors. It means, as the organizers of the 1776 Unites project declare,
[We] uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery. We seek to offer alternative perspectives that celebrate the progress America has made on delivering its promise of equality and opportunity and highlight the resilience of its people. Our focus is on solving problems. We do this in the spirit of 1776, the date of America’s true founding.
This core belief that America’s founding is something worth defending and admiring, along with the beliefs articulated below, does not require us to force students to share this belief. They may come to their own conclusions about America’s worth in the world. But this assumption should be a starting point that guides our selection of curriculum materials, our instructional methods, and our goals for what we seek to accomplish through the teaching of history.
The understanding that America’s political traditions are inextricably linked to an older English and medieval heritage. The American Revolution did not happen in a vacuum, but rather reflected key political beliefs that can be traced back through hundreds of years of English common law, dating all the way back to Magna Carta and beyond. There was a great diversity of political philosophies at work in the American Founding, of course, as Yoram Hazony has documented, but the general consensus was that the American experiment was building on values and institutions that preceded it. No one less than Edmund Burke understood the U.S. Constitution is just this way, as Ofir Haivry has written.
Robert Reilly’s America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding traces the roots of constitutionalism, separation of church and state, consent of the governed, and individual rights back even further to medieval canon law, which was in turn heavily influenced by Roman civil law and Greek natural law. These ideas were under assault for a handful of centuries leading up to the American Revolution as nominalism and political absolutism threatened to wipe out the older roots of constitutionalism. In this way, the American Founding was less a revolution and more a restoration of ancient ideas and ideals.
This is precisely why Americans rejected the bloodbath that became the French Revolution, which sought to destroy every existing institution of civil society and ultimately led to a totalitarian state under Napoleon. Americans have a rebellious spirit, yes. But as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830s, they also have a reverence for tradition and the institutions of civil society that make a republican form of government possible.
A confidence that our founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and their historical antecedents like Magna Carta, represent a uniquely valuable roadmap for political organization and human progress. To the extent that America needs to be always reformed, it is ideally done so through the same mechanisms established by these documents and the core principles that animate them.
And that means a faith in the core principles of the Founding. These principles include, but may not be limited to, the following:
• the dignity of the individual
• the rule of law
• equality of opportunity
• a lightly regulated economy that provides opportunities for all individuals to excel through hard work, determination, and innovation
• government that is limited so that no faction can assume too much power and threaten the liberties of others
• subsidiarity—the belief that decisions should be made at the most local level possible to adequately address policy problems, embodied in our concept of federalism
• republicanism—representative democracy as the best method of securing the values noted above
• an understanding that human flourishing is about far more than politics; that the institutions of civil society like family, religious organizations, civic groups, small businesses, etc., are where true happiness is found and where humans are formed in the virtues necessary to participate in and maintain a republic embodying all the other virtues described above
Finally, patriotic education would embody the principle encapsulated in our national motto, e pluribus unum, “from the many—One.” For the American republic to function, we need to understand that while we or our ancestors came from many different places and in many different ways, while we are plural in our religious traditions and ways of life, we nevertheless share a common bond as Americans.
And it is through that bond—forged in faith that our Founding principles are good and true and enduring enough to be defended and to guide our path forward to a “more perfect union”—that we will overcome our on-going economic, social, cultural, and political challenges.
Few Americans embodied this “audacious faith in the future” better than Martin Luther King. As The Dallas Morning News wrote earlier this year:
The central tenet of the American experiment, and really the democratic experiment, is that people are not made to organize themselves into perpetually warring tribes and factions. The promise is that, in a democracy, a plural people can live together in harmony and prosperity in a system where each voice matters.
King believed in that possibility. He believed in the American experiment, even as he viewed it in the unsentimental light of a man who had experienced its oppression, its contradictions and the consequences of the lies about humanity that had made slavery and segregation possible.
Nevertheless, he believed.
As King saw it, the citizen of good conscience had to work not to tear down America but rather to insist that it live up to its ideals, its founding principles of liberty, but that it do this work while facing its failure to fully embrace the promise of equality.
This is what sets MLK aside from today’s iconoclasts who seek to destroy monuments to American figures as diverse as Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln, who tell an historically inaccurate version of America that implies we have made no progress as a people, and that in fact the American experiment was corrupt and racist from the start and must be torn down and replaced by… something. Their vision of the future is not audacious, like Martin Luther King’s. It is simply a future of violence and silencing of opposition and tyranny.
There is no “America” when there is nothing that unifies us beyond our different identities and divisions. An audacious faith in America does not involve “whitewashing” our history or neglecting to explore the contradictions between our professed values and our lived experience. It is rather to tell the whole story of our past, which includes the bad with the good.
Whatever else it looks like in the classroom, these are the principles that should motivate and guide a “patriotic” education, and those that every American should be able to endorse.
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 The 1776 Commission, The American Mind.
 Eliot A. Cohen, “History, Criticial and Patriotic,” Education Next (February 2020).
 Chris Dier, Takeru Nagayoshi, Erin McCarthy, Cecilia Chung, and Lynette Stant, “What President Trump Gets Wrong About ‘Patriotic Education’,” Education Week (October 2020).
 See 1776 Unites.
 Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony, “American Nationalists,” The American Conservative (July 2020).
 Ofir Haivry, “American Restoration: Edmund Burke and the American Constitution,” American Affairs (February 2020).
 “An audacious faith in future: How Martin Luther King Jr. believed in America and its dream for humanity,” The Dallas Morning News (January 2020).
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.