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Citizen Student: Teaching Patriotism in Time of War

American history teacher Doc Miller says he tries not to tell his students what to think.
Photos by Neva Grant, NPR News /
American history teacher Doc Miller says he tries not to tell his students what to think.
Elyse Terry, right, (seen here with classmate Kim Miner) participates in a discussion about the dilemma between freedom of speech and patriotism.
Elyse Terry, right, (seen here with classmate Kim Miner) participates in a discussion about the dilemma between freedom of speech and patriotism.

Last September -- on Constitution Day -- President Bush spoke at a Rose Garden ceremony about education and patriotism. He said American children need to know "the great cause of America" and why this country is worth fighting for.

"The principles we hold are the hope of all mankind," Mr. Bush said. "When children are given the real history of America, they will also learn to love America."

But what does it mean to love America? What does it mean to be patriotic? Should teachers instill in their students a love of country? Those questions are especially timely these days as the United States prepares for a possible war with Iraq.

As part of Morning Edition's "Citizen Student" series on civics education, NPR's Madeleine Brand visited two eighth-grade history classrooms, where students and their teachers are trying to figure out just what it means to be a patriot. And NPR's Margot Adler moderated a debate between historian Howard Zinn and Harvard educator Peter Gibbon about how -- or if -- schools should teach "love of country." The debate was recorded for the NPR program Justice Talking.

Varying Approaches in the Classroom

At Concord Middle School, in Concord, Mass., the Pledge of Allegiance offers American history teacher Doc Miller a springboard for the day's lesson. He reads aloud the definition of allegiance:

"The duty of being loyal to one's ruler, country, etc." Miller emphasizes the words "duty" and "loyal," pausing to let those two words sink in.

Then he asks his class to ponder the meaning of the word "patriotic."

"Listen to this one," Miller says. "A patriot is one who loves, supports and defends one's country. Defends one's country! Isn't that what we're about if we go to war with Iraq?... I don't know, I'm putting out questions."

Miller says he tries hard not to tell his students what to think. Brand reports that he wants them to learn from each other. Elyse Terry and her classmates now wrestle with different visions of what America is about.

"Especially post-Sept. 11, there is this big push to be patriotic and 'We are the greatest' so it's confusing which side to lean toward," Terry says.

The discussion turns to the dilemma between supporting one's country and exercising the freedom of dissent. While most of Miller's students say they are patriotic, some are uncomfortable with the good guy-bad guy scenario that President Bush has painted regarding Iraq.

Miller tells his students that many people think Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has done evil things, but the teacher doesn't tell them what he thinks -- and he refuses to make a moral judgment.

That's not the case in another classroom, this one in rural West Milford, N.J.'s Macopin Middle School, where Joe Trentacosta also teaches eighth-grade history.

"Some of us are getting the picture that the U.S. is using military force to attack and destroy. [In the Afghanistan war], what did we do after bombing, what did we drop? Food. Why did we do that? What value system makes us do stuff of that nature? "

As Brand describes it, Trentacosta's classroom "looks more traditional than Doc Miller's. The desks all face front, there's an American flag hanging in the corner. Trentacosta says it's important to let his students debate and discuss big ideas like patriotism -- to a point. While he says they can feel free to have differing opinions, he doesn't shy away from giving them his opinion -- that America is morally superior to other countries because it has a better set of values."

"I think we are a leader in the world through our values, through our belief in freedom," Trentacosta says.

He says his students may not be receiving patriotic values at home, and so that moral responsibility falls to him. But student Gabrielle Stitt says she doesn't need to be taught to love her country. "I don't think you need to learn about it to be a patriot," she says.

But Sue Pappas, the parent of another student, says she's pleased about the lessons her daughter is learning in history class. "This thrills me. When she came home having to discuss patriotism and all this -- I was like, 'Yeah, finally.'"

The Scholars Debate

In the second part of Morning Edition's look at teaching patriotism, Harvard's Peter Gibbon, author of A Call to Heroism: Renewing America’s Vision of Greatness, debates historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of The United States on how schools should approach the subject.

In the Justice Talking debate, held at the University of Pennsylvania and sponsored by its Annenberg Public Policy Center, Gibbon argues that children should learn about America's great achievements -- its "virtues, triumphs and glories."

But Zinn says teachers shouldn't gloss over the country's failings -- such as high crime and poverty rates and unequal access to health care. "If you only concentrate on the good parts, it'll create a complacency" and discourage young people from seeking to change the country and the world, Zinn says.

Zinn says students should learn to think more critically about America and its history -- the motives behind the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, for example.

But Gibbon wonders, "What is the purpose in a civics education -- is it to trash America's past?"

Zinn replies: "I'm not suggesting we trash the past.... I want to prepare young people to say 'no' to the government. There are times where you might say 'yes' to the government, but I'm suggesting patriotism means being true and loyal -- not to the government, but to the principles which underlie democracy."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Madeleine Brand
Madeleine Brand is the host of NPR’s newest and fastest-growing daily show, Day to Day. She conducts interviews with newsmakers (Iraqi politicians, US senators), entertainment figures (Bernardo Bertolluci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Gervais), and the everyday people affected by the news (an autoworker laid off at GM, a mother whose son was killed in Iraq).
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