Learning to Love Our Country, Again

By Brook Manville | 22 June 2024
The Civic Bargain

(Photo by Samuel Schneider on Unsplash)

The task of civic education is to discern what [through our history has been] good and worth preserving, and what was in error, and worth discarding. We have to make those judgments…and have that posture as we study. We must understand the wisdom of the past, and then take that knowledge to our current self-governance…. simply stated, we are encouraging the study of our civilization and America by people who love it.

I listened carefully as I interviewed Justin Dyer, professor of government and Dean of the new School of Civic Leadership at University of Texas, Austin.  He was explaining the institution’s purpose and logic. Much was about the school’s background and organizational intent—formed at behest of the University Board of Regents, to prepare students for leadership roles in society with civic values and knowledge. Content drawn from America’s founding texts, and the broader heritage of western civilization; complemented by historical research from its Civitas Institute, and fundamental concepts of economics.

It sounded, I commented, charmingly old-fashioned–but at the same time practical and relevant to the challenges faced by America today. The approach suggested a comprehensive and creative inflection of civic education, well-tailored to the rising generation. And bravo for that.

Can We Love Our Country Again?

But Dyer’s use of the word “love” touched a deeper nerve in me. For all the (justified) arm-waving about improving civic knowledge, we don’t often connect that to love of country. That phrase was more familiar decades ago, when people like me remember reciting in school our Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. Listen in to political discussions today—the rants, outrage, and virtue signaling: who dares now speak the “L” word? It seems like Dyer and his Texas colleagues are striving to reclaim lost ground of honest and heartfelt patriotism.  Are we headed “back to the future?” Is honoring America now some kind of radical innovation?

Given the now normal, it might just be that. Reaching back to reach ahead might be the start of some urgent transformation.  Love of country has faded from our national psyche, giving way to ambivalence and even cynical disgust. We all get why: too many questionable American military missions, ending in disappointment. Educational mainstreaming of identity politics and nihilistic criticism of America’s “hypocritical failures of justice.” American founding myths reframed by ideologies of critical theory and power-seeking oppression. Who can love such a country when there’s so much to hate? As Dyer dryly summarized, “our nation has suffered a lot of civic arsonism.”

A Strategic Imperative

The patriotic stance of this new Civic Leadership is not just a backslide into nostalgia. In the context of an increasingly threatening world, renewing our love of country is now a strategic necessity. Our country is today dangerously challenged by several powerful hostile nations. Self-defense requires us to start rallying much stronger civic allegiance across our population. If the coming generation of leaders doesn’t have the pride to believe in America, this land of the free might just disappear. America’s national security could well hang, as strange as that may sound, on ramping up just the kind of civic education that the Texas group is now assembling.

Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and others—all are aggressively attacking our interests, at home and abroad. With America as the common enemy, they are now exchanging military technologies and expertise, collaborating to bypass sanctions, exchanging expertise and intelligence, pledging to support mutual defense.  They share goals of undermining the global order built and maintained by America. They launch cyber-attacks to weaken our institutions, and social media to fan flames of political dissension. These enemies, especially Russia and China, have their own youth education programs. Shrewd classroom ideologues build passion and commitment across the new generation to fight “the evils of America,” and battle against our democratic way of life.

Focus on the More Urgent Problem

Meanwhile, here, our civic education worries focus on citizens’ gaps in understanding American history or institutions—that so many 8th graders don’t know the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, or the legions of adults who can’t name three branches of government. Yes, such knowledge should be improved—but by framing the task without patriotic purpose, we’re not building the will and commitment to meet big threats looming over us. Put aside the shame-inducing quiz-show style questions about American institutions. Look instead at some recent data about more existential civic knowledge and allegiance.

Today, a growing number of Americans don’t even believe anymore in democracy.  Recent polls suggest at least 20% have given up on it as the preferred form of government. A 2024 Pew Research study found 32% of Americans think rule by a strong leader or military would be desirable (as do 40% of Gen Z voters). Similarly, many Americans don’t think our country is worth defending. After Russia’s Ukrainian invasion, a 2022 poll, asking our citizens if they would stay and fight against a comparable attack on the U.S., reported almost forty per cent said they would not. Meanwhile, many American technology and defense-related corporations are struggling to recruit and maintain younger staff who would be willing to work on strategic military projects, even for defending against obvious national enemies.

Our power to wage war is a product of the size of our military ready to fight and the motivation of people doing the fighting. Without greater national allegiance and commitment among Americans, we go to war at a huge disadvantage over enemies with millions of troops who are increasingly bold and ideologically-motivated. What to do about that?

As a democracy, we won’t just amp up civic education that mirrors the fiery, nationalistic propaganda of our enemies. But we can start educating our people in a more positive and inspirational way, about our history and institutions—acknowledging past problems and missteps, but cherishing while preserving what is right and good about who we are as a nation. We have made many mistakes over time, but America cannot justly be called, as many of our own and also enemies would say, the “world’s greatest Satan.” We have to start educating tomorrow’s leaders in a way that couples honest self-reflection with gratitude for the good that America has built. And that encourages our citizens to love our country’s unique freedom and opportunity to pursue happiness.

As we talked, Justin Dyer carefully sketched this kind of constructive balance, now programmatic in his school’s Civic Leadership programs: blending self-criticism and pride, and honoring open debate still grounded in certain basic values all Americans can ultimately share

“We can’t just be the right-wing version of past left-wing programs. We need to de-politicize the classroom….to create a pre-partisan space for civil debate, understanding, and critique, of the issues and dilemmas of our history. Our students must understand what we’ve learned through history: progress and errors, and what’s worth preserving about who we are and why. That means focusing on the principles of our founding, and of our broader civilization—Aristotle, political theorists, and also the fundamentals of our Biblical heritage. And we also have to be mindful of voices and experiences in our history that have not traditionally been included in earlier civic education. To make all this practical, we additionally have to connect historical traditions to concepts and tools of the modern world—about leadership, economic life, and citizenship, applicable to any job or profession students go on to pursue.”

Dyer believes in approaching such knowledge not as propaganda, but as a valuable heritage that must be stewarded, improved and then dutifully applied, for our collective common good.  Such posture will allow young Americans to recapture a sense of gratitude for this country.  As I listened, Dyer’s implicit calculus became alarmingly clear: our nation’s civic education must start bringing together knowledge and love for country, if we want it to survive and thrive tomorrow.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

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