The following paragraphs are excerpted from a newly published article in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, in which Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch, Jr. explores the complex nature of nationalism and its relation to public schooling in the United States. “My thesis,” writes Hirsch, “is that our young people’s low opinion of their own country has been intensified by the current disrepute of nationalism in any form in our schools and universities. This anti-nationalism has been a big mistake.” Hirsch goes on to explore the role of schools in fostering “the right kind of nationalism.”

The image of America as a melting pot is now almost universally rejected as an outdated conception. It’s said that a better metaphor is that of a mosaic. That’s indeed a more fitting image than melting pot for our variegated nation. But mosaics are highly unified works of art, put together with glue and grout. In the United States, those binding elements are our national language and its public culture, including laws, loyalties, and shared sentiments, that make the language intelligible. If the sense of national unity now seems to be threatened, it is not just because of globalization, economic change, and new technologies—the usual explanations. Another causal factor needs to be adduced.

Over the past six decades, changes in the early grades of schooling have contributed to the decline of communal sentiment. Under the banner of “Teach the child not the subject!” and with a stress on skills rather than content, the decline in shared, school-imparted knowledge has caused reading comprehension scores of high school students to decline. Between the 1960s and 1980s, scores dropped half a standard deviation and have never come back. In addition, school neglect of factual knowledge, including American history and its civic principles, joined with a general de-emphasis of “rote learning” and “mere fact,” induced a decline in widely shared factual knowledge among Americans. This not only weakened their ability to read and communicate; it has left them with weaker patriotic sentiments, and with a diminished feeling that they are in the same boat with Americans of other races, ethnicities, and political outlooks.

My calling attention to these educational outcomes is something one might expect from a political conservative who is complaining about political correctness and a decline of patriotism. But my intended primary target audience is my fellow liberals.… I seek to address those whose main political and social objectives include greater equality of education and income, and higher status for previously neglected or despised groups….

My thesis is that our young people’s low opinion of their own country has been intensified by the current disrepute of nationalism in any form in our schools and universities. This anti-nationalism has been a big mistake, a self-inflicted wound on our individual and collective state of mind…. Such lack of national identity in a modern nation leaves the field open to narrow ethnic enmities and political polarizations.…

Our schools now exhibit a diminished sense, once widely held, that a central goal of American schooling is to foster national cohesion—“out of many, one.” … The right kind of modern nationalism is communal, intent on including everyone….

Declining national pride is coupled with declining knowledge of national history and ideals. Ignorance of the historical ideals that have animated our imperfect realization of them has thus been accompanied by a strong suspicion of any form of nationalism, including our own….

This summer, Judith Kogan of NPR produced a report for the Fourth of July featuring interviews with Massachusetts schoolchildren who had not the slightest acquaintance with, indeed had never heard of, “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” or “America the Beautiful” or “God Bless America.” Kogan interviewed teachers who explained that songs like “The Star-Spangled Banner” were too militaristic, and that “God Bless America” mentioned God. Other patriotic songs, they said, were too narrowly nationalistic, and might offend children from other nations and cultures.…

People are attached to their nations by a sense of belonging to a language community and its accompanying set of values and traditions.… A shared linguistic culture enables people to imagine a community that extends far beyond one’s locality.… Acculturation into a national culture (which may of course include plenty of international knowledge) is still the chief task and duty of national systems of schooling. Our schools believe that they are valiantly teaching the national language, but the current “word-study” and “strategy-study” approaches of schools need to be abandoned in favor of “knowledge-study.” …

To be effective as citizens and workers, every schoolchild needs to gain access to the public sphere and its standardized language, as well as to share a sense of belonging to a country that is worthy of devotion. This public sphere can be changed and improved—but only gradually, and with tact. It is important to abolish evil elements of our past culture, but it’s also important to offer every child access to the currently shared public culture.

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3 comments on “Shared Knowledge and the Right Kind of Nationalism”

  1. 1
    Eva Roster on April 19, 2017

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this very important topic. Students should be made aware of this country’s past and they should contribute to make the country’s future better. It is of utmost importance to cultivate a sense of nationalism in our country’s youth. But we also have to be careful so that they don’t turn out to be jingoists. I am looking forward to read more interesting topics in the future.

  2. 2
    Haylee Donovan on July 21, 2017

    Thank you for your insight on this topic. I found it very interesting and was actually speaking to a fellow colleague of mine about a similar subject just recently. I teach in a very diverse school where we are often celebrating all of the different cultures and languages that are spoken within our community. I think it is wonderful to celebrate the diverse population but I also believe that there is a way to teach children how we have all come together over time, throughout history and created our nation, the United States of America. I see within my building how important it is for children to share their family’s identity with us, and it makes me feel closer to my students and their families.
    What I do not see enough of, is when teaching history, teachers are not looking beyond the text books or given readings/curriculums to help their students connect to what they are learning.
    For example, the colleague I was talking about in the beginning of my response is an African American woman. She grew up in a small town and went to private school where the rest of the student body was caucasian. Her experience throughout school and learning about the history of African Americans in our country was learning about MLK, Rosa Parks and slavery. I truly feel that we need to empower our students by instead of ONLY teaching about those historical figures, finding other influential people in our history that have contributed and made a positive change. This is not to say we should eliminate those parts of history from our teachings, but that we can dig deeper and do a better job in connecting our history to our diverse body of learners in this country and give them a sense of how they can make our nation an even better place.
    If one of my Hispanic students or Alaska Native students or Somali students are only hearing stories about MLK, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, it is, in my opinon, not giving them the full spectrum of what created our country and what it was founded on. I know that we can do a better job as educators of instead of continuing this national disconnect, create a more united and inclusive nation. Keep our songs like God Bless America, and the Star Spangled banner but let’s make our students proud to sing them and give them true value and meaning.

  3. 3
    Jason Neil Rex on May 12, 2019

    I couldn’t agree more with your comment that our national pride is declining, as well as, national history and ideals. Declining national pride is coupled with declining knowledge of national history and ideals. I am a 10th grade American history teacher. Our schools place such an importance on these high stake state tests that social studies and history in our schools is taking a back burner to math and language arts. Around state testing time, elementary teachers are actually “skipping” social studies for weeks at a time to teach to the language and math state tests. Declining knowledge of our country equals declining pride in our country.

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