Forcing Students to Love America is Unpatriotic

In a July 2018 article on patriotism, I wrote that “it’s difficult to sustain love for your country when you don’t feel loved by it or love its treatment of others.” However, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), has made it clear that he wants children to be unquestionably devoted to America. In July, he introduced the Love America Act, which seeks to promote patriotism in public schools and to prohibit federal funding to those that teach that the country’s foundational texts are rooted in racism. Hawley’s press release announcing the bill states,

“We cannot afford for our children to lose faith in the noble ideals this country was founded on. We have to make sure that our children understand what makes this country great, the ideals of hope and promise our Founding Fathers fought for, and the love of country that unites us all.”

The bill says that “students in elementary and secondary school should learn the truth about the history and documents relating to the founding of the United States.” It requires students be able to recite the Pledge of Allegiance by the first grade and the Constitution’s preamble by the fourth grade. Eighth graders should be able to recite the preamble of the Declaration of Independence and tenth graders should be able to identify the Bill of Rights. While reading and memorizing are useful educational practices, further discussion and background are needed for students to comprehend the gravity of the words and ideas. Hawley’s proposed legislation ignores our country’s faults and progress by focusing on the texts without recognizing their context.

While appreciating the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, students should also understand its hypocritical claim that we’re all equal. Colonists pushed out America’s original inhabitants (referred to in the Declaration as “merciless Indian Savages”) while claiming to establish a new home for “all men” and provide “unalienable rights,” although almost twenty percent of the American population were slaves for another hundred years. While it’s essential to know the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, it’s just as important to understand the rest of the Amendments that highlight how the original Constitution fell short and the process it takes to make such changes (for more on Amendments, watch the Amend Netflix documentary). While the Pledge of Allegiance is seen as a powerful expression of national unity, the phrase “under God,” which was added in 1954, undercuts that sense of unity by adding religious sentiment not shared by about a quarter of the population. (The American Humanist Association recently signed on to a Secular Coalition for America letter that raised this concern with Sen. Mike Braun [R-IN] in regards to S. Res. 309). Also, as AHA’s Boycott the Pledge campaign explains, the Pledge of Allegiance is not an accurate reflection of the state of American politics because “there is no liberty and justice for all in our nation.”

The Love America Act is just another attempt to deny that racism and white supremacy culture exist in our country (see AHA’s Resolution on White Supremacy). According to an Education Week analysis, last updated September 13,

“27 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism…. Twelve states have enacted these bans, either through legislation or other avenues.”

Some, like South Dakota (withdrawn) and Texas (passed), go beyond curriculum restrictions to also discourage students from participating in advocacy and activism. Although most attempts aren’t successful, Republican legislators continue to try. They are misconstruing any focus on diversity and multiculturalism as critical race theory and characterizing it as anti-American, toxic, and full of race-related guilt. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) wrongfully claimed efforts to teach about the history of racism is about “teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other,” when critical race theory is actually about systems.

Critical race theory is an advanced academic framework centered on the concept that racial inequality is embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures and that civil rights laws and court victories have not managed to eradicate racial injustice. It would be best to educate people on the challenges, shortcomings, and successes of previous attempts to eradicate racism to help them prepare better solutions. Ignoring or denying past examples of discrimination will not protect us from current and future atrocities. Banning discussions that empower students to understand and critique their country’s actions is not how we support the development of engaged citizens.

If we want students to love America, teach them the importance of participating in our democracy so that all who live here are supported. Teach them about actual history, civics, voting, volunteering, debating, protesting, paying taxes, supporting the Constitution, and protecting human rights. Teach them about being good global citizens, working with other countries, and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We must also listen to the students’ questions, concerns, and ideas to help them grow. Let’s empower them to shape a country that’s worth loving.