PATRIOTISM AND EDUCATION

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 8 Jun 2009

John Spiri

Most definitions of patriotism include the concept of love for and loyalty towards one’s home nation. Despite the fact that patriotism is commonly associated with positive feelings such as unity, unselfishness, and love, it can be argued that patriotism is an unnatural sentiment that creates bias, and is a major cause of war. Furthermore, efforts to include patriotism in schools at any level are essentially indoctrination, not education.

Patriotism as Love of Fellow Citizens

Patriotism implies expressing love for one’s fellow citizens. Loving other people makes sense, and is surely beneficial for society as a whole. Such love arises naturally for individuals one comes in contact with and works and plays with. A neighborhood, a workplace, a county, a prefecture, a nation and all of humanity benefit from loving, cooperative and altruistic behavior. Patriotism, however, extols the virtues of targeting a particular group of individuals to love. With what logic—and to whose benefit—is it to focus almost exclusively on national unity as opposed to community, state, or global unity?

Citizens of a nation are largely strangers. Nations contain a huge number of individuals with diverse ideas and ways of thinking. Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of the United States, writes, “Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex.”1 Thus, a nation is not homogenous.

Patriots of some nations, like Japan, might point to kinship, claiming Japan is a “racially pure” and hence family in one sense of the word. However, tracing ancestry back just a few more generations, Japanese can find their supposed family is merely part of a larger family, of Koreans, Chinese, Portuguese, and innumerable other races. Keep tracing ancestry and we arrive in Africa and the birth of the human species. There is no logical or biological reason to limit the notion of family to those within national borders. The broader and profounder concept of family embraces all of humanity, if not all living creatures.

If a person can love hundreds of millions of strangers as patriotism implies, surely it would be better advised to spread that affection and commitment to all of humanity. With patriotism, the feelings of love and unity are always narrowly focused on those within national borders.

Patriotism and Identity

One rationale for patriotism is that humans need to identify with greater entities and ideals, and internationalism doesn’t satisfy that need. Michael W. McConnell is an academic, author, and defender of patriotism. In his essay “Don’t Neglect the Little Platoons,” he writes, “Humanity at large—what we share with other humans as rational beings—is too abstract to be a strong focus for the affections.2 Since “the world” has never been the locus of citizenship, a child who is taught to be a “citizen of the world” is taught to be a citizen of an abstraction.”

McConnell, however, fails to acknowledge that to be a citizen of a nation is likewise to be a citizen of an abstraction, with the only concrete evidence of national membership being man-made papers such as passports. Citizens of a nation are artificial constructs; looking at a person, there is no way to know her citizenship. In the case of a “world citizen,” however, individuals are members of a natural entity, the earth, and humanity always absolutely identifiable.

Patriotism as Loyalty to National Government

Wikipedia notes that patriots should be willing to sacrifice even their own lives for the state. Loyalty means to remain faithful despite circumstances. It is oxymoronic at best, and Orwellian doublespeak to cynics, to suggest that autonomous independent-thinking citizens of a so-called free, democratic society should maintain “unswerving allegiance” to its national government. “Unswerving allegiance” is amounts to a certain amount of bias and blindness, for the sake of unity narrowly focused within national borders, especially in times of war. In fact, wars rely on the loyalty of its citizens. Without this loyalty, it’s hard to imagine soldiers killing and risking their lives when their governments demand the bombs start falling.

The Education Connection

John Taylor Gatto is an educator and two-time winner of the New York state Teacher of the Year award. He traces the history of compulsory schooling to Prussia.

“After Napoleon’s army defeated Prussia (Germany) at the battle of Jena in 1806, Fichte (the Prussian philosopher) declared, ‘Education should provide the means to destroy free will.’ Look what Napoleon had done by banishing sentiment in the interests of nationalism. Through forced schooling, everyone would learn that “work makes free,” and working for the State, even laying down one’s life to its commands, was the greatest freedom of all. Here in the genius of semantic redefinition lay the power to cloud men’s minds…”

Thus, Prussia laid the foundations for the illusion that the state as a powerful father figure, necessarily worthy of the loyalty of its citizens. From its inception, public school education was not envisioned as a way to cultivate the human spirit, but as a way to make the individual loyal to his or her nation. Gatto describes the ways public schools are designed to break an individual’s independence, by making the pupil obey the dictates of bells and follow a fragmented curriculum, as well as having his or her worth defined—judged—externally via grades.

Youth who don’t conform to the dictates of the system get branded rebellious, receive poor grades, or simply flunk out. Beyond these systematic means of bending the student’s will to the demands of the state, there are overt expressions of love which most schoolchildren the world over are expected to express. In the United States, a supposed champion of freedom and critical thinking, children routinely recite, “”I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Now, few even question whether having school age children promise their loyalty to the national government has a place in public schools. In Examining the Pledge of Allegiance, Leisa Martin discusses the history of the pledge, provides suggestions for activities, and briefly mentions a couple of controversies regarding it, but never raises the point of whether this sort of indoctrination belongs in schools at all, even in her paragraph about “different perspectives” (which contains a mere half-sentence criticism about the phrase “liberty and justice for all followed by lengthy praise for the pledge, including a Bellamy quote).3

In appendix C she mentions that in 1925 thirty-five Mennonite children refused to salute the flag because “they felt taking up arms and taking other peoples’ lives to defend the U.S. was against their religious beliefs,” but Martin’s phrasing “to defend the U.S.” is obfuscation and should be phrased “to fight in wars,” especially since American soldiers have fought only on foreign soil for well over 100 years. Martin also notes, but doesn’t expand upon, the fact that originally the pledge was said with a stiff arm militaristic salute, not unlike the Nazi salute. Schools dropped the salute during the second World War.

Martin does, however, offer some facts, troubling to critics of the Pledge. Since 911, seventeen U.S. states have enacted new pledge laws, and 35 states mandated that the Pledge be recited daily during school. Unfortunately, this clinging to old ways of patriotism and indoctrination are not limited to the United States. Japan has recently made similar moves for its own patriotic expressions.

In Japan, where patriotism had been discouraged in the years following World War II, pressure is building to make school children more patriotic. In August 1999, a law instituted the Hinomaru rising sun flag as the official flag of Japan and the “Kimigayo”, (”His Majesty’s Reign”) as the official national anthem. Both were and are potent symbols of Japan’s militarization and invasions of neighboring countries prior to World War II. Moreover, Japan’s Fundamental Law of Education, which had called for the “nurturing of truth, peace, and justice” was revised.

Then prime minister Shinzo Abe and his allies passed a bill that demanded schools instill “a love of one’s country” in children. Some critics of the new law saw shades of an 1890 edict that decreed children must recite stanzas of patriotic praise before the portrait of the Emperor. That very year a Hiroshima principle who was caught in a controversy involving teachers who refused to stand for the Kimigayo during school ceremonies, and pressure from the school board who demanded they stand, committed suicide.

In particular, Tokyo teachers have suffered the brunt of punishments against teachers who refuse to stand. Tokyo Governor Ishihara, who has suggested Japan should bomb North Korea and calls Japan’s peace constitution “nonsense”, has pressed school boards to force teachers to stand. Those who refuse to stand have been suspended without pay, frequently transferred to schools far away from their homes, not allowed home-room duties, and even abused physically and verbally by students. One teacher in particular, Kimiko Nezu, has taken the school board to court over the suspensions, and won. Undaunted, the board has appealed to the Japanese supreme court. A verdict is expected in 2010.

Few educators would deny the value of autonomy and independent thinking, yet few question why students and teachers should be expected or forced to recite their allegiance to the state. Of course, the problem is much deeper than any single act of indoctrination. More important are the ways people carve up the world into “us” and “them”; the ways people learn to view international problems through the lens of their cultural and national identities; the extent young adults feel compelled to conform to the dominant culture of their society; and the tendency for young men and women to agree to become soldiers who follow orders and may have to kill strangers on the order of their commander. Educators have a responsibility to deeply consider these issues and consider deeply the meaning and implications of patriotism.

NOTES:

1.    Zinn, H. 1980. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial.

2.    McConnell, M. 1996. “Don’t Neglect the Little Platoons” in For Love of Country. Boston: Beacon Press.

3.    Martin, L. 2008. Examining the Pledge of Allegiance. Social Studies. Washington DC: Heldref Publications.

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John Spiri teaches Agriculture and Technology at Tokyo University. He can be reached at: johnspiri@gmail.com.

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