No Perfect Patriotism: Encouraging Students to View Patriotic Processes from Multiple Perspectives

Benjamin R. Wellenreiter

     Patriotic processes and the learning of patriotism as a concept have long histories in American schools and classrooms (Martin, 2008; Mirga, 1988; Mowry, 1888). Lamenting the state of patriotic education in schools in 1888, Mowry suggested:

It is to be regretted that larger attention has not been given to instilling sentiments of patriotism into the minds of the children in the schools by means of patriotic readers, and selections from the writings of the great men connected with our political history. (p. 197)

     Recent, intense public debate regarding the actions of professional athletes during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner and subsequent responses has brought the concept of patriotism to the forefront of public consciousness in a way not seen since the immediate aftermath of events on September 11, 2001. This debate, on whether players should be required to stand or be allowed to kneel in protest of social injustices, is only the most recent chapter in a long history of discussion and debate regarding patriotism in society.

     To better understand the complex political, cultural, and value-laden landscapes of patriotism and patriotic display, students need opportunities to analyze their own understandings of patriotism and how different approaches to patriotism might inform societal dialogue. Further, to more deeply and proactively engage in this dialogue, students need opportunities to consider how their approaches to patriotism might be seen from various perspectives. Having experience in various perspectives can increase the contextual flexibility students need to navigate the politically charged waters of various settings while remaining open to new ways of thinking. This work can deepen students’ thoughtful patriotism and bridge diverse cultural views on patriotism (Zong, Garcia, & Wilson, 2002). Given deep experiences in analyzing approaches to patriotism, students will be more informed in their future conceptualizations regarding this enduring debate.

This article discusses questions and roleplaying scenarios that may be used to assist students in grappling with the complex nature of patriotism. It begins by encouraging students to consider how they define patriotism and how their own personal beliefs correspond with their definition. Once a working definition has been established, students are encouraged to view patriotism from multiple, diverse perspectives through role play techniques. Students then consider what role schools, teachers, and they themselves do and should play in relation to patriotism and patriotic exercises.

Working toward an operational definition of patriotism: Defining “love”

     To deeply discuss the concept of patriotism, students need understanding in the different ways it is conceptualized. While patriotism is often defined simply as “love of country”, stopping at this definition without further operationalization, explanation, analysis, or critique demonstrates a shallow and blind type of patriotism (Busey & Walker, 2017; Hand & Pearce, 2009; Kodelja, 2011; Martin, 2012; Schatz, Staub, & Lavine, 1999; Westheimer, 2009).

     To reflect the multiple, often more nuanced beliefs surrounding patriotism, definition and operationalization of it beyond “love of country” is needed. Indeed, for students to describe the role they believe schools should take in patriotic education, they first need to conceptualize it beyond this tagline. A common discussion point centers around two broad operationalizations of patriotism. The first, described as “authoritarian patriotism”, is patriotism as deep, or even blind, adherence to specific social and governmental structures (Busey & Walker, 2017; Westheimer, 2006, 2009, 2014). This view of patriotism is often conflated with concepts counter to basic democratic processes such as debate, dissent, and protest. Employing this view of patriotism, activities such as flag-waving, pledging allegiance, and “country first” social policies are often seen as examples of shallow and exclusionary activities. Critics of these characterizations argue that in order to maintain sense of community and self, these displays and actions are necessary, if not to be embraced.

     The other broad operationalism of patriotism, “democratic patriotism”, is described as a process in which patriotic citizens engage in critique, political action, and social change (Busey & Walker, 2017; Westheimer 2014). Actions associated with this view of patriotism are often characterized as demonstrating disrespect to established authorities, customs, and social norms, minimizing the achievements of a society, and working to disrupt national and individual identities. Kneeling during the StarSpangled Banner, refusing to fight in wars, and deep questioning of civil authorities are often seen as divisive, agitative, and counterproductive economically and legislatively. Critics of these characterizations argue that these actions work to improve society through creative criticism and creative destruction.

     Nested within each of these two conceptualizations of patriotism are actions that are seen both as desirable and undesirable. Certainly, individuals who demonstrate their patriotism by waving flags at civic events or standing with hand over heart during the playing of the national anthem would not view these demonstrations as blind adherence to authoritarian structures. Likewise, individuals who believe protest and questioning are patriotic would not necessarily characterize their actions as disrespectful. Though these two broad categories are often used in social discourse, the “America, love it or leave it” and the “protest is patriotic” dichotomy underestimates the complexity and the context-specific nature of how patriotism is manifested. To reflect this complexity and to deepen their understanding of how patriotism is conceptualized, students need experiences that move them beyond these decontextualized mottos.

     Assisting students in considering the complexity of patriotism, beyond these two broad categories of “authoritarian patriotism” and “democratic patriotism” can help them better navigate different contexts in which patriotic acts take place. Using these categories as starting points, rather than end points, students can begin to define and operationalize for themselves the concepts of patriotism and “love of country”. While the broad categories of “authoritarian patriotism” and “democratic patriotism” as described here are both limited in philosophy and application, they serve as an introduction to the complexity of patriotism for students who may just be beginning to analyze the nature of patriotism.

Defining and conceptualizing patriotism— beyond the authoritarian/democratic dichotomy

     Providing experiences in which students are challenged to consider the complexities and context-specific nature of patriotism can grow their understanding of this concept and encourage them to deeply consider the implications of their beliefs. Starting with the simple discussion question; “What does it mean to be patriotic?” can open the door to the complexity of patriotism for many. This introduction to the discussion of patriotism can quickly lead students to the exploration of different views of patriotism, perhaps even before they are aware of the labels described above. As they flesh out their definitions and corresponding examples of patriotism in action, students may find the dichotomy of authoritarian vs. democratic patriotism to be insufficient in describing the complex nature of the concept. That individual actions fall into one or the other category might be discarded as they create nuance with descriptions of context and situational factors that play a role in how patriotism is manifested. For example, the stating of the Pledge of Allegiance can be viewed as an authoritative practice, but if it is done by an individual who believes in, but does not see realized, the statement “…justice for all”, elements of democratic patriotism are applied to the action.

     Asking students to describe examples of the manifestation of patriotism—what it looks like in practice— and then asking them to describe why their responses can be viewed as both patriotic and unpatriotic can work to deepen their understanding of the context specific nature of patriotic display. For example, a student may say that flag waving at a sporting event leans toward authoritarian patriotism because it does not closely link to action beyond the immediate context. A flag waving display during the funeral procession of a fallen solider, on the other hand, can be closely tied to deep action and sacrifice. Similarly, if a student states that protest in front of the US Capitol is patriotic, that individual might say that protest during the funeral of a fallen soldier is unpatriotic and should be discouraged, if not outlawed. Encouraging students to consider and discuss the questions in Table 1 can assist them in refining their definitions of patriotism, articulating how their definitions are manifested, and contextualizing the “patriotic-ness” or “unpatriotic-ness” of those manifestations.       

Table 1: Discussion questions—Defining and contextualizing patriotism

  1. How do you define the terms “patriotism” and “patriotic”?
  2. What are ways your definitions of “patriotism” and “patriotic” are demonstrated?
  3. Describe actions that individuals engage in to demonstrate their patriotism.
  4. Under what conditions might the actions you describe be seen as un-patriotic?
  5. Describe whether there are “absolute” demonstrations of patriotism that cannot be viewed as unpatriotic.
  6. Why might people disagree about which actions are patriotic and which actions are unpatriotic?
  7. Describe what factors play a role in determining whether an action is patriotic or not.

     A major aim of these questions and subsequent discussions is to disrupt the commonly understood dichotomy of authoritarian or democratic patriotism. As students work to refine and operationalize their definitions of patriotism, recognizing that patriotism is also deeply informed by contextual considerations reflects the complex nature of the concept. Understanding that specific practices can be viewed as both patriotic and unpatriotic, given the context, students can more deeply view patriotism from multiple perspectives, adding to their conceptualization of this complex concept.

     Viewing patriotism from multiple perspectives—Adding context to the complex Once students have deeply considered the complexities and various manifestations of patriotism, they can be encouraged to grow in their understanding by working to view it from various perspectives. Working to view patriotism and patriotic display from various perspectives put into practice, and up for further debate, the various definitions and operationalizations of the concepts.

     Key to thinking beyond the dichotomy of authoritarian vs. democratic patriotism is experience in context and perspective. Role playing, in which they are given a specific context and action combined with various perspectives, can stretch students’ conceptualization of patriotism beyond this dichotomy. Though role playing does not completely reflect the complex positioning of individuals, it can be an effective step in working to break the false dichotomy of authoritarian patriotism and democratic patriotism and deepening understanding of the nature of patriotism itself.

     Layering on top of previous discussions regarding the context-specific nature of patriotic display, students are asked to articulate the perspectives that various community members may have. Shown in Table 2 are role-playing prompts that can be used with students to apply their conceptualizations of patriotism, then put those conceptualizations to practical test.     

Table 2: Role play scenarios—Multiple perspectives of patriotic display

     A citizens group has requested the local school perform a flag-raising ceremony, national anthem, Pledge of Allegiance, and short speech by the principal on the values of American unity. They request this ceremony to take place on Patriot Day, September 11. This group has made the request at a recent school board meeting. The community is located near a military base and many service members send their children to the school.

     You will be assigned one of the following roles: citizen’s group member, school board member, parent of child (active military), parent of child (no direct military connection), school principal, student in support of the ceremony, student against the ceremony. Please respond to the following questions:

  1. Describe, from your assigned perspective, whether or not the requested ceremony is appropriate for the school to conduct.
  2. Describe, from your assigned perspective, the reasoning for your support or critique of the requested ceremony.
  3. Describe, from your assigned perspective, why your critics are incorrect.
  4. Describe, from your assigned perspective, the shortcomings of your perspective.
  5. Now released from your assigned perspective, describe your thoughts on the situation, the various perspectives, and what insights you have gained regarding patriotism.

     There is word going through the school that a group of students want to conduct a walk-out protest during the morning recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. When asked, an identified member of this student group states that it is to bring awareness to the lack of justice for minority citizens in the community. Their plan is to leave class, march around the outside of the school building with signs, then return to class within 20 minutes. The community has diverse ethnic and socioeconomic characteristics and, according to recent election data, is well divided between Republican, Democrat, and independent voters.

     You will be assigned one of the following roles: student group member, school board member, parent of child (in support of protest), parent of child (in opposition to protest), school principal, teacher in support of protest, teacher in opposition to protest. Please respond to the following questions:

  1. Describe, from your assigned perspective, whether or not protest is patriotic or unpatriotic.
  2. Describe, from your assigned perspective, the reasoning for your support or critique of the protest.
  3. Describe, from your assigned perspective, why your critics are incorrect.
  4. Describe, from your assigned perspective, the shortcomings of your perspective.
  5. Now released from your assigned perspective, describe your thoughts on the situation, the various perspectives, and what insights you have gained regarding patriotism.

     Rather than come to definitive conclusion on the particular scenarios, the process of working to better appreciate various perspectives of patriotism applied in different contexts is a major goal of this activity. As students work to view the scenarios from perspectives they may not share, the requirement to articulate both the strengths and weaknesses of the perspectives  encourages them to broaden their understanding of the concepts of patriotism and patriotic display. Additionally, the inclusion of brief descriptions of the contexts in which the situations take place encourage students to consider how environmental characteristics may inform the patriotism discussion.

     A challenge with the role-play activity lies in the potential stereotyping of perspectives. Spending adequate time with question 5 in Table 1, in which students are encouraged to discuss their thoughts on the various roles, can work to address this concern. Single-dimension perspectives can be discussed in hindsight and grown into more nuanced and complex positions. Discussion of stereotypical views, after the roleplaying questions, can also work to counter the false dichotomy of authoritarian vs. democratic patriotism by deepening understanding of the intricacies of the positions.

Patriotism in schools—Student analysis of their environments

     Because many states mandate patriotic education and demonstration in public schools, students are afforded opportunity to put their understandings of patriotism to immediate test through analysis of their own environments. The deeply embedded and often emotional nature of how patriotism is manifested in schools are testaments to the importance of its study by the students who experience them. In analyzing the patriotic displays of their own school settings, students are encouraged to bridge a perceived gap between societal discourse and their day-today educational experiences. Discussion questions in Table 3 focus on students’ own school settings and the patriotic processes therein. [Table 3]


     Applying the complex and context specific nature of patriotism and patriotic display through role-play scenarios and discussion questions, students are encouraged to more deeply understand various perspectives through specific examples. Rather than lock students into a single definition and views on how “good” patriotism is shown, deep analysis of the concept and its practices, combined with role playing activities, uncovers the situational nature of what it means to be patriotic. Layering a more sophisticated understanding of patriotism and how it is manifested with experiences in viewing these concepts from various perspectives, students are in better position to engage in societal debate regarding this complex and intimately contextual concept.


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