Patriotic Education and the Politics of Lies

Not long after my daughter started losing baby teeth and going to bed excited about visits from the Tooth Fairy, she confronted me in our upstairs bonus room while I sat working at my computer.

“You and Mom are the Tooth Fairy,” she asserted, with no hint of asking.

When I admitted such, she replied, “Why did y’all lie to me?”

I can still recall that moment vividly—just as I can one of my moments of having to face the disconnect between mythology and reality concerning my father.

During my first year of marriage, we lived in the converted garage of my parents’ house, and one night we were awaked by my sister yelling and pulling the screen door off the hinges to our room. My mother had found my father collapsed and covered in blood in their bathroom.

I rushed to help him. In the next few hours, our roles shifted and would continue to transform until he died a couple years ago, very frail and worn down by both the myth and reality of his invincibility and job as provider.

As a parent and grandparent, coach, and career-long educator, I have had to wrestle with the role of myths in how adults interact with children and teenagers. Explaining to my daughter that stories such as the Tooth Fairy (like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny) aren’t lies, but metaphors fell on deaf ears, closed off by a loss of innocence, an awareness of a harsh world that was being hidden from her because she was a child.

My father, of course, was never superhuman, invincible, or even uniquely capable of being the ideal manufactured in a son’s mind.

That tension between harsh, uncomfortable reality and the intoxicating allure of myth and the Ideal has now confronted the U.S. in vivid and disturbing ways; the Trump administration has launched an assault on harsh, uncomfortable reality and called for a return to the soma of the Ideal concerning America.

Ironically, a call for patriotic education is embracing the very indoctrination that many conservatives claim to be refuting.

I was a high school English teacher throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s. The first quarter of my American literature course was devoted to nonfiction, and one of the first texts we examined was the Christopher Columbus chapter of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

For my very provincial students in rural upstate South Carolina, this was the beginning of a disorienting nine weeks that included works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.

Many of these students responded as my daughter did, feeling as if they had been lied to, deceived, disrespected for being young.

An interesting part of conservatives demonizing much of formal education as liberal propaganda is that they completely misread how young people respond to adults and ignore that institutionalized education has always been overwhelmingly conservative itself.

I watched as my daughter was fed a deeply distorted and incomplete version of Hellen Keller during her third grade; the Hellen Keller students meet is a myth of rugged individualism that erases Keller’s leftwing political activism.

For most K-12 students in the U.S., the education they receive in social studies and history is primarily idealized, incomplete, and patriotic education.

For fifty or sixty years, some have been chipping away at that distortion of history—the “I cannot tell a lie” George Washington of my education in the 1960s was mostly gone by my teaching career in the 1980s-1990s—and there has been a slow process of including the stories and voices traditionally omitted, women and Black Americans, for example.

The Trump administration first attacked critical race theory and then Zinn directly, so a few days ago, I asked my foundations in education students to consider why we in the U.S. have formal schooling. We had briefly examined Thomas Jefferson’s commitments and framing of why a free people and a democracy needed universal public schooling, but my students were keenly aware that K-16 schooling in practice is primarily focused on preparing young people to enter the workforce.

In another twist of irony, saying public schooling is for fostering citizens and to fertilize the soil of democracy is itself an idealized myth that is refuted by how the country actually works.

And here is an important point: I became and continue to be a teacher because I believe in the promise of equity, liberty, and democracy that the U.S. and public education aspire to; and therefore, as James Baldwin implored, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” (Notes of a Native Son).

I am not sure I primarily aspire to patriotism or loving my country, however, since I think those are steps away from the ideals I do embrace. A country should not be loved until it deserves that love.

I am sure that the many young people I have taught did not immediately believe anything I taught them; I am certain that my students did not respect me or the implication of my authority simply because I had the title of “teacher” and stood before them with that power every day.

Respect, like love, and the gift of knowledge and facts cannot be demanded—must not be demanded—but certainly can be attained when humans are free to recognize and embrace them.

And now the final irony: Conservatives reinvigorated by Trump have long resented critical educators, who continue to be marginalized and discredited as the purveyors of indoctrination, yet critical educators, scholars, and activists (see those who practice critical race theory as well as Howard Zinn) “[want] to know who’s indoctrinating whom” (Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer).

I often see my daughter standing there beside me in a moment when I had to confront that what seemed like a harmless myth had denied her basic human dignity; she deserved reality, the truth, simply by being a human being trying to navigate a reality that often seems determined to erase us.

The daily tally of lies trafficked by Trump and his enablers has reached a logical conclusion, a demand that the entire country double-down on the delusions of myths, white-washed history, and plain and simple lies.

Conservatives have long buckled under the weight of genuinely not trusting children and young people, of believing so deeply in Original Sin and flawed humanity that they cannot see the paradox of yielding to authoritarianism that must eradicate their liberty, their humanity.

Calling for patriotic education is the next step in the politics of lies.

If we truly believe in individual freedom, we are now faced with the choice of who we will be as people, whether or not we deserve that freedom.

You don’t have to teach people to love their country if that country deserves to be loved.