History Teachers and “Patriotic Education”

Photograph Source: Larry Jacobsen – CC BY 2.0

Conservatives are kicking around high school history teachers like a “political football.” The Washington Post recently reported that, “Trump seeks to turn local schools into another front in the culture war he champions, positioning history teachers as opponents of American greatness along with kneeling football players.” The President declared his war on history teachers at the first White House Conference on American History: “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”

We might wonder what would happen if a teacher took a knee during the daily playing of the national anthem in schools? Colin Kaepernick could afford the repercussions of his action, but the high school history teacher can only take so many reprimands before she loses her job. How is she to defend against this assault on her professional integrity and livelihood?

The history teacher must recognize that the enemy is legion. Conservative political parties across the English-speaking world have joined in the “history wars.” British Education Minister Michael Gove (2010-2014), also attempted to change the curriculum to promote “exceptionalist” narratives. He paraded the myth that the British have a unique national tradition of freedom and democracy stretching back to the Arthurian “Round Table.” According to Mathew Watson of Warwick University, this was a rhetorical device of British “Whigs” used as justification for the removal in 1688 of the last absolutist Stuart monarch, James II.

Such “whiggish” historical narratives persist to this day in the former British colonies. The Americans have also laid claim to being the true heirs of Camelot, most famously during the Kennedy regime: “The left-wing Cultural Revolution,” Trump said, “is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. The left rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom. We will never submit to tyranny.”

In Canada, “Queen’s” historian C.P. Champion, who served as Senior Policy Advisor to Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney when he was Minister of National Defense, and who is now in the process of re-writing social studies curricula in Alberta, is a leader in the “history wars.” Champion’s participation in the “whiggish” camp of historiography is evident in his critique of developments in Australia: “Under Stuart Macintyre, a former communist appointed to rewrite curriculum, Labor has substituted a relativist “world history” that is light on facts and heavy with guilt about aboriginals and immigrants. One right-of-centre blogger wrote that, according to MacIntyre’s curriculum the’ struggle for individual liberty started in 1945’… Never mind that the concept of limited executive government began in thirteenth-century England.”

“Never mind,” indeed, that the Arthurian knight was as often guilty of rapine as of chivalry, or that the Magna Carta was imposed by a thuggish baronial elite looking after its own interests to limit the king’s power to tax, according to English historian David Carpenter. Champion would likely prefer that the history teacher overlook such truths about Trump’s tax-dodging predecessors (he even named his son Baron).

It may not be reassuring for teachers, who hope Trump will be defeated, that we are living in reactionary times. Anti-historical politicians like Gove and Kenney are bound to surface when the march of history itself becomes an enemy of their class. In mid -19th century France, as part of the restoration led by Louis Bonaparte, teachers who were suspected of sympathy with the democratic-socialists were replaced; and the Falloux Laws were introduced which reverted control over education back to the Catholic Church. In 20th century Germany, once the Hitler-Jugend became effective, teachers feared their students would report them if they showed even the slightest indifference to Nazification. On March 15th, 1942 1,300 Norwegian teachers were arrested and sent to hard labor in the artic, or to a concentration camp outside Oslo, for refusing to join the Nazi union, and teach a Nazified curriculum.

Despite such examples of heroism in the past, we must concede that most history teachers will do what they have always done to keep their job – bow submissively and fart out the rear! Though most of us would prefer to ply our trade independently of political intrusions, like Simon the Shoemaker, our priority must be to survive another “culture war.” The Washington Post’s defense of history teachers, whom the article claims are de-facto teaching American “exceptionalism” without saying so explicitly, hints at this reality.

If we really do live in a liberal society (forgetting what is happening to Julian Assange) we may nonetheless find comfort in Kant’s dictum: “Speak freely, but obey.” In public fora like CounterPunch, the history teacher might get away with questioning the value of “whiggish” fantasies of a return to some primeval unity. She might even argue for abolition of the nation-state itself! How can we blind ourselves to the history of wars and genocides perpetrated in the name of “national security?” Worse, conservative apologists for the nation-state want us to lie about this history to the children. Out of one side of their mouth’s they say the nation-state is absolved of its crimes because it is all in the past, while out the other comes indignant demands that history teachers stick to the “facts.”

Trump may be right that we should have a sense of pride in our “country,” but what is this? One of his own hero’s, Robert E. Lee, would not accept Lincoln’s offer to lead the Union army because he could not bring himself to fight against his “country.” He felt he owed his primary loyalty to Virginia, rather than to such an abstract political entity as the “United” States: “How can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native State? If the Union is dissolved, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people.”

With their vast populations, geographical diversity, and institutional complexity modern nation-states (especially those of the English-speaking world) are more akin to Empire than the attachment to a particular natural or social landscape from which the terminology of “a people”, kin, tribe, or community derives its meaning. Yet the political class continues to perpetuate the myth of the nation-state as a “people” in order to legitimize the power structure atop which it perches like an eagle, scanning the population below for vulnerable prey such as the history teacher.


Paul Bentley holds an MSc. (Econ) in International Relations from the London School of Economics, and an Ed. D. in the History and Philosophy of Education from the University of Toronto. He has worked as a History Teacher and Head of Department in Ontario High Schools for over 25 years. He is the author of Strange Journey: John R. Friedeberg Seeley and the Quest for Mental Health — Academic Studies Press.