Social Education 66(1), pp.18-24
©2002 National Council for the Social Studies

A Thoughtful Patriotism

Robert Stevens

On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked. The toll of deaths was staggering at the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the rural landscape of western Pennsylvania. September 11 may be remembered as a second “day of infamy.” Both attacks—the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack and the September 11, 2001, attack—came from the air and without warning. The images were eerily similar. Black billowy smoke rose in great plumes through the twisted steel of the bridge of the USS Arizona with “Old Glory” still flying over the destroyed U.S. fleet, the spirit of its seamen not vanquished. And on September 11, great plumes of acrid smoke wafted through the steel skeleton of the World Trade Towers. The American flag went up immediately. As was the case for the Pearl Harbor generation, our patriotic spirit was rekindled.

September 11, 2001, will become a national day of mourning and remembrance. The courage of the firemen and women, police, soldiers, and citizens who witnessed and participated in rescue operations galvanized a spirit of patriotism not felt since Pearl Harbor. The tragedy of this single day seems to have moved us as a nation from an attitude of individualism back to a sense of community. As social studies teachers, what lessons will we teach our students about September 11, 2001? And how will we promote patriotism to a younger generation?

One lesson is that, as a nation, we are not immune from world conflict. For the past several decades, we have watched world events unfold in the comfort of our living rooms; images from drought-stricken Somalia, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, terrorist attacks in the Middle East, and catastrophic earthquakes on the Anatolian Plateau. On the 11th, we rapidly moved from detachment to involvement; instead of studying or observing history, we became part of it, and our challenge as social studies teachers is to help our students make sense of history. In his essay, “What Children Should Learn,” Paul Gagnon insightfully reminds us that “the big story is not the push to modernize but the struggle to civilize, to curb the bestial side of human nature.”1 He continues:

Because human evil exists, good intention has never been enough. It takes brains, courage, self-sacrifice, patience, love–always with tragic consequences–war itself to contain the beast. Against the twin temptations of wishfulness and cynicism, history says that evil and tragedy are real, that civilization has a high price but that, too, is real, and has been won from time to time. In history we find ideas, the conditions, and the famous and ordinary men and women. Making it possible.2

So we, too, are at war. We find ourselves no different than our forefathers when they chose to form a new government or the Pearl Harbor Generation—at least in the sense that, just as they did not know what the outcome would be or what sacrifices would be made, we do not know, either. One fact is certain, however: Our students need to be taught well. It is clear that as the United States executes a “new style war,” a war that involves political, financial, as well as military strategies to defeat a nebulous enemy, we must continue to teach those democratic values that support our current patriotic fervor.

We know that values taught well to the young will stay with them throughout life: “Political scientists have found that civic attitudes and patterns of behavior formed when young tend to persist throughout adult life.”3 The “Greatest Generation”—what Robert Putnam has called the “civic generation”—has remained unabashedly patriotic and pervasively participatory.

My generation, deeply suspicious of government, came of age during the Vietnam War and Watergate. Our patriotism (and some would argue we had none) was not duty and obligation to the government, but rather duty to respect the U.S. Constitution. It is interesting, indeed, that the events of September 11 have taken a nation that was essentially apathetic toward government to one that now generally supports its policies. Remember that the 2000 election, the closest in recent political history, found only about half of the population voting.

The United States is a country based on ideas and ideals; its government was forged from ideas ranging from Plato’s Republic to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Unlike totalitarian regimes that control by oppressive policies, our government functions by the consent of the people. And underpinning that consent is an agreed-on set of values, values embodied in the founding documents, interpreted by subsequent Supreme Court decisions. These values were the targets of the September 11 hijackers and perhaps, one month later, anthrax attacks on the United States Capitol, Department of Justice, and the United States Postal Service.

What values should we teach in our schools? R. Freeman Butts, author of The Morality of Democratic Citizenship: Goals for Civic Education in the Republic’s Third Century, writes,

my argument is essentially that loyalty, patriotism, discipline, and duty should be defined in terms of the richest fulfillment of the total set of democratic values in the Twelve Tables of Civism (see Table).4

He delineates twelve important values to teach students and divides this list into two categories: the obligations of citizenship and the rights of citizenship:

Because there can be no rights without concomitant responsibilities, it is this juxtaposition we need to help students understand and incorporate in both their vision of active and responsible citizenship and personal behavior patterns.5

Social studies teachers have always taught these values and will continue to teach them today, with even greater urgency perhaps. More than fifty years ago, Merle Curti defined patriotism as “love of country, pride in it, and readiness to make sacrifices for what is considered its best interests.”6 Apart from military service, the voice of sacrifice too often stands mute. This definition stands in opposition to the corrupted form of patriotism that Butts calls chauvinism or xenophobia. Jingoism, too, is different from the thoughtful patriotism that social studies teachers should advocate. The term originated in Great Britain in 1878 during the war between Russia and Turkey; anti-Russian feeling fueled the lyrics to a song written by G.W. Hunt:


We don’t want to fight,

But by Jingo if we do,

We’ve got the ships,

We’ve got the men

We’ve got the money too

We’ve fought the Bear before,

And while we’re Britons true,

The Russians shall not have Constantinople.7


Belligerent patriotism has been labeled jingoism ever since.

I will present two instructional strategies that I have found help promote patriotism, not the “flag waving” variety or the forms associated with such jingoism, but rather patriotism based on thoughtful expression and a meaningful understanding of love for country.


Memorial Day

In late spring in New England, delicate, heavily scented lilacs usher in Memorial Day, a day devoted to remembering those Americans who sacrificed their lives so we can enjoy our freedoms. When I was young, my class marched from the school to the cemetery to participate in Memorial Day exercises. I discovered that the tradition continued when I taught in the same school twenty-five years later. This national holiday provides an opportunity to teach patriotism. The week prior to Memorial Day, we devote class time in social studies and language arts to learning about Memorial Day and practicing for the activities planned. The literature, speeches, and music that we select for the observance are national treasures. Though we conduct the activities differently each year, the following is a composite program of how my students participate in Memorial Day.


In Flanders Fields

The muffled cadence of the marching band’s bass drum leads the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students to the cemetery, about a half-mile march from the school. A large group representing the American Legion and Veteran of Foreign Wars, in uniforms and holding flags, have already assembled, with townspeople in front of the small grandstand. They are surrounded by graves, decorated with American flags that catch the morning breeze. After the invocation, the sixth graders solemnly walk to the platform and nervously await their cue to recite “In Flanders Fields”8 by John McCrae, a Canadian surgeon.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.


We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

In Flanders Fields.


Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders Fields.

Is there a connection between the poem written about World War I and the events of September 11, 2001? The poem has three phrases: the first, a deadly calm opening of five lines; the second, an explanation, a regret, and a reiteration of the first stanza in the next four lines; the third, a passionate adjuration in vivid metaphor, a poignant appeal that is at once a blessing and a curse. The poppy, now a symbol of the war, is also an emblem for sleep. The dead desire to sleep undisturbed but curiously take an interest in passing events. They regret that they have not been permitted to live out their lives to their normal end. They call on the living to finish their task. Have not the president and U.S. Congress just asked us to complete the task of eradicating terrorism, a task just begun, with sacrifices yet unknown?


The Gettysburg Address

On November 19, 1863, wartime President Abraham Lincoln delivered “The Gettysburg Address,” which is always recited by the seventh graders during our Memorial Day celebration. These students now reverently move onto the platform. The address is considered one of the gems of the English language. Though the American Civil War was won and lost on other battlefields, the metaphor and symbol, which “Emerson avowed to be the ultimate of all factual history, have come to rest not on Vicksburg or Pea Ridge, nor even Appomattox, but on Gettysburg.”9 Gettysburg, the turning point of the war, witnessed the ebbing of the Confederacy and the rebirth of the Union. So, Lincoln in 1863 and seventh graders today recite the address because “events must have meaning, even if the mind has to imagine what is really not apprehended.”10 This is what Lincoln did when he wrote “The Gettysburg Address,” and what those who have come after him have accepted, not as the only word, nor surely as the last word, but certainly as the truly great word.


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate–we can not consecrate–we can not hallow–this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.



November 19, 1863


Lilacs Blooming

During the Civil War, Walt Whitman, perhaps America’s greatest poet, certainly America’s most democratic poet, worked in field hospitals and created a series of poems in “Drum Taps.” When Lincoln was assassinated, he wrote four poems in tribute to the fallen leader. One of Whitman’s weakest, but better known, poems, “O Captain, My Captain,” was followed by one his finest elegies, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”: “The latter follows the seven stages of traditional Greek elegies, achieving its final, conventional reconciliation with loss and consolation of the living in the convergence of its three central images–the lilac, the star, and the hermit thrush.”11 Before September 11, I taught the poem to my students. They, too, come up on stage to recite.


When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night.

I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.


Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west.

And thought of him I love.


Since September 11, I will ask my students also to learn stanza six, for I think it better conveys what happened on that tragic day.


Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,

Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land.

With the pomp of inloop’d flags with the cities draped in Black,

With the show of the States themselves as crape-vei#146;d women standing,

With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,

With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and

The unbared heads,

With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,

With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,

With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,

The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs–where amid these you journey,

With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,

Here, coffin that slowly passes,

I give you my sprig of lilac.



Representations of the American Flag

What symbol could be more appropriate to teach patriotism than the American flag? Two weeks after September 11, I traveled by automobile from Georgia to New Hampshire. American flags were everywhere; in fact, after leaving Washington, D.C., I purposely counted every flag I saw. Every bridge that spanned the highways mounted an American flag. Waiting to pay the bridge toll on the George Washington Bridge crossing the Hudson River, I observed at least one thousand motorcyclists heading toward New Jersey, all displaying the American flag. It reminded me of the Vietnam Veterans demonstration years earlier in New York City, when thousands of cyclists circled the city. But what do we teach about the flag?

I am reminded of James Clavel#146;s play, The Children’s Story, with which I begin my methods class when I introduce teaching public values. In the play, the new teacher, after helping her students understand the Pledge of Allegiance, convinces them to cut up the flag.

New Teacher: Yes, the real word is a symbol. But we don’t need a sign to remind us that we love our country, do we? You’re all good boys and girls. Do we need a sign to remind us?


Johnny: (Raising his hand.) It’s our flag. We always pledge.


New Teacher: Yes, it is a very pretty one. I wish I could have a piece of it. If it’s so important, I think we should all have a piece of it. Don’t you?


Narrator II: So the flag was cut up by the children and they were very proud that they each had a piece. But now the flagpole was bare and strange. And useless.12


Clavell wrote the play during the McCarthy era, that period when George F. Kennan, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, wrote that “the fear of communism could turn us intolerant, suspicious, cruel, and terrified of internal dissension because we have lost our own belief in ourselves and in the power of our ideals.”13 The children were easily seduced into cutting up the flag because their previous teacher had not taught them a value system that would defend them against such an assault. It is the absence of values or a belief system that allows for this type of behavior. So we have both an obligation and responsibility to teach our students about their flag.

Barnette v. West Virginia should remind us that the flag is a symbol and, as such, is subject to many interpretations. In 1947, the Supreme Court upheld the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses not to be required to say the Pledge of Allegiance on the basis of their religious beliefs. The 1988 presidential campaign became embroiled in debates involving the Pledge of Allegiance to the point that former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, a Republican, attacked the discussion of the pledge “as a ‘trivialization’ of the campaign and described the argument as a ‘tempest in a saucer, not even a teapot.’”14 He drafted a citizen’s oath so that a person could exercise his or her patriotism by supporting the Constitution, not the flag, as follows: “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties and responsibilities as a citizen of the United States.” Again in 1989, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision in Texas v. Johnson, upheld the right to burn the American flag as a form of symbolic political expression protected by the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment.

Recently, school board members of Madison, Wisconsin, found themselves in a maelstrom when they no longer required students to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Teaching about the flag can certainly be controversial; one only has to be reminded of the debates in South Carolina and Georgia over the adoption of a new state flag.

Today, while all of us are enjoying a resurgence of patriotism, sharp debate consumes our lawmakers over the role of homeland security. This debate illustrates how patriotism (love for country and its values) supports the notion that reasonable persons can and should disagree on issues vital to our national interests. It is a healthy sign when conservatives, liberals, and former law enforcement officials share their criticisms of some of the powers that the Attorney General has at his disposal.

Prior to the United States’s entry into World War I, the Preparedness Day Parade occurred on May 14, 1916, in New York City. “The parade was the first large-scale public demonstration in support of the creation of a large, well-trained army and represented the beginning of the United States involvement in the European conflict, even though the country did not officially enter the war until the following April.”15 In fact, the Preparedness Day Parade lasted thirteen hours and numbered more than 137,000 marchers—laborers, businesspeople, doctors, teachers, mothers—what President Woodrow Wilson called “citizen soldiery.”16 Among the artists who marched were Edwin H. Blashfield, Charles Dana Gibson, Frederick MacMonnies, and Edward Simmons.

American artists contributed to “home front” activities by painting parades and other patriotic celebrations. Childe Hassam, one of America’s foremost impressionist artists, was inspired by the parade and created a series of flag paintings that became his significant late works (see page 18 and left).

To gain a World War I perspective on patriotism, students can reflect on Hassam’s flags and read the text in The Flag Paintings of Childe Hassam by Ilene Susan Fort.

Another painter of the American flag is the abstract impressionist Jasper Johns, named after his father, who was in turn named after that heroic rescuer of flags in the Revolutionary War, Sergeant William Jasper of the 2nd South Carolina infantry. Johns created more than ninety flags in his career, using all sorts of media. Some are tiny monochrome graphite drawings, others are made of brown paper bags and silk, still others are cast in pastel hues. They come in all colors—blacks and greens; gray; and red, white, and blue—all representing John’s interpretations of the flag (see pages 22 and 23). A book also available for students is Jasper Johns Flags 1955-1994 (Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, 1996).

When we create instructional activities for our students that involve American artists who loved the American flag and used it as a primary subject in their work, we are teaching not only historical content but also patriotism.



1. Paul Gagnon, “What Should Children Learn?” Atlantic Monthly (December 1995): 76.

2. Ibid., p. 76.

3. William Galston, “Can Patriotism be Turned Into Civic Engagement?” Chronicle of Higher Education (November 16, 2001): B34.

4. R. Freeman Butts, The Morality of Democratic Citizenship: Goals for Civic Education in the Republic’s Third Century (Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education, 1988), 136.

5. Robert L. Stevens and Michael G. Allen, “Teaching Public Values: Three Instructional Approaches,” Social Education 60, no. 3 (March 1996): 156.

6. Civitas: A Framework for Civic Education (Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education, 1991), 31.

7. Charles O. Jones, “Jingoism,” Discovery Channel School. Available at

8. John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields” (New York and London: G. P. Putnam and Sons, The Knickerbocker Press, 1919).

9. Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address, 1863.” Available at

10. Ibid.

11. David Rogers, ed. The Works of Walt Whitman (Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Editions, Ltd., 1995), viii.

12. James Clavell, The Children’s Story (New York: Delacorte Press/Eleanor Friede, 1981).

13. Ed O’Brien, “In War, Is Law Silent?: Security and Freedom After September 11,” Social Education 65, no. 7 (November/December 2001).

14. Civitas: A Framework for Civic Education (Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education, 1991), 34.

15. Susan Ilene Forte, The Flag Paintings of Childe Hassam (New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrahams, Inc., Publishers, 1988), 8.

16. Ibid., p. 9


Robert Stevens is a professor of education, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA.



Principles of Constitutional Government

The Obligations of Citizenship The Rights of Citizenship

Justice Freedom

Equality Diversity

Authority Privacy

Participation Due Process

Truth Property

Patriotism Human Rights


Source: Adapted from R. Freeman Butts, The Morality of Democratic Citizenship: Goals for Civic Education in the Republic’s Third Century, p. 136.