Those of us who dwell on campuses and read the Chronicle of Higher Education have noticed a recent counterrevolution in the teaching of college humanities. The winds have shifted away from the deconstructionist criticism that uncovered hidden themes of race, class, and gender to the more direct teaching of the text. Aesthetics have become popular again. Instructors have once again taken up the charge of showing students why and how people can perceive beauty in a Shakespearian sonnet or a Rembrandt portrait. Back in style are the profound lessons of truth and meaning.
Why the change? It seems that market forces do work. Students were checking out from obscure, agenda-driven, negative courses dominated by critical theory, finding little reason to sit through the lectures or read the assignments. If the classic texts were seen as neither beautiful nor true, but were taught simply as indications of exploitations long past, why bother with them? The return of appreciation for the texts is reawakening student interest.
A similar counterrevolution is needed in teaching historical and civic understanding to elementary and secondary school students. The rage among trendsetters is "cosmopolitan education," a notion that sets itself in opposition to traditional values such as patriotism. One leading educator, for example, urges schools to avoid instilling "irrational" patriotism "full of color and intensity and passion," claiming that the notion of national belonging "reinforces this kind of irrationality, by lending to what is an accident of history a false air of moral weight and glory." Combined with a teaching of history that emphasizes our country's sins rather than its achievements, the message that students are receiving is negative. My high school daughter (and even her young history teacher, I fear) know far more about how settlers mistreated Native Americans than about how they created the Bill of Rights or outlawed the slave trade.
Critical thinking is essential for any citizen in a democracy, and schools must foster it. But when we begin with a critical tone and lean on it repeatedly, students become disaffected. A sense of positive identification is a prerequisite for constructive engagement. Young people need to care about something enough to bother criticizing it and improving it.
Young people have turned away from civic engagement to an extent never before witnessed in our society. Voting among 18–24 year olds, their interest in political campaigns, even their willingness to run for school offices, have all declined sharply over the past twenty-five years. To foster in our young a positive identification with their civil society, we need to give them compelling reasons to become attached.
We must begin by telling students about the best of our traditions and the finest episodes in our history and why so many of their forbearers cherished those traditions enough to devote and even sacrifice their lives to preserve them. We must show the young why patriotism in its noblest sense—open, inclusive, the heart and soul of our free and democratic society—is a virtue and not a vice.