Patriotism in the (generation) gap

Posted: Apr 14, 2003 12:00 AM

Should we teach our children how to be patriots? That's the buzz of the moment propelled by victory in war. As our fighting men represent the democratic values of the United States, the question becomes less academic than cultural. You can hear it debated formally at scholarly conferences and political meetings and closer to the heart around the kitchen table and at home on the range.

The ultimate answer may be determined by how you define patriotism.

If you believe with Samuel Johnson that patriotism "is the last refuge of the scoundrel," it's the last thing you want to imbue in children. Nobody wants a houseful of scoundrels. But surely such cynicism is not warranted today. Adlai Stevenson's description is more reflexive of our times. As the Democratic candidate for president in 1952, he spoke with great eloquence about patriotism to a convention of the American Legion.

"Men who have offered their lives for their country know that patriotism is not something; it is the love of something," he told veterans just home from World War II. "Patriotism is not hatred. . It is the love of this republic and the ideal of liberty of man and mind in which it was born, and to which this republic is dedicated."

The antiwar movement paints patriotic sentiment as jingoism and triumphalism, but these attitudes are rooted in a sensibility that has stagnated and grown sour since the Vietnam War. That's too bad. A new generation of fighting men and women do not see it that way. The antiwar demonstrators are caught in a time warp, stewing in an ignorance indifferent to reality.

Generational changes are dramatic. A headline in The Washington Post illuminates the generation gap: "Child of the Vietnam Era Is Now the Mother of a Marine." Children who entered their late teens and 20s with the dawn of the 21st century hold terrorists as their touchstone for patriotism, not violence in a Vietnam village. The Army in Iraq is a volunteer Army, not one coerced by a draft.

David Fish is a Marine who grew up in Herndon, Va., and hoisted an American flag on his red Ford pickup immediately after Sept. 11. He admired his grandfather who served in World War II. He told his mother that he enlisted in the Marines out of a sense of appreciation and duty: "How can I live here, have all the things we have, and not give something back?"

But even before 9/11, American kids were declaring new attitudes of patriotism. In a survey of 2,911 ninth graders, fully 91 percent said they were proud of the United States; 85 percent they had "great love for the flag." The survey, by the International Association for the Evaluation of International Achievement showed no significant differences in race, sex or family incomes.

While the numbers demonstrate love of country and an approval for patriotic ideals, these same students nevertheless showed a woeful lack of understanding for the historical and philosophical concepts of freedom of speech, of the press, or appreciation of the crucial importance of civil rights and majority rule. Patriotism binds a diverse population in recognizing the values a society holds in common, but emotion is no substitute for knowledge.

The Center for Civic Education (, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, encourages the establishment of civics classes in schools, starting in elementary school and adding deeper knowledge in junior high and high school. Personal and social identities, as we know, are forged in adolescence, but so are civic values.

Shocking as it may be, most high school graduates today have never read the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence or the Federalist Papers. These documents must be read and discussed if the next generation learns how to relate the ideals of our Founding Fathers to contemporary problems, opportunities, controversies, rights and responsibilities. The kids have to reflect on those ideals when Johnny and Jane come marching home to a celebration of thanksgiving for their heroism.

Education transmits values. It transmits inspiration and strength, too. The soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting in Iraq may have arrived at patriotic values in spite of their education, but that's no roadmap to the future. Patriotism should not be taught, but absorbed.

"It was always accounted a virtue in a man to love his country," Adlai Stevenson said on that now-distant occasion. "With us it is now something more than a virtue. It is a necessity, a condition of survival. When a man says he loves his country, he means not only that he loves the New England hills, the prairies glistening in the sun, the wide and rising plains, the great mountains and the sea. He means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives, and in which man can draw a breath of self-respect."

So true.