Patriotism and Schools After September 11
September 11 has created an environment ripe for teaching the fundamentals of constitutional government, democracy, and the U.S. role in promoting (or sometimes inhibiting) the spread of such values. What common goals and ideals do we have – and are they worth defending? What similar challenges have we faced in our history and how did we respond to them? What are the responsibilities of government in times of crisis? How do we balance security needs with respect for individual rights?
In some cases, the show of patriotic sentiment has sparked controversy and raised concerns that students whose views don’t fall into line with conventional wisdom will be intimidated or harassed. Whether today’s burst of patriotism can serve as a springboard to more thoughtful teaching and learning in citizenship remains to be seen. Those who believe civics and other social studies subjects have gotten short shrift in the past decades certainly hope so.
A large majority of the U.S. students tested (grades 4, 8, and 12) have a weak understanding of the purpose and function of their Constitutional government. For example, only 16 percent of 4th graders could name two services paid for with tax dollars; just 7 percent of 8th graders could describe how a country benefits from having a constitution; less than one-third of high school seniors knew that the U.S. Supreme Court is charged with using judicial review to preserve minority rights. In all, just about 19 percent of students at each grade level ranked “proficient” or “advanced” in their understanding of civics. That may help explain the low participation of young people in the most basic civic exercise: voting.
Of course, widespread disinterest in and disdain for U.S. political and civic life is by no means a problem confined to youth. For three decades, the credibility of U.S. government institutions and political processes has been under attack from both Left and Right, fostering widespread cynicism. At the same time, Americans have become increasingly detached from community life. Young people are following the example set by the adults around them.
Another factor may also help explain students’ disinterest in civic life and disappointing academic outcomes in related subjects: an erosion of patriotism. The result? Students do not learn to positively identify with democratic society and consequently are unwilling-unable, really-to commit to it. This is especially harmful in the K-12 years, when students are developing their self-identities.
Without a rich and thoughtful appreciation for democratic community-and how an inspired, knowledgeable citizenry can improve it-kids have no reason to make a commitment to it. Not suggesting that social studies curricula function as some kind of national hagiography, ignoring the country’s failures. But authentic and constructive criticism-rather than cynicism-is only possible if it is grounded in a positive and sympathetic understanding of the country.
And parents seem to agree. A new survey showed that 79 percent of parents with school-aged children said they believe that the United States is a special country and they want schools to convey that belief to their children by teaching about its heroes and traditions. Furthermore, the poll of 1,005 foreign-born and U.S.-born parents revealed nothing naive or reflexive in this patriotism: nine in 10 also agreed that the U.S. government sometimes lies to the public, and nearly two-thirds said the United States does not live up to all of its ideals.
In the wake of September 11, several textbook publishers will be revising their books to accommodate that view and the new national mood. For example, they will likely replace a conclusion emphasizing diversity with one about public service and the common quest for human freedom. There will be a greater focus on pluralistic integration and the shift is not to ‘we’re all the same’ but to ‘we’re all Americans.’ One thing we stress is that diversity is the great strength in America and that respecting those differences is essential. Unity ought not to trump the right to dissent. That’s how a nation of many becomes a nation of one. Cultivating a sense of the “glue” that binds the many pages of American society is an essential part of good civics instruction.
Assuming that the recent showing of patriotic sentiment could serve as a spark for deeper, more thoughtful civics education, one question begs an answer: does civics instruction actually produce more-informed citizens? Based on research, the longstanding conventional wisdom among political scientists has been that K-12 civics instruction does not result in greater knowledge about politics and government among high school graduates. However, high school seniors who had taken dedicated courses in civics or government demonstrated significantly more political knowledge than those who hadn’t.
Of course, direct instruction is not enough. Students who studied a wide variety of topics, from criminal justice to state and local government to the role of lobbyists, achieved at higher levels. And those whose classes connected theory and history to contemporary practice through frequent discussions of current events scored better-impressive, because NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) did not test students’ knowledge of contemporary politics per se.
All told, those who had dedicated civics instruction that covered a wide variety of topics and included frequent discussions of contemporary events performed 14 percent better than students who didn’t have such instruction. One finding is clear and consistent: school and curriculum have an enduring impact on the development of civic knowledge in high school students. In addition, more knowledgeable students had more confidence that the American political system, while not perfect, is responsive, i.e., that their vote really counts.
For students who do not go to college-and a higher proportion of those from a low socioeconomic status do not-K-12 civics education may be the only opportunity they have to develop the empowering citizenship skills they need to ensure that their voice is heard in democratic discussions on all levels.
What then are the characteristics of good citizenship education? New research studies and interviews with educators reveal some of the earmarks of good civics education:
– Students learn civics knowledge and skills at every grade level, with a special emphasis on instruction in the senior year of high school. Students who have direct instruction in politics and government at age 17, when they are about to assume the rights and responsibilities of adults, are more likely to participate in political life through voting and other activities.
– Students learn the United States’ founding documents, civic institutions, and political processes to lay the groundwork for understanding not only their own government but others, too. Also, comparing the U.S. system to others-for example, to parliamentary systems with coalition governments-provides important points of reference for a better understanding not only of how the United States functions but of why it was organized this way.
– Students learn to connect current events and controversies to those principles. In many civics classes, controversial issues are avoided, promoting a false understanding of how the partisan political process really works. We have to help kids understand what the struggle for democracy is all about-especially that it is a struggle. It’s not something that is handed to you but something you have to fight for.
– Students have opportunities to practice democratic citizenship by taking part in programs such as mock trials and legislatures, school government, and conflict-resolution programs. These teach essential principles of justice such as protecting those with minority viewpoints, providing a safe environment for debate, and practicing shared authority. For example, a survey found that students who took part in school councils developed citizenship skills, including those associated with solving problems, sharing ideas, and managing projects.
– Students have opportunities to connect with the community by designing and taking part in service-learning projects. Numerous studies have documented how service learning enhances civic-mindedness. A new review of service-learning programs found that the programs most be successful at instilling an ethic of civic responsibility were those that let students design their activities, carry them out, analyze and reflect on them, and make changes according to their analysis. Also, students whose schools arranged such opportunities were twice as likely to volunteer for community service.
– Students get to learn about local issues from local leaders. Schools need to introduce kids to positive exemplars, especially on the local level. Bring mayors or journalists into schools to discuss issues. Find points of contention-kids will get into that-and bring these issues to life. Then go back and connect it to history. Compare a tax fight in town with the ones that sparked the Revolutionary War. Students learn and understand more easily about local government than state or federal government-yet many civics courses ignore local issues altogether, missing an opportunity for engagement. When learning about their own towns or cities, students can be shown the actual plot of land that the zoning board is ruling on. They often have direct access to local officials and can certainly observe legislative bodies, including school boards.
Undoubtedly, the attacks of September 11 will long be remembered by students. The jury is out on whether that leads to some profound change in how this generation views citizenship. What will kids find to inspire them? Can they rise above their own self-interest? That’s what patriotism is about. You are willing to make sacrifices for the community.
It will be up to adults, including those in schools, to make sure that the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem are just the beginning of such thoughtful assessment and not a hollow end in themselves.
Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com. Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.