(Written for my application to Patrick Henry College in 2002. I attended Elizabethtown College instead.)
"How will we promote patriotism to a younger generation?" Robert Stevens, a social studies schoolteacher, discusses this in his article "A Thoughtful Patriotism." He explains what he thinks should be the roles and goals of all social studies teachers in times of terror. What Stevens brings out provides a sobering reminder and challenge to all educators; he properly assesses the situation, though his suggestions are not entirely on the mark.
Stevens suggests that social studies educators should interpret current events in the light of history and build students' sense of patriotism from that perspective. He notes that social studies teachers, whose job it is to recount and teach history, have a unique opportunity to do this. He stresses the importance of values in childhood development and suggests a list of values that emphasize the rights and obligations of responsible citizenship. He reminds us that "the voice of sacrifice too often stands mute," and exhorts teachers to present the full essence of patriotism in the classroom. Finally, Stevens provides two personal examples he believes address the needs of today's students.
Stevens manages to slice through the rhetoric of opportunists who wish to advance their ideological cause on the coat-tails of tragedy, instead focusing on the very real issue of explaining to children our current events in their historical context. He correctly identifies the historical human struggle against depravity and notes the dangers of unguided patriotic fervor. His fictional example of a teacher convincing her students to destroy a flag through patriotic feelings reminds us that merely teaching "patriotism" is not enough. Teachers must personally demonstrate and encouragingly guide their students to express their patriotism in appropriate ways.
Teachers and parents should take a careful look at the observations brought forth in this article. We have a marvelous opportunity to communicate values to the generations that follow us, and that opportunity is a serious responsibility. We Christians are commanded by God to train our children, and the Bible repeats numerous examples of catastrophic failures to do so. We should never be guilty of speaking or acting thoughtlessly patriotic, even though a God-centered philosophy may invoke different thoughts than Stevens intended. Many of his listed values should be held by all Christians independently of their patriotism. Many, such as human rights, we hold for different reasons. But Stevens reminds us that we should focus our patriotism on a higher set of ideals than the frustrations of a human political government. As Christians, our ultimate patriotism is to a nation that is not visible; a patriotism that makes us work to advance the purposes of God above all. In a free nation like our own, this means being its most avid supporters and most dedicated idealists. In others it may mean civil disobedience. In both, it means that evangelism always has more lasting importance than mere influence, but it also suggests a balance of preserving freedom and proclaiming truth.
But how do we communicate this to our children and students? Stevens shows us three ways: teach them principles, show them an example, and involve them in the process. His examples demonstrate how we can take a national monument or holiday, discuss its meaning; provide examples with history and our lives; and "apprentice" our children in civic activity.
Unfortunately, Stevens scatters unnecessary awkward, random political opinions into his article, which forces the responsible reader to exercise caution and care when examining his suggestions. However, the points and challenges he makes about our civic responsibility to educate our posterity make his article something we all should ponder.
(Note from 2003. Sorry, Mr. Stevens. After a year of Iraq, I now see a little more clearly than I did when I wrote that last paragraph. I do feel that there are many positive ways to promote patriotism as well, but alas, necessary negative ways abound in our time as well.)