Patriotism, Schools, and the Public

Ewert Blog post

As a young public school student growing up in rural Montana, I don’t recall wondering why there was an American flag hanging in every classroom. Similarly, perfunctory recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance seemed a natural part of the day, like morning announcements or recess. And of course, I accepted that the start of any varsity sporting event had to be preceded by a rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Yet after I started high school in 2001, I began to have more questions about how these rituals became standard facets of my educational experience. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and amid the buildup to the Iraq War, I was struck to see politicians and news anchors suddenly donning flag pins and to hear country musicians pivot to “love it or leave it” sloganeering. The message seemed clear: true patriots supported the war and the president. Finding myself on the other side of those issues, I began to view the patriotic iconography that surrounded me in a different light.

Even though I lacked the time, the means, and perhaps most importantly, the wherewithal to mount any serious investigation into the roots of patriotic education as a teenager, these questions continued to nag at me. Halfway through college, I decided to major in history—a path that eventually led me to graduate school. As master’s student, I started researching patriotic education campaigns from over a century earlier, focusing on what the era’s lessons about citizenship and national loyalty conveyed to students. Gradually, however, I became more interested in the messages that school leaders were sending to parents and community members. As I poured over accounts of late nineteenth-century school parades where pupils marched through city streets toting flags, I realized that such events served just as much as advertisements for public education as teaching moments for students. In the Progressive Era, a period of widespread social and political upheaval, educators from coast to coast used displays like these to suggest that the nation’s increasingly complex problems had a relatively simple solution. American public schools, they argued, had the unique ability to unify the nation while preparing budding citizens for the challenges posed by the modern world.

My book, Making Schools American: Nationalism and the Origin of Modern Educational Politics, reveals how a wide range of Americans from varying backgrounds and with divergent politics embraced these messages, albeit under strikingly different terms. It helps explain why educational matters went from being an afterthought in the minds of many late nineteenth-century Americans to having a starring role in modern politics. Progressive school reformers thought that wrapping schools in the flag would give their work a patriotic gloss, but they also believed schools to be a genuinely unifying force. Their efforts made schooling broadly popular and expanded the scope and reach of state and local systems, but as anyone familiar with the current state of educational politics could attest, this shift has had mixed consequences. While surveys indicate that most Americans still see their local public schools in a positive light, debates over what students should learn about their nation’s past and the very meaning of good citizenship continue to divide us.

To be sure, I never figured that I would eventually write a book about this subject when I was a teenager. I didn’t even know whether I would go to college—I was the first person in my immediate family to do so. My community’s K-12 public school played a major role in nurturing my curiosity about the world around me and giving me the skills I needed to succeed after graduation. The fact that I had this opportunity at all owes in large part to the efforts of Progressive-era school reformers, who expanded educational access by arguing that in order to become sturdy democratic citizens, young Americans—regardless of their means or where they lived—needed a good education. Yet, as my work demonstrates, those same arguments also seeded ongoing attempts to narrow what students could learn or discuss in schools, and even gave fodder to those eager to brand the public system itself a failure. In short, Making Schools American—as the subtitle suggests—offers key insight into the origin of modern educational politics and the shifting contours of American nationalism, issues that are as relevant and contested as ever today.

Cover image of Making Schools American
Making Schools American
Nationalism and the Origin of Modern Educational Politics
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