Should We Teach Patriotism in Schools?

Posted on 27 December 2011

Should We Teach Patriotism in Schools?
Publisher: Impact/Wiley-Blackwell
Author: Michael Hand

Michael Hands’ short pamphlet asks what philosophers can offer to the debate about teaching patriotism in schools. The usual objection is that it is too difficult to do well. Hands’ prefers a deeper objection: there are “no rational grounds” for determining whether or not patriotism does more harm than good. Schools can therefore do no more than teach patriotism as a controversial subject, and allow pupils to decide for themselves. Hands’ utilitarian case for staying on the fence on the value of patriotism as a social good is unconvincing. If we want civic, not ethnic, versions of national identity to underpin our common citizenship, then this depends on being in favour of the version of patriotism and belonging that we need. Most attention is given to the argument that patriotism clouds and impedes the judgement of citizens to do their civic duty, yet there has never been any shortage of projects for change – from Wilberforce and Equino’s movement to abolish slavery, the US civil rights movement, or the “now win the peace” case for post-war welfare – founded in patriotic critiques of the status quo.

Most who think patriotism is worth getting off the fence for will also agree that the author’s objection to patriotic indoctrination in schools is valid. But how many contemporary voices are promoting a tub-thumping and biased account of British history to re-establish or invent national myths? That would certainly be an unfair caricature of Education Secretary Michael Gove. His argument for an overarching sense of the narrative sweep of British history is surely compatible with teaching it, warts and all. What it does require is some priority to finding sufficient space in the curriculum for British history, alongside the European dictators, or Geronimo and the American West. And it depends too on getting over any fear that teaching the history of Empire and decolonisation openly and accurately will be divisive in multi-ethnic classrooms, when it is an essential foundation for understanding the history that has made us the society that we have become.

Sunder Katwala