History Isn’t Just For Patriots

In Education On
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question eight years ago, 70 percent of American citizens surveyed said yes. Now, a recent study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that only 54 percent answer affirmatively. Democrats are likelier to see their country as normal and Republicans are likelier to see it as uniquely great, but the decline is bipartisan. It’s also age-based: A similar Pew study found that respondents under 30 were markedly less enamored of their country than those over 50. Across the board, U.S. exceptionalism is faltering.Daniel Immerwahr @dimmerwahr teaches history at Northwestern University and is the author of “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States.”

Maybe that’s okay. Achieving a more perfect union requires confronting dark truths — such as the centrality of slavery to U.S. history, the subject of the New York Times’ 1619 Project. These make flags droop but promise that an unvarnished accounting will aid the cause of progress. Not everyone agrees, though. President Trump tried to counter the 1619 Project with his own 1776 Commission, which would defend the “nobility of the American character,” he explained. (“We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”) Here, too, the ambition is understandable: A proud citizenry will more readily uphold the country’s institutions, respect its laws and do so with a sense of shared purpose.

These are the contours of the battle over patriotism in the curriculum: Should students learn of their country’s virtues or shortcomings? Should they leave class feeling proud or ashamed?

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