Whether history education should be “patriotic”...begins with reflection on the purpose of history education itself. The AHA has participated in conversations at both the K–12 and postsecondary levels that have generally moved in similar directions: the role of historical thinking and historical knowledge in preparing students for citizenship, career, and self-understanding. What can be more patriotic than building communities of informed, employed, active citizens confident in their ability to make decisions and interact effectively with others?...
Though hardly the only discipline where such learning takes place, history is an ideal venue for the education of citizens. Our students learn about the relationship between structure, culture, and agency in the shaping and direction of change. They learn that imputations of inevitability need always be tempered by consideration of the contingency of human actions, even those with unintended consequences. They learn that history doesn’t just “happen.”
All fine and good, say the proponents of a different kind of patriotic preparation, one that celebrates the institutions within which all of this human agency takes place and the heroic figures whose agency stands at the center of the evolution of those institutions.
But to celebrate change, we must appreciate its necessity: Neither democratic institutions nor individual great men and women emerged fully formed. They evolved. And one cannot comprehend that evolution without understanding its context. If students don’t study the hierarchical nature of New England towns and the worldviews of Virginia slaveholders, they can’t understand the ideological origins of the American Revolution. If they don’t learn about the actual dynamics of chattel slavery, the buying and selling of human beings, then Lincoln’s warning in his Second Inaugural that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” reads as mere rhetoric.
I will continue to disagree with thoughtful colleagues who consider celebration and exceptionalism the cornerstones of a patriotic history education. But that disagreement is not over whether history education ought to be patriotic; it is about what constitutes patriotism in a nation founded on dissent and notable (even if not quite exceptional) for its deep and vibrant traditions of activism and debate from every corner of the country and the political spectrum.
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