Today’s public square includes much debate about the teaching of history in school. As both a school leader and a history teacher, I offer this:
We must teach history in order to create active, engaged citizens. In doing so, we can also promote patriotism.
Teaching History to Promote Patriotism
We teach history because history helps us understand ourselves and our world. Our past is always part of our present. Our history has shaped every element of today—who we are, what we believe, how our society and government and economy work.
History often includes exploration of the triumphs of our spirit and our great achievements as well as exploration of the unpleasant, the unenlightened, and the shameful moments of our past. We teach history to help us understand, often to emulate and always to be inspired to do better and to be better.
As students grow and mature, we should not shy away from discussing slavery and race as deeply important issues in our history—because they are. In exploring slavery and race, we should not teach that all white people are evil or that our children are responsible for having oppressed other people.
Rather, we should work to help our students understand that injustice has been part of our history, that it persists in ways that are both overt and subtle, and that our democratic system has brought progress and change from earlier days. We should work to help our students know that they, as citizens and voters, will have the opportunity and the obligation to continue to shape our nation’s evolving narrative. This is one of the key ways to promote patriotism.
Schools should promote patriotism — a patriotism that understands and is inspired by our system and our history toward the ends of both pride and participation.
I believe that the United States of America is a truly exceptional nation because of our commitment to common ideas (the rule of law, freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of religion, equality under law, free enterprise and the right to vote, to name just a few).
In these challenging times, I would add to the list the precious freedom to read and the freedom to learn. I am deeply proud that, in our country, citizenship and “Americanness” are not conferred by common race or religion or ethnic heritage, but by common commitment to these ideas. We are special because of that, and we have served as a beacon of goodness and principle to the rest of the world because of it.
I want our schools to help all our students learn to love our country and our system through exploring both those times when we rose to meet the moment and those times in which we did not.
The study of history is the best way to answer today’s urgent call to citizenship. Progress may not be linear, but the arc of history does bend toward justice. School should work to make it so.