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Coloring the civics curriculum red, white and blue

“Hail, thou flag of our fathers, flag of the free!”

If it were up to a student in Sebeka, Minn., the practice of patriotism would be back in style.

“In order to be patriotic, one must be proud of the good things one’s country has done for the world,” wrote eighth-grader Ashley Etter in a winning 2013-2014 Patriot’s Pen essay contest sponsored by the VFW of America. Integrity, conviction to meaningful values and carefully looking out for one’s neighbor are also essential components of patriotism, says Etter.

The trouble is, according to Etter, patriotism “seems to be a rather old-fashioned thing in today’s society.”

A national panel of civic-education experts — writing in “Youth Civic Development and Education: A conference consensus report (2014)”  — concurs:

‘Felt attachment’

“In a nation that has always been largely composed of immigrants, public schools have often taken on the role of promoting national cohesion by fostering attachment to the nation among diverse populations of students,” reads a line of the report. Such “felt attachment” — or patriotism — it continues, is avoided in U.S. schools for a number of reasons:

  • Patriotism is often understood differently. For some, being patriotic equates to “my country, right or wrong,” while others favor a more discerning patriotism, where caring is shown by critiquing it.
  • Many educators worry about indoctrinating students with chauvinistic or jingoistic forms of patriotism.
  • Another portion of leaders worry that emphasizing the positive aspects of the United States through patriotic sentiments could lead to a complacency with the status quo and diminish efforts to further advance freedom and justice in our society.
  • Taken in a broader context, a good number of people reject patriotism entirely, often on the basis that 21st-century students’ affiliation should be to global citizenship and worldwide human rights. Meanwhile, others are concerned that students who do not acquire a sense of patriotism will not develop the motivation to become dedicated citizens on either a national or global level.

From these numerous bases for objection, it appears patriotic “perfection” has become the enemy of the “good,” resulting in patriotism’s being completely left out of school curricula. Simply promoting awareness of national identity by celebrating holidays, singing the national anthem at sporting contests and presenting a narrative of historical events in required coursework does not equate to patriotism, the Stanford University and University of Washington at Seattle-sponsored-report says.

How about Minnesota?

In a state always willing to “march to its own drummer,” what standards do Minnesota public schools have in place regarding patriotism?

The good news is Minnesota K-12 Academic Standards place citizenship at the heart center of the social studies model for the academic disciplines of history, economics, geography, and citizenship & government.

Unfortunately for land-of-liberty lovers, however, the standards’ objective flavorlessness for the flag reflects the lack of a “felt attachment” the national civics experts have identified. How else can one explain a description so long on logos and short on pathos to dryly include in its values substrand: “The civic identity of the United States is shaped by historical figures, places and events, and by key foundational documents and other symbolically important artifacts.” 

The ‘ultimate form of patriotism’

Orville Lindquist, a 14-year state program executive for Minnesota’s YMCA Youth-in- Government, also sees the need for more patriotic heart and soul in education. Even YIG, he allows, has no official position on patriotism for the thousands of Minnesota’s eighth- to 12th-graders who take part in it:

“(We) tend to believe that “living” the process tends to promote respect for the process … and that participation is the ultimate form of patriotism,” said Lindquist, who reported that Youth-in-Government’s 26-year-old Model United Nations program participation doubled from 200 to 400 students in the two years after 9/11.

(Note: YIG’s Youth Model Assembly is the standard program the majority of students participate in.)

Given his druthers, Lindquist would enjoy seeing an observant-but-constructively-critical form of patriotism in education — somewhere between outright rejection and total devotion — but believes achieving even this will be difficult.

Challenging as it may be, putting the “red, white and blue” back into our state’s civics education could be a healthy thing for schools to do.


An example of a “felt attachment,” excerpted from “Apostrophe to the Flag,” written by Maria Sanford, professor emeritus of the University of Minnesota (1880-1909), whose likeness is one of two representing Minnesota in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall:

Hail, thou flag of our fathers, flag of the free!

… Glorious and beautiful flag of our fathers, the Star-Spangled Banner, beautiful in thine own waving folds, glorious in the memory of the brave deeds of those who chose thee for their standard!  More beautiful, more glorious is the great nation which has inherited their land and their flag if we, who claim, who boast our lineage from these heroes gone, if we inherit not alone their name, their blood, their banner but inherit their nobler part, the spirit that actuated them, their love of liberty, their devotion to justice, their inflexible pursuance of righteousness and truth.

… Press on, press on, glorious banner, bearing this message to all the peoples:

‘Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee;

Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears;

Our faith triumphant o’er our fears

Are all with thee — are all with thee!’

John Hakes is a community advocate and writer who resides in Shoreview.


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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/28/2014 - 04:35 pm.


    Thanks for the excellent article, John. I clicked on it expecting to read some “rah-rah, go team, go” opinion piece and was pleasantly surprised to find something much more nuanced and well thought.

    As someone who considers himself patriotic, let me throw out a few more points for people to consider when addressing the issue.

    I fly my flag on Flag Day, Memorial Day, and other important state and national holidays. But I don’t feel the need to wear my patriotism on my sleeve. There are no flag decals on my car window, “support our troops” magnets on the bumper, or stars & stripes bikinis in my life, although that last one has a certain level of appeal. To be candid, I find that type of patriotism to be crass and disgusting, just like the businesses who fly a flag to sell their product and have silly presidents day sales.

    Some people may shy away from patriotism because it’s often coupled with overtly religious messages, which is becoming increasingly less palatable in a secular world. As an atheist I’ll say the pledge of allegiance, but I’ll use the original pre 1950s version that doesn’t have “under God” in it.

    Another reason not mentioned in the article is people may avoid patriotism because it’s associated with maintaining the old world order, which consists primarily of old white guys propping up a system that promotes old white guys. As you correctly pointed out, In this day and age people are looking for a belief system that more closely resembles their family and the people they see around them, which is more diverse and forgiving of people with differing social and economic backgrounds. These days it’s OK to marry outside your race and religion, which was not the social norm in the ’50s and earlier.

    Right or wrong, patriotism is strongly associated with those earlier times.

    I have to say though that from my perspective patriotism is still doing well, even if it’s not taught in schools these days. Come on down to Lakewood Cemetery or Fort Snelling on Memorial Day and take a look around. I’ll be leading tours of WWI veteran’s graves at Lakewood and the upper post at Fort Snelling as part of their military timeline. Generally the events attract a couple of thousand people each, so you’ll be in good company. Just look for the guy with the 48 star flag.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 03/28/2014 - 09:01 pm.

    It makes me uncomfortable when people equate patriotism

    with militarism or refuse to see America’s faults or mix patriotism with a kind of legalistic religion.

    When I hear someone say, “This is the greatest country in the world,” I have to wonder if they have ever been anywhere else. When I hear someone support a military venture just because it’s an American one, then I have to wonder about that person’s critical thinking skills. When I see a fundamentalist mission with a picture of Jesus wearing a red, white, and blue robe (yes, there was such a one in Portland), then I have to wonder how well the ministers know the Bible that they claim to revere.

    We need a level-headed patriotism. I grew up in the rah-rah patriotic era of the 1950s, and it seemed to me that many of the student dissidents were exhibiting not hatred of America, but a sad realization that they had been lied to and that facts had been hidden from them.

  3. Submitted by Lonni Skrentner on 03/28/2014 - 09:39 pm.

    Red, White and Blue not the problem…

    I totally agree with John Hintz above. I believe in what I call critical patriotism. I always told my history students that if they could love their country, knowing it warts and all, then they would be a good active citizen. To me, being a good active citizen is the best definition of patriotism. When I see the Duck Dynasty folk with their flag headbands, I want to pull them off and tell them to respect the flag. As a teacher, I was the one at the pep rallies who poked boys to take their hats off and shut up during the national anthem, and yet I was also the teacher who told them to question their government on a regular basis. Is Barack Obama any more patriotic now that he wears a flag lapel pin, then when he didn’t have one on at the beginning of the 2008 primary season? Am I less or more patriotic because I marched against the Iraq War? Am I less patriotic because I think we can learn things from other countries? I don’t think so. I think it is patriotic to want to better my country! Like everything else patriotism has to change with the times, or it will become people marching around with tri-corner hats, carrying Betsy Ross 13 star flags.

  4. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 03/29/2014 - 11:31 am.

    Patriotism,.how do we make-it-all better…kiss and a bandaid?

    NSA chief Alexander at his most recent retirement party quoted from the patriotic “musings’ of General Douglas MacCarthur.’s retirement speech,

    If there is any ‘patriotism ‘ worth noting it is in Alexander’s retirement.

    To defend a word; to elevate it to inspire a nationalistic devotion to so many questionable acts such as war itself and the waste of thousands of lives for the sake of “patriotism” seems a bit sad… and to force the young to retain such a word as valid in a nation that needs to not cover but face its weaknesses; not repeat them for the sake of a ‘word’?

    Patriotism is a word that should be critically debated among young and old and if found wanting, abandon it for a word that seeks truth and justice as its hallmark definition rather than the honoring of same?

    When “patriot” reflects the voices of zealots and bully-on-the-globe exploitation with ‘patriotism’ its war cry too often, have we not so bastardized its meaning it’s unacceptable as a nationalist breastplate?

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/29/2014 - 08:33 pm.

    An informed patriotism

    On January 11, 1989, in the last six minutes of his farewell address to the nation, Ronald Reagan addresses this very topic. He reminds us that “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.”

    For those who’ve never had the opportunity to see this address, you’ll see why Ronald Reagan was so beloved by the American people.

    And then as if to underscore his fear, we fast forward 25 years to a street interview of American college students.

    “I’m not big into the ‘America’ thing”.

  6. Submitted by Jed Falgren on 03/30/2014 - 12:19 am.

    Think Globally by Acting Locally

    Interesting points made by Mr Hakes and others who have commented…

    I believe that patriotism should – and always will – have a place in our societies. Like most other words that describe our beliefs, it should never be accepted without questioning or discarded without regret. Too often it is seen as a sign of weakness to believe strongly in our country or cool to believe a more global viewpoint is some how “better”.

    My greatest concern with these sentiments… It gives people permission to be “lazy”, to avoid taking on a role in their community to make a difference. The US became a great country by believing that pursuing the interests of its citizens in a society that values hard work and freedom.

    Has this resulted in some people taking advantage in others, in thieves and scoundrels??? Yes. But it has also resulted in a society that has achieved more in less than 250 years than any other in history. A society that has lifted and raced alongside other great countries to achieve many fantastic things! Am I a patriot simply by believing that? No, I am patriotic only when my local actions reflect those very beliefs in my neighbors, my community and others I connect with.

    A school curriculum that sets Patriotism aside because it is “globally insensitive” is doing a great disservice to our nation and the world. I have met many others from other countries that I would consider patriotic. It was their strong beliefs in the ethic of their homelands that made them better at what they did. That excellence translated in to great things we were able to accomplish together.

    Challenging to have patriotism reinforced in our schools??? Maybe. But math, science, history, grammer, etc are no “walks in the park” either!

  7. Submitted by Rubin Latz on 03/30/2014 - 06:04 pm.


    Thanks for addressing this topic, John.

    I too am concerned with what’s being taught and demonstrated in today’s classrooms, and I wonder about any measure of consensus amongst our educators; how robust is Minnesota’s civics curricula? Who leads the way? Who engages our youth, who develops tomorrow’s leaders if not our civics teachers?

  8. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/30/2014 - 10:16 pm.

    Global Action

    I don’t think I’m taking a controversial position here that thinking and acting globally is in itself patriotic. Before anyone gets out the pitchforks and torches, let me explain why.

    First let me preface that I stole this from Jerad Diamond’s book “Collapse”. You may have caught his special on TV called “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, which is about why one civilization conquered another rather than the other way around. “Collapse” is equally well thought out and is about why some civilizations decline rather than grow.

    On to the reasoning.

    Back in the day when we were grubbin’ for food–before cultivation took hold–people were beholden to the matriarch or patriarch of the family. When civilization grew to include several families, that mantle was transferred to the Big Man; usually the male with the biggest muscles and biggest mouth.

    As civilization grew to a village the power of leading the group was transferred to a chieftan. Because the rules of society got complex and someone needed to keep track of those rules, we created religion and shaman to keep track of those rules and tell people how they should behave so they don’t go around disrupting this small society. Thou shall not kill, steal your neighbor’s stuff, and all that sort of thing. Don’t eat certain foods on certain days and dress like this so we can recognize you’re from our tribe and share our values.

    Civilization grew further and those roles were transferred to kings and priests. At each step people’s fealty or loyalty were demanded as a condition of being part of that society. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. People who didn’t fit in could be “fired,” which back in the day meant your house was burned to the ground, forcing you to move on to another village.

    Today that loyalty is called patriotism and has been co-opted from kings and priests to presidents and popes. Instead of being loyal to your village chief, you’re now expected to be loyal to your country. There’s still that fear of the Other though, that person who looks different from you, eats different food, and has different habits. That’s why largely drives the fear of immigrants and has for thousands of years. They don’t have the same customs as us and therefor they must be driven out of our midst before they take over and drive us out.

    I would argue that patriotism is still alive and well, but it’s being transferred to the next logical level: international society. We have global problems that can only be solved with global initiatives. A virus that originates in one part of the world can spread within a few days to the entire planet via our rapid transit system. Pollution doesn’t recognize international boundaries and drifts from one side of the world to the other via winds and currents. Invasive species ravage ecosystems after they’re introduced deliberately or accidentally. A nuclear accident in Russia or Japan spreads a long plume of radiation that works its way up the food chain to us.

    So people who want to solve those problems and many more have to start thinking and acting globally. Yes, it takes local action, but it first requires a sense of the scope of our problems–a look at the bigger picture.

    Patriotism? I’d say the younger set has got it nailed down cold. There’s no need to drill it into them with faux salute and a song. They’re already way ahead of us old folks on the patriotic scale.

  9. Submitted by John Hakes on 04/02/2014 - 11:58 am.

    My appreciation & a field example

    Thank you to all who’ve contributed to this thread. The effort you each gave to enriching the discussion of this multi-faceted topic is impressive. Hopefully you will continue to see the weaving of a patriotic tapestry as worthwhile. If you haven’t had an opportunity to review the three additional resources offered by Mr. Tester, they may inspire you on that count.

    I grateful for, also, the folks who’ve indicated their acceptance of this piece as fodder for discussion. It’s particularly encouraging to learn of those with partially pugilistic poses regarding patriotism who are willing to re-examine whether the renewing of latent civic & historical pride—called for by the likes of Sandra Day O’Connor and Robert Pondiscio—is necessary.

    A recent experience I had while judging a MN History Day event suggests it is. During the discussion segment about the websites they’d prepared involving ‘rights & responsibilities’ in history, each student set shared their being assigned a project (by a classroom teacher) was the reason for their participation.

    On one level, that so many educators are cultivating student love for History Day is heartening, as it makes the theme being discussed here inapplicable to them. On a second level, though, that none of the participants in this sample student group took up projects on their own makes one feel sad ‘for all the rest’ of the students too arrested by gaming, music, or other mass marketing efforts to believe that internalizing the principles and stories of the past could be a valuable use of their time.

    Should you agree there is a need for more ‘felt attachment’ in education, I hope you’ll add this view to the set of the working hypotheses in life you’re willing to test—or advance– on occasion. If you ask me, the stock of people willing to fan civics & history out to their fellow citizens can never be in too large a supply.

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