Advocates of patriotic education would do well to embrace the nationalist elements of such an approach to learning. Doing so is fraught with challenges given the negative connotations of the word, but Yoram Hazony’s book, “The Virtue of Nationalism,” may be a useful resource for educators, policymakers, and historians.
In response to historical revisionism and the pervasiveness of critical theory in American schools, President Donald Trump has announced the formation of a “1776 Commission” that would help promote “patriotic education.” Predictably, voices from the Left squalled that the President was trying to “whitewash” history and indoctrinate students into a dangerous nationalism.
It is unclear yet exactly how the 1776 Commission will carry out its work. In a recent essay, I offered a set of guiding principles that could inform both national and local efforts to form students into “critical patriots.” These principles include, among others, an explicit belief that America’s founding documents provide a valuable roadmap for political organization and human progress, understanding that America’s political traditions are linked to an older English and medieval heritage, and committing to core values like the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, limited government, and subsidiarity.
Far from “whitewashing” history, patriotic education should tell the whole story of the American republic—the bad with the good—and how in spite of our failures and precisely because of our founding aspirations and the culture from which they emerged, the United States remains, as Wilfred McClay titles his magnificent new text, The Land of Hope.
Perhaps advocates of patriotic education would do well to actually embrace the nationalist elements of such an approach to learning. Doing so is fraught with challenges given the negative connotations of the word since the World War II era, but Yoram Hazony’s 2018 book, The Virtue of Nationalism, may be a useful resource as this conversation progresses among educators, policymakers, and historians.
Nationalism versus Imperialism
Dr. Hazony’s main thesis is that a political order made up of self-governing nation states is the most desirable, prosperous, and free. To believe in such an order is to be a nationalist. Nationalism is different from patriotism, then, as Dr. Hazony explains. “Normally, patriotism refers to the love or loyalty of an individual for his or her own independent nation,” he writes. “Nationalism can be something more than this… There is a long tradition of using this term to refer to a theory of the best political order—that is to an anti-imperialist theory that seeks to establish a world of free and independent nation states.”
Thus, the alternative to nationalism, understood this way, is imperialism, the belief that multiple (ideally all) nations should be united under a common rule. Since nations long to be self-governing, imperialism is almost universally imposed on nations by force.
Imperialist regimes have existed since the earliest civilizations. The concept of the national state, however, is a much younger innovation, Dr. Hazony explains, but the foundation of nations is the natural bonds of mutual loyalty that emerge from the family, clans of families, and ultimately tribes of clans, social arrangements as old as human community itself. When multiple tribes unite themselves in a new bond of collective self-determination, the national state has emerged, with the most famous historical example being that of ancient Israel.
Dr. Hazony shows how the self-governing national state only became the norm in the post-Reformation era, and while imperialist movements popped up repeatedly to threaten the autonomy of various national states, this political order dominated through the mid-twentieth century when an imperialism of another sort emerged. “Nationalism” came to be associated with its exact opposite in the imperialism of Germany and Japan, and since then globalists of various sorts have sought to curtail the autonomy of national states through the imposition of a “new world order” of transnational economic and political structures. Dr. Hazony argues that this modern imperialism is no less dangerous to human freedom and the integrity and autonomy of nations than it was in the past, and a restoration of genuine nationalism must be established.
The Virtue of Nationalism has been reviewed extensively elsewhere for readers who want to explore Dr. Hazony’s argument in greater depth. Here I simply suggest there are several aspects of his thesis relevant for the purposes of revitalizing education in America, especially when it comes to the study of history.
Governments arise not from social contracts but deep, pre-political bonds of mutual loyalty
The first principle of nationalist education is that the concept of the “social contract,” taught for generations throughout American classrooms, does not exist. Contra John Locke, nations arise from the bonds of mutual loyalty of united tribes, and the United States was no different. “Tribes” of English settlers founded the American nation based on age-old ideals inherited from their ancestors and applied to the unique circumstances of their colonial experience.
“Actual biological kinship is never more than a raw material upon which a nation is built, if it is even that,” Dr. Hazony writes. “In the end, the decisive factor is the ties of mutual loyalty that have been established among members of a nation in the face of long years of joint hardship and success… We see that the freedoms of the individual guaranteed in England and America are not something that the individual simply has ‘by nature,’ but are, on the contrary, the result of an intricate machinery developed through many centuries of trial and error.”
Individual rights emerge from a larger framework of social duties and responsibilities
American students should then understand that the national founding was not simply a political act in 1776, but the culmination of an English philosophical heritage and how the colonial experience forged a common people out of the mishmash of settlers who risked much to come to this new continent. Understanding the social foundations of the American experiment likewise helps students contextualize the whole concept of rights within a larger foundation of duties and responsibilities to others. Individuals are free only insofar as their families, clans, and tribes are free.
“In taking part in the freedom of the collective, I experience something that is quite distinct from the strongly individual freedom of saying whatever I please or going wherever I want,” Dr. Hazony writes. “Because the individual is always bound by ties of mutual loyalty to his family, tribe, or nation, it is a mistake to suppose that he can have political freedom when the family, tribe, or nation is not free.”
Nationalist education rejects the concept of the “neutral state”
Many American educators have embraced the idea that their responsibility is not to teach students values, let alone “what” to think, but only “how” to think. In social studies education, this comes across as the idea that students, at best, understand and perhaps appreciate what America stands for, but not necessarily to cherish America herself. The focus of teaching, they argue, should be on the founding documents and the American creed and not the culture from which it emerged.
Dr. Hazony identifies this kind of “constitutional patriotism” with the thought of Jurgen Habermas and rejects it:
The neutral state is a myth. It is invoked time and again by those who imagine that the state can exist in the absence of national or tribal cohesion—when in reality it is only national or tribal cohesion that permits and independent state to be established… It is impossible, however… that a sacralization of the constitutional documents of the state should take place without the framework of family, tribal and national traditions in which the individual learns to revere and hold sacred certain things and not others… The constitutional documents of the neutral state will be revered and will become objects of loyalty precisely to the extent that the tribe or nation to which we are loyal transmits the sacredness of these documents to each new generation of children.
It is the job, then, of educators, working with families, to transmit this political and cultural heritage to posterity.
E pluribus unum—embracing multiple nations within a national state
Perhaps the gravest objection to nationalism since the mid-twentieth century has been the concern that by organizing states around nations of tribes sharing a common heritage, we implicitly suggest that certain nations are superior to others. At its worst, such sentiments may give rise to the kinds of racist evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime.
Dr. Hazony acknowledges that various nation states have indeed maintained “unconscionable racialist arrangements and institutions.” But equating these unacceptable traditions with nationalism misrepresents the ways in which successful national states incorporate new tribes into their common bonds of mutual loyalty. Nations that fail to protect the interests of minority groups within their borders will inevitably become destabilized and tend toward disorder and violence. They risk becoming failed states.
As noted above, biological kinship does not make a nation, but rather a shared common experience of trial and accomplishment. This is precisely how the United States became perhaps the greatest model of a multi-tribal state as its borders expanded to incorporate other long-standing settlers of Spanish and French origin, and its promise of freedom and opportunity attracted wave after wave of immigrants from other parts of Europe. This process was not without repeated tensions of course, and the integration of Native, African, and Asian newcomers was obviously marked by horrors of various sorts, which is why the legacy of slavery and discrimination against Black Americans remains possibly the most challenging aspect of national unity for the U.S. today.
But the United States did end slavery precisely because of the core political principles and values of the English tribes that founded it could not tolerate such an institution within its borders forever. And while the process of making all minority groups welcome is incomplete, an essential character of the American nation is one that unites people of all tribes. The extent to which the American nation state continues to thrive depends on whether we can maintain the healthy and necessary tension between our diversity and our collective affection for, not simply our founding documents and ideals, but the larger cultural heritage from which they flowed. As Dr. Hazony explains, “This is a nationalist political tradition that embraces the principles of limited executive power, individual liberties, public religion based on the Bible, and a historical empiricism that so often served to moderate political life in Britain and America in comparison of other countries.”
A nationalist education would likewise emphasize these essential elements. While it would not require students to profess Biblical religion, a key assumption would be that the American founding is Judeo-Christian in its origins, and that the key values of Judeo-Christianity are essential to the national character.
The humility of nationalism
Finally, an education system that fosters a healthy nationalism in our children will also teach them a healthy appreciation for the limits of their own country, the wisdom of its leaders, and the implications of its power. America, too, has had its imperialist moments, and Dr. Hazony argues that the goal of many American leaders since World War II has been to perpetually extend the United States’ military and economic hegemony over the world. Such a goal is diametrically opposed to the idea that other free national states deserve as much respect and autonomy as our own. Dr. Hazony writes:
[The nationalist] knows that there is truth and beauty in his own national traditions and in his own loyalty to them; and yet he also knows that they are not the sum of human knowledge, for there is also truth and beauty to be found elsewhere, which his own nation does not possess. This balance of factors permits a moderating skepticism with respect to one’s own national inheritance…. Nor does such a view collapse into a relativistic unwillingness to generalize from experience… Rather, it cultivates a wariness of over-extending such generalizations, which may fail to hold good when applied to a given nation at a given time, for reasons that may not yet be visible to us.
In fact, we can learn much from the experiences of other national states that can better inform our struggles to understand and address our own internal problems. “It is only through the many national experiments that we can learn, over historical time, what is in fact the best,” Dr. Hazony writes.
The ways in which America’s education system may become patriotic or nationalist will ultimately be worked out at the local level, which is as it should be. But works of political philosophy like Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism can help provide key guiding principles for this work—work that may be essential for the preservation of the American nation itself.
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The featured image is “A Country School” (1890) by Edward Lamson Henry (1841–1919) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.