During the Vietnam War, a phrase often used to justify sticking with the war, even in the face of mounting casualties, both military and civilian, was “My country, right or wrong!”
Even louder voices replied, sometimes citing U.S. Senator Carl Schurz in 1871: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
Patriotism has long been contested ground in the United States. And so it is today. Many of those who stormed the Capitol last Wednesday saw themselves as patriots, saving the country from a stolen election for their leader, President Trump. Of course, most of the Congress at work in the Capitol saw themselves as the patriots, as do most Americans, dutifully carrying out the constitutionally mandated recognition of the Electoral College votes that had been certified by the states.
Since patriotism is contested ground, especially today, Gov. Tate Reeves will need to provide the Legislature a definition of “patriotism” when they begin debating his proposed Patriotic Education Fund. The $3 million that the budget allocates for the fund is, said the governor, to “financially reward schools that combat ‘revisionist history’ that is ‘poisoning a generation,’” according to Mississippi Today.
Merriam-Webster gives us a definition, “love for or devotion to one’s country,” plus a bunch of synonyms – allegiance, constancy, faithfulness, fealty, loyalty, staunchness and steadfastness. So, this provision of the governor’s budget would reward (i.e., give money to) schools that teach students things about the United States that would evoke their loyalty, their patriotism.
What then will teachers teach that will evoke such devotion to country? Here are a few examples they could choose: (1) the ever-expanding circle of citizenship: from the Civil War (1865) that ended slavery to the expansion of voting rights to women (1920) to the 1964 Voting Rights Act. But teaching that history honestly would require teachers to include the violence of the Jim Crow-era of constricted citizenship rights for blacks, the grueling, 75-year struggle by women for the right to vote, and the 2013 Supreme Court decision that neutered sections 4(b) and 5 of the 1964 Voting Rights Act.
Or (2) teachers could teach the western expansion of this young republic: from settlement of the Northwest Territories and the Old Southwest, to the Lewis and Clark Expedition that explored the lands of the Louisiana Purchase, to the California Gold Rush, the Mexican War and the transcontinental railroad. But, teaching that history honestly would require also teaching the Trail of Tears, the brutal Indian Wars in the West, the string of broken treaties with native peoples and the violent acquisition of Mexican lands that filled out the then continental USA.
There is much to be proud of here, but there is also much to be ashamed of. What do teachers teach who want to encourage devotion to country?
Nations, like people, are not perfect. We do things from time to time that we are ashamed of later. We make mistakes. Teachers should teach that. It’s realistic: we love the people we love despite their mistakes or weaknesses, not because they are perfect. Learning that is part of growing from a child into mature adulthood.
With a realistic patriotism, students can learn to love America. We have made mistakes in the past, but we have also kept before us admirable ideals: equality before the law and a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” That’s a country students can love. They can develop a mature patriotism: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
Dick Conville is a longtime resident of Hattiesburg and a retired college professor.