Teaching the Debate About Patriotism (Pt. 2)

February 15, 2016 Les Lynn Argument and Literacy, Classroom Debating, The Debatifier

By Gerald Graff

[To read part 1 of this essay, click here.]

Teaching the debate, whether over patriotism or any other contested political topic, seems to me fundamentally more democratic than “teaching for social justice” where democratic controversy may be advocated but not enacted and modeled. But teaching the debate is not only more democratic, but more likely to clarify the mysteries of the intellectual world for those many students to whom phrases like “teaching for social justice” are unintelligible academic jargon. There is something misplaced, after all, about attempts to introduce radical intellectual positions to students who have not yet learned the practice of taking “intellectual positions,” students who have not learned to enter an intellectual discussion and have a shaky grasp of basic political terminology like “radical,” “conservative,” “left,” right,” and “center.”

In order to understand these and other terms in the vocabulary of radical critique, students need to see these terms in comparison and contrast with their conceptual alternatives. That is, such students need to see such terms as they play out in the crucible of actual debates, debates that they can enter and feel that they have a stake in, debates in which they gain lots of practice in summarizing and gaining a sense of what it feels like to live inside) beliefs that challenge their own.

The operative principle here is John Stuart Mill’s famous observation that we don’t understand our own ideas until we understand what can be said against them. As Mill put the point in On Liberty, those who “have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them . . . do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.”

For example, what is politically at stake in a concept like “social justice” is likely to become intelligible to students only if they have a chance to see that concept in comparison and contrast — that is, in debate — with a term like “social mobility.” Though these terms are sometimes seen as synonymous, “social mobility” often presupposes a fair and open economic system in which everyone has an equal chance to succeed, whereas “social justice” implicitly protests against a rigged system in which the already wealthy and privileged start with vastly unfair advantages. Unless students experience discussions in which these opposing assumptions come together and clash, they may never get a clear sense of the key question that underlies most debates about patriotism: Is the American system fair and open or does it stack the social and economic deck unfairly in advance?

In most schools and colleges today, however, students typically go from one classroom in which the openness and fairness of our system is the default assumption to another in which the system is viewed as unfairly rigged.  Since such students never encounter a classroom confrontation between these views (except when it may be abstractly summarized by an individual instructor), they are unlikely to grasp the clashing social meanings of “social justice” and “social mobility,” and the deeper clash of social philosophies that underlies these different meanings. Indeed, as long as the instructors do not come together to argue out their views with each other and their students, the students may fail to recognize that the instructors fundamentally disagree. But even if the students do recognize the disagreement, the chances are they will respond with the familiar tactic of giving each instructor whatever he or she “wants” in order to meet the obligations of each course with as little trouble as possible. And who can blame students for responding in this cynical way, for the curriculum itself invites such a cynical response by failing to bring clashing perspectives into debate.

In humanities curricula today — to take another example — students may go from one course in which the canonical texts of Western art and literature are seen as an unproblematic heritage to be passed on to another course in which those canonical texts are seen as seriously compromised by racism, sexism, and elitism. Again, the students may not even recognize that the clashing instructors are talking about the same thing — the Western canon — and are disagreeing about it. Again the students will tend to adapt by giving each instructor whatever he or she seems to want even though their demands are contradictory.

The key point is that such a curriculum, in which the dialectical clash of concepts and terms is screened out, or at best is left to individual instructors to reconstruct on their own, is a prescription for political passivity and intellectual illiteracy. When students don’t experience terms like “social justice,” “multiculturalism,” or “patriotism” in comparison and contrast with their conceptual alternatives — that is, when they don’t experience such terms in the process of debate — they tend to be deprived of a clear sense of what these terms mean and what is politically at stake in them.

If my argument is correct, then, effective political literacy demands that we not simply air progressive political perspectives in our classrooms, but that we infuse the curriculum throughout with genuine debates between political perspectives.


This essay originally appeared in Pledging Allegiance: The Politics of Patriotism in America’s Schools, Ed. by Joel Westheimer, Columbia University Press, 2007.