The Slippery Matter of "Truth" in Patriotic Education

tags: curriculum, culture war, teaching history

Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor in the School of Cultural and Critical Studies at Bowling Green State University.

At last count, Republicans have introduced bills in more than half of the states to restrict the teaching of what they regard to be “critical race theory.” Eleven states have enacted bans. The language of these measures, while varying slightly from state to state, is drawn from a template provided by the Trump administration’s 2020 executive order banning federal agencies from engaging in “anti-racism training.”

Most of the debate around these measures has focused on the merits of The New York Times’s “1619 Project,” which several of these bills specifically ban from public schools, or on the definition of critical race theory itself. Meanwhile, one vitally important ideological shift that these laws represent has been overlooked. Unlike crusades for “patriotic education” in the past that justified censorship and romanticized history on the grounds that these were necessary for civic progress, today’s GOP defends its version of American history on the basis that it’s more factual than the accounts they wish to suppress.

For most of the last two centuries, patriotic schooling was not a partisan issue. Both conservatives and progressives were united in packing schoolrooms with flags, pledges, anthems, and star-spangled lessons. Conservatives may have done so reflexively while progressives saw public education as a key engine of reform, Americanizing unruly immigrants, purifying government, and countering the nation’s slide into economic oligarchy.

Yet unlike today, champions of patriotic education then distinguished between patriotism and truth. When New York State mandated the display of the flag and the distribution of a 400-page Manual of Patriotism to every classroom in 1898, there was an understanding that patriotic education was not, and need not be, entirely factual. The first pages of the Manual of Patriotism warned teachers, “Do not look upon this Manual as a text-book in American history.” It then elaborated:

There are many good books that give the facts, and some that attempt the philosophy of the subject. But this does not pretend to do either. I am of the mind that neither facts nor philosophy alone, nor both combined, can create the sentiment of patriotism, much less foster and strengthen it in the minds and hearts of children. Be yourselves well grounded in the facts, and teach them as may be needful. … But when you take this book in your hands, let the light of sentiment and imagination play over facts and theories — tingeing all as with the beautiful Red, White and Blue of the Flag.


In the 1920s, when influential historians like David Muzzey and Charles Beard pointed out that Americans may have had other motives for breaking with England than just spreading Enlightenment ideals, some textbooks began to appear with critical appraisals of Washington and Jefferson. But the defenders of a more unblemished narrative did not stake their position on the argument that their version of history was more accurate. New York City’s superintendent of education attacked historical revisionism and defended patriotic textbooks without claiming that those textbooks were inaccurate. “To my mind, a distinction should be drawn between the obligation to cleave closely to the line of historical truth, such as is incumbent upon the historian writing for adult readers and the discretion properly conceded to an author of school texts who writes for immature minds,” he instructed a committee empaneled to review textbooks in 1922.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

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