Teaching the Principles of Patriotism

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation

As the #CivicsIsBack summer tour crisscrosses the state, we have begun each workshop with a segment on the new civics course requirement and emerging state social studies standards. Both complement existing segments of the Illinois School Code, including instruction of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. and Illinois Constitution, methods of voting, including the Australian Ballot, the proper display use of the American Flag, and the mandatory daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

As I write on the 240th birthday of this great nation, I remember being challenged as a high school teacher to meet this mandate, but at the same time not contribute to an empty transfer of patriotism from one generation to the next. This summer, several workshop participants have pointed to the same dilemma, asking for example, how to teach the Flag Code in an authentic way?

My colleague Mary Ellen Daneels answers in the form of a structured academy controversy centering on the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision Texas v. Johnson, the infamous “flag burning” case. In a lesson produced by the McCormick Foundation a decade ago, students encounter an unlikely opinion from one of the Court’s most liberal members, Justice John Paul Stevens, who concludes that the First Amendment freedom of expression does not protect flag burning. His frequent ally on the left, the late Justice William Brennan, wrote a robust defense of the right to burn our sacred national symbol (and was joined in the majority by arch conservative Antonin Scalia).

Ultimately, students are asked to have a vigorous debate over this “burning” issue, but to ultimately craft a consensus position.

I often engaged my own students in a debate over whether students should stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The Supreme Court has said of course that it’s optional, but according to my students at the time, several teachers were oblivious to this precedent. It was set during World War II when the Court first ruled that the Pledge’s recitation was mandatory, even for those whose faith forbade the saluting of graven objects. The opinion led to waves of student civil disobedience and a violent backlash against it, forcing the Supreme Court to reverse itself a mere three years later in West Virginia v. Barnette.

Justice Robert Jackson, in his majority opinion, articulated the principles of the patriotism we seek to develop in our students: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

May the “Spirit of 1776” embedded in our founding documents and reinforced by Justices Jackson and Brennan live long in our republic and most of all your classrooms.

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