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The image of America as a melting pot is now almost universally rejected as an outdated conception.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.