When I was growing up, I was a very patriotic little kid. I had a U.S. flag hanging in my room and I read U.S. history and surrounded myself with information about why the United States was great. I was the poster child for the patriotic little kid that many people want their own kids to be.
At this point in my life, I’m disturbed by what I grew up learning and with what I became. It leaves me wondering how we can teach children to be mindful of their communities and appreciative for where they were born, but without turning them into the mindless acolytes of state religion that results from patriotism in most cases.
For many people, patriotism has become nothing more than worship of the government that rules the land they were born in. It’s a kind of statist religion that demands slavish devotion to a government whether it’s right or wrong. I certainly don’t want to teach the future children I hope to have to hate the land in which they were born, but I don’t want them blindly obeying a government, either. How can we strike a balance?
I have three ideas that I think might create better outcomes. See if you think these would help strike a middle ground.
First, teach your children that the government and their country aren’t the same thing. Teach them that it’s a good thing to love the people around them and the land they feel connected to, but that it doesn’t have to come with automatic acceptance of the actions of any levels of government here. For most people today, it’s hard to separate those two things.
Second, don’t teach them to worship political heroes from history. The people who founded this country weren’t saints or heroes. (And many of the presidents who have been made into modern-day political saints — such as Abraham Lincoln and even Franklin Roosevelt — were anything but that.) Children need to be taught the truth about the men (and the occasional woman) who shaped the early days of the country. It will serve them well to understand not to worship men and women as their leaders, because it will save them from disappointment when the truth hits them one day.
Third, teach them a balanced view of how their country got to where it is today. When I was growing up, I read a lot of history, but I now understand that much of what I read was very selective in the truth it told. I know that ugly parts of the past were glossed over and that completely made-up things were passed along as truth. I recommend you give them work by libertarian historians such as Tom Woods and Thomas DiLorenzo. Then when they’re mature enough, give them a copy of Thaddeus Russell’s “A Renegade History of the United States.” They’ll learn things their friends never do in government schools. So teach your children that the early Americans slaughtered the Native Americans and considered blacks to be sub-humans who were worthy of slavery. Teach them that the United States fought an aggressive war with Mexico to capture much of the Southwest. You don’t have to teach them to have guilt over these things — because those of us today aren’t responsible for what those people did — but they need to understand the good and the bad about how the country became what it is today.
There’s a lot that’s right with this country, both presently and historically. It’s a good thing to celebrate the genius and enterprise of people who invented things and built great new industries. In those respects, many of those people should be admired and respected. They can even be role models for our kids — symbols of what they can achieve if they’re willing to use their brains and work hard. But in the areas of U.S. history (or whatever history is local where you are), tell the truth about the bad, too. Let your kids understand that people tend to be very flawed — and that they do both good and bad.
I’m very uncomfortable with what patriotism has become today, because it ignores these points. It teaches Americans to think of their history as mostly spotless and wonderful and that wise men have led the country. But the victors write the mainstream textbooks. Don’t use those. Learn the truth yourself — and make sure your kids know truths that were hidden from us when we were growing up.
I think it will lead them to have much healthier attitudes toward their country — and when they say that they love America, you’ll know they’re loving the parts worth loving, not automatically supporting a government intent on coercing them.