The new Bank Street Occasional Paper Series #40—“Am I Patriotic? Learning and Teaching the Complexities of Patriotism Here and Now”—launched today to examine patriotism as it relates to teaching and learning in schools and classrooms. A complex and often polarizing term with no straightforward definition, patriotism is explored in this issue through the lens of prominent educational scholars. The issue is enriched with a 2008 interview that guest editor Dr. Mark Kissling conducted with Bruce Springsteen.
In the interview below, Kissling, Assistant Professor of Education at Penn State College of Education, provides additional insight into the teaching of patriotism in schools and how the way we define this sensitive term can play a key role in shaping our understanding of how educators can confront it and how students can digest it.
Q: You suggest that patriotism is “much more than a simple loyalty to a country or obedience to its leaders.” What do you think educators should keep in mind as they approach such a complex and sensitive issue in their teaching?
A: If they don’t already, educators need to recognize that patriotism is, indeed, complex and sensitive. Sure, wading into this complexity is going to be a messy and challenging endeavor, especially as patriotism is a politically charged topic about which people often have strong disagreements. Further, there are a number of cultural forces, inside and outside of schools, that frame patriotism as merely simplistic. But patriotism automatically raises some basic-but-difficult questions about who and where we are and what groups we belong to. Given our diverse ways of living, nothing simple can come out of many different people answering such questions. While most educators, I suspect, would agree that patriotism can be a highly controversial topic to take up in the classroom, I hope they see that this is a prime reason to teach inquisitively about patriotism, not avoid it.
Q: Do you think educators should have autonomy over how they talk about patriotism with their students or do you think schools and school systems should have basic guidelines in place for addressing patriotism in appropriate ways?
A: Both! Educators and their students need a good deal of autonomy in order to inquire authentically about patriotism. There cannot be a set curricular script that is merely followed (and this is true for so much of the teaching and learning that takes place in schools). Unfortunately, there exists a kind of educational inertia around patriotism in the United States that has used the teaching of patriotism as a standardizing force. This force is worrisome to me, but one of the ways to combat standardization is to create and work within standards that promote diverse ways of thinking and doing. A standard that I would like to see is that educators and students will explore different theories and enactments of patriotism, from different times, places, and scales, while considering what patriotism means to them and their communities. The end result is not one form of patriotic thought or action but a process of nuanced inquiry that serves the students’ and educators’ participation in their communities. So basic guidelines should not be eschewed; rather, guidelines need to account for authentic inquiry, unique lived experience, the presence of place, and other contextualizing factors. What is needed are good standards, not standardizing prescriptions.
Q: This issue includes a 2008 interview you conducted with Bruce Springsteen about his singing of “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. What are some notable highlights from your conversation and how does the interview as a whole complement the theme of this issue?
A: Two things immediately come to mind: topic and timing. I was specifically interested in Springsteen’s learning and playing of “This Land Is Your Land,” yet despite that rather narrow focus, what powerfully emerged in his storying was his deep thinking about what it means to be a citizen of one’s communities. He spoke eloquently about the opportunity of all people to be “a player in history and a link in a long chain of meaningful lives and action,” to be “at the service of some greater idea.” These ideas, as I see them, are fundamentally about one’s patriotism. These are ideas—from one of the most prominent American cultural voices over the past several decades—that I want educators and students to wrestle with in classrooms.
In retrospect, the timing of the interview was pretty incredible. Not long before, Springsteen had been playing “This Land Is Your Land” at voter registration rallies and campaign events for Candidate Obama. Not long after, Springsteen was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial alongside Pete Seeger at President Obama’s inaugural concert, singing “This Land Is Your Land,” including some of the lesser-known verses. But as I revisited the interview earlier this year, I was struck by how Springsteen’s words speak to the present moment and place of the United States as much as they spoke to the moment and place of the United States ten years ago. Like Springsteen’s music—and the art of so many others—his words in the interview are simultaneously placed and transcendent.
Q: In her essay, Patricia Gándara, speaking from experience, explores patriotism as it relates to those who hold dual citizenship. How do you think we can continue to redefine the idea of patriotism so that it serves all Americans, including those who may have emotional or historical ties to other countries?
A: By talking and teaching about it openly. If we truly recognize and embrace that all people lead dynamic lives, and if we want to live in healthy, vibrant, democratic communities, then we must cultivate notions of patriotism that embrace diverse ways of living. I think it’s essential that we understand that patriotism is not solely fixed to one national community, let alone a national community at all. Also, it’s essential that we understand that any present-day, in-this-place manifestation of patriotism is just one of so many other manifestations across time, place, and scale. Further, it’s essential that we understand that there are deep relationships between any one manifestation and others. Toward this end, educators and students need to explore competing contemporary and historical patriotic ideas and actions in their places (at many different scales: local, regional, national, global) and in others’ places. In doing this, we can develop a broad commitment to the notion that we need to continue to redefine what patriotism is and might be. We’ll see that we’re constantly redefining and reinventing who we are (on all scales, not just the national). Importantly, this does not shirk tradition and ritual; it seeks to understand and, if necessary, better these things. There is always a continuity of what was, what is, and what will be.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from this issue?
A: I hope readers find the issue engaging and challenging. There are many ideas and stories in it and they all don’t align neatly. I hope the reader is provoked into deep critical thinking about personal and communal experiences and beliefs, perhaps finding initiative to explore in writing and/or talking with others. “Am I patriotic?” is a basic question that can become pretty difficult to answer when coupled with “Why?” and “How?”
I hope readers who are educators take the questions and provocations of the issue into their classrooms. There is much to explore, discuss, and debate. Might some of these pieces even be the texts that launch and guide some of those classroom inquiries?
With the launch of this issue, the Occasional Paper Series welcomes Gail Boldt, Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Penn State University, as its new Editor-in-Chief. She replaces Jonathan Silin, former Editor-in-Chief for 18 years. Silin will continue to contribute to the Occasional Paper Series on the Editorial Board.
Click here to read the full issue of Occasional Paper Series #40.