Joel Westheimer

History vs. Heritage

VTR Date: May 1, 2007

Josel Westheimer discusses the politics of patriotism in American schools.


GUEST: Joel Westheimer
VTR: 05/01/2007

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And if you are anywhere near as long in the tooth as I am, you probably recall with some considerable pleasure – as I do – the patriotic feelings (not “fervor”, but feelings) that I identify with an earlier time in America.

Yes, there were occasional relatives and even teachers whose political disappointments during the Great Depression led them to demean our nation.

But it was first and foremost a nation that four times over chose Franklin D. Roosevelt as President, that rejected dreaded counsels of despair, that fought and won a great war against totalitarianism – a nation where moments in its history were surely to be deplored, but whose essential heritage remained ever bright and shining…where patriotism was real, not legislated.

Well, all of these thoughts – and of learning in school Sir Walter Scott’s memorable words: “Breathes there a man with soul so dead … Who never to himself hath said, ‘This is my own, my native land!” – all of those thoughts were rekindled for me recently by a slim but quite provocative volume published by Teachers College Press and edited by my guest today, Joel Westheimer, Professor and University Research Chair in Democracy and Education at the University of Ottawa. Its title: Pledging Allegiance…The Politics of Patriotism in America’s Schools.

In his Introduction, Professor Westheimer writes “… I should explain, then, what some readers may perceive as bias in the content of this book.” I’ll ask him to explain so right now.

WESTHEIMER: That’s a great starting question, Dick, thank you.

HEFFNER: What did you mean by it?

WESTHEIMER: Well, first of all I want to say that … the book intentionally has a broad variety of contributors that, that do run the spectrum about what patriotism is and what should be taught about patriotism in schools. But there is a certain “bias” as I called it in the introduction to those who are talking about a particular kind of patriotism that I call “democratic patriotism” and I’ll, I’ll say what that is in a minute.

But I, I want to say two things that led me to wanting to put this book together, put this volume together. One is that as, as you know, I was here in New York, where I’m from with my wife and daughter on September 11th, 2001. And the three of us were actually on a street corner and watched the second plane hit the South Tower and we watched as both buildings collapsed into the impossibly dense financial district streets there.

And it was as for so many New Yorkers, of course, an indescribable moment. Nothing could possibly explain what happened then.

And, as New Yorkers know, and people around the country and around the world know, there was a certain form of solidarity that, that grew out of those horrific events and those horrific attacks.

What troubled me, though, came in the weeks following and the months following and I wasn’t the only one that was troubled by it. And that was a sort of blackout of attention on some of the expressions of thought following 9/11.

For example, there were weekly gatherings at Union Square. Now everyone on television all over the world saw the candlelight vigils and the pictures of loved ones missing.

But what people didn’t get to see was weekly gatherings that were expressing the idea that patriotism can involve thoughtful reflection on what to do next, and not headlong rush into military action before thinking about what to do.

And I participated in many marches around Union Square, up Sixth Avenue, Avenue of the Americas that were not at all covered on television or in newspapers until much, much later. Now we see those. But at the time there really wasn’t anything there.

And so my point is that there was an overwhelming feeling that was similar to John Ashcroft’s admonition that anyone who criticizes the government is giving ammunition to the enemy … right. Or Ari Fleisher said it … that Americans need to watch what they say.

And part of the reasons for putting this book together was a, a worry that what was happening in our nation’s schools in the five, six years since 9/11 is that students were getting that same message … that Americans need to watch what they say. That, that part of a patriotic commitments to this country did not have to do with a thoughtful critique about where we need to go and what directions we need to pursue to make this country better.

In the book we talk about two kinds of patriotism … one is a blind patriotism, or nationalism … authoritarian patriotism … those are the words that describe it. And it’s the kind of patriotism that goes by the slogan … something, you know, like, what G. K. Chesterton said is “my country, right or wrong” … is like saying, “My mother drunk or sober” … right?

It means that there is no room for critique or room for improvement, that you just have to do head-nodding agreement with what the government leaders say.

But there’s another kind of patriotism … a democratic kind of patriotism that involves love of the ideals that made America strong. And love of those ideals sometimes means looking for new directions and looking for other ways to make our society better and to improve the lives of everyone in our society. And that really is what lead to the putting together of the book. And it’s also what led me to select a certain kind of essay for the book, ones that would make people think. Not that would just simply echo the, the thunderous feelings at that time that there was “America, right or wrong”.

HEFFNER: Joel, the “America, right or wrong”, that notion … what’s happened to it in the years since 9/11?

WESTHEIMER: Yeah, I mean recently we’re seeing sort of a lot more open critique about the directions that we’ve taken in Iraq and, and other …

HEFFNER: Your book, too.

WESTHEIMER: … foreign policy issues … and, and this book, too. Exactly. At the time, though, there was much less of that. But let me say something about “America, right or wrong” because you know, you and I can think of that phrase, “American, right or wrong” and the fact is … I agree with “America, right or wrong” and in some ways you might say … you know, “my mother, drunk or sober” … sure … whether she’s drunk or sober, she’s still my mother. Right?

Or, people love their families, they love their … and they stand by them … but, of course, with your mother, if she were drunk, you would try and get her into rehab …you would try and improve the situation. You would try and make sure that things were going to get better. And with America … it’s the same thing.
We can say, “America, right or wrong”, it’s my country and I love it, at the same time that we say, “It’s important to think about what are the ideals that made America what it is today.”

And unfortunately in the intervening years … now it’s starting to get better … just starting, but there is a lot of legislation passed and a lot of experiences that students and teachers have gone through that we would expect to find more in some kind of totalitarian regime than in America.

HEFFNER: Well, the question … the reason I ask the question … because I wondered, whether in the years since 2001, whether there had been a slackening off of those ideas, or whether, indeed, we were continuing to go down that road.

If you say there has been some improvement it makes me feel one hell of a lot better. But also surprised, because I had the feeling that the continuing drum beat that has gone on since 9/11 was going to lead to State legislation, local legislation that wouldn’t ease off.

WESTHEIMER: Yeah. Absolutely. And I wish I could be more optimistic and disabuse you of what you’re saying, but, but unfortunately, I agree in a lot of way.

I mean what has changed is, look, a majority of the country right now is against the military intervention in Iraq. There are, there are huge fractures in the population of the United States and, of course, globally, in, in Americans military action abroad as a result of 9/11 and whether it’s been beneficial or hurtful to the causes that made America strong.

So that’s what I mean by “some loosening up.” On the other hand, from the policy perspective, you’re exactly right. And from schools, it’s even worse than in the nation in general.

HEFFNER: What is happening in the schools?

WESTHEIMER: Yeah. I’ll tell you. Here’s just a couple of anecdotal stories … and then I’ll also talk about a few policies.

First of all there were many, many cases …dozens, if not hundreds of cases, where students and teachers were penalized for expressing the wrong opinions about current events. So, for example … Timothy Geese was a student in Detroit, Michigan who came to school wearing a sweatshirt that had a quote by the well-known American radical, Albert Einstein, and it was an anti-war quote. And his principal came up to Timothy and said, “Timothy, you have to take that sweatshirt off, it’s, you know, going to disrupt school activities.”

Now this is a school were students were coming to school, wearing American flags, and support our troops messages and all kinds of other political messages, supporting the current President, for example, etc., etc. But Timothy had to take that sweatshirt off and he refused. And when he refused the principal suspended him. The ACLU … for three days. The ACLU eventually took up Timothy’s case and won, but you can image the “chill factor” that spreads across the student body when things like that happen.

Another example is Katie Sierra in West Virginia, who came to school, again, wearing a tee-shirt that said, her own re-written version of the pledge on it. It said, “I pledge the grievance to the flag” … and it ended with something like … “and liberty and justice for some, not all.”

Now many teachers and educators of all kind, including the media, would see this as a perfect teachable moment … right … let’s talk about the different aspects of the war and what you think about it, and what you think about government, etc., etc.

But Forrest Mann, the principal at Katie’s school in West Virginia, told Katie that she needed to take this, this tee-shirt off, and she also said that it was her right to wear that tee-shirt. And there were three of Katie’s classmates who told a reporter … a newspaper reporter that they were going to give Katie a taste of West Virginia justice because she was wearing this shirt.

The principal knew this. Didn’t suspend those students, but suspended Katie and she was forbidden to go to her … attend her prom or go through graduation.

HEFFNER: What happened?


HEFFNER: Did the ACLU get into that?

WESTHEIMER: Yes, they took her case up as well …

HEFFNER: With what result?

WESTHEIMER: … and again, eventually won. So I mean … because all of these cases are blatantly unconstitutional, but the damage is already done by the time they win.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but … let, let me just stop you and ask … has the ACLU and its principles been able to prevail?

WESTHEIMER: Not always. So … let’s move to the policy arena? Okay? And I … I should say that teachers also have been suspended and even fired … some of them not successfully defended by the ACLU for things like this. Okay?

But, let’s go very recent because you were talking about, “have things gotten better?” And, you know, I said, in some ways at least there’s a more … a diversity of opinion out there. In other ways they, they continue to get worse.

Just this past June in Florida, part of the Florida Omnibus Education Act was passed and it, it mandates the teaching of what they call “traditional American history”. Now if it just said, “traditional American history”, we could all say, “Well, I don’t know … what, what does that mean?”

But it goes on to explain. It says that history (and this is more or less a paraphrase, but as direct a quote as I can remember) … “History shall not be taught as interpretation. History must be taught as factual, knowable and testable”. And that, that history shall include, and then it lists what the history should be.

Now, I’m sure you’ve had many historians on this show who would, who would laugh at that kind of version of history because we all know history IS interpretation. I mean we can say that the war in 1812 was in 1812. We can agree on that fact. But how you tell it, which facts you choose is all about interpretation, it’s how you put the story of the country … the history of the country together.

Those kind of laws have huge impact into what happens in classrooms. Teachers that beforehand would have talked about different perspectives, would have brought in materials showing different opinions and different versions of events and different ways of looking at things … now have to teach this one, mandated, “true” story.

It’s the kind of thing, you, you know, we, we sort of remember from the old Soviet Union and that we might expect in Iran or Syria today. But to see it happening in the United States, in classroom in our country is very scary. The idea that there is one knowable truth and that all school children will be taught that one knowable truth.

HEFFNER: Now let me ask whether you mean to say that given the division in this country about the war … we talking together on May 1st, 2007 … I don’t know and you don’t know when the program will be seen … presuming that that division continues and perhaps the anti-war sentiment grows … do you think that will be reflected in turn in an about-face of the deeds that you are describing?

WESTHEIMER: The problem is that schools are slow to catch up to those kinds of things …


WESTHEIMER: … right? It’s only recently that schools caught up with the way historians teach history. I mean that it IS a series of interpretations. So, for example, it’s not that long ago that Allen Cooper, a teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, did a fantastic curriculum on all different perspectives about the War in Iraq. He had students cut out newspaper clippings from all around the country and the world; he taught different perspectives; he showed them how different textbooks in the future might cover this war, you know, he did a lot of work for it; fantastic, creative curriculum. The culmination of it: he had students design posters with some of their thoughts about the war and what they think should be done.

Allen’s principal came in and said, “Alan, this poster, this poster and this poster, you have to take down.” Right. The others were fine, but those three posters … and Allen said, “Why those posters?” And the principal … Ken Tabish, is his name … said, “They’re not sufficiently pro-war”. That was his words, okay?

Allen, like the other stories I told you … also had, you know, some, some guts around these things, many other teachers would have taken them down, he didn’t. And, and he was suspended without pay for several weeks, actually, around this incident.

HEFFNER: Then what happened?

WESTHEIMER: Again … you know the ACLU is becoming one of my favorite organizations. They took up his case … but, but this time … where now a lot of these cases had happened, the school district backed down immediately.

But, of course, I’m telling you the publicly knowable cases. There are also hundreds of cases that, that never see the light of day. Why? Because the teachers say “Okay, I’ll take them down.” And the students say, “I won’t, I won’t say that.”

HEFFNER: I’m not attempting to diminish by one whit the importance, or the terror of the stories that you’re telling by getting you ultimately to say “The ACLU …


HEFFNER: … prevailed and good sense prevailed.” But I wonder historically, if we take … oh we take other crises periods, whether it’s the Civil War or let’s say the, the 20th century wars … were, could you find the same kinds of school related, presumed patriotism related movements? And how long did they last and what was the result?

WESTHEIMER: Yeah. It’s a great question. And, and the short answer is “Yes”. I mean during times of war, especially, schools are very often sort of dragged in to the inculcation of a, of a so-called patriotic ideal. But there are a couple of … and that happened in World War I, it happened in World War II, it happened for some period of time during the Vietnam War before it kind of


WESTHEIMER: … flipped. But there are a couple of differences and I want to point, point that out. One is that the link between the military legislation and machinery that goes on, and the education legislation … there was a social connection. In other words school responded to the feelings in the country.

HEFFNER: And not now.

WESTHEIMER: Exactly. What we’re experiencing now is something different. And, and I’ll just give one example. We know some … certain things are not getting better … the Patriot Act was reenacted, you know, and there are still very few Congress people who are, who are strong enough to stand up to this kind of legislation being crammed down the nation’s throat.

What’s scary about what’s happening now is that the … in, in “No Child Left Behind” which is the National Education Act pushed through by the Bush Administration … there are parts of “No Child Left Behind” that really are less about education and more about this kind of one idea military mindset.

And when those two lines get crossed, it’s a little scary. And so one example is that there is a paragraph in the “No Child Left Behind” Act that requires schools to turn over all contact information they have for students to military recruiters. Your … the viewers of this program have probably heard a lot about the military presence in schools and which schools get targeted, of course … poor minority children get targeted. But never before has there been legislation that’s part of the Education Act to directly target young people, vulnerable young people, for military service.

And the fact that this is part of the Education Act and not some other initiative coming out of the Pentagon is really different then, then what it has been before. And in some ways really … some people see the “No Child Left Behind” Act as, as the spiritual sister of the Patriot Act.

You know, if you stood back and said, “What do we … what kind of curriculum would we want in a country where we don’t want citizens to ask too many questions? We want them to sort of follow whatever the leaders say and not talk back too much.”

You’d come up with something frighteningly similar … and I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but you’d come up with something frighteningly similar to some of the legislation in the “No Child Left Behind” Act.

HEFFNER: Why do you say you’re not a conspiracy theorist?

WESTHEIMER: Well I don’t think that there’s a … a, a …

HEFFNER: Why not?

WESTHEIMER: … a … (laughter) … the … certainly these times would let … anyone who’s a borderline conspiracy theorist might switch over in these times.

What I mean by that is that I don’t think there’s a small cabal of four people in a room who are designing policy at every level including schools and, and putting it forward through, through secretive and hidden ways.

HEFFNER: You think that was happenstance?

WESTHEIMER: Do you mean the “No Child Left Behind” Act?


WESTHEIMER: I think that it was a confluence of many of these trends that we’re seeing going on in the country, happening at the same time. But educators are complicit in it. That’s what I mean. I don’t think that the “No Child Left Behind” Act could have passed properly if there weren’t a large number of educators who stood behind it and bought right into the vocabulary … oh sure, accountability, standards, you know … there are no teachers who are against standards. Find me a teacher who doesn’t have any standards.

HEFFNER: No, no, no. I don’t mean standards. I mean the business of …

WESTHEIMER: … the military recruitment.

HEFFNER: … the military recruitment aspect of this.

WESTHEIMER: Yeah. Yeah, well I think you’ve caught me there, Dick. I think that the military recruitment aspect is … does lend itself to a conspiracy theory kind of thing. I think that it was high level officials who knew that military recruiters needed access to that information. And put it in the Education Act knowing that politically it would be difficult to take out.

HEFFNER: Has it been challenged … in the courts … not by you and me.

WESTHEIMER: It’s beginning to be, but nothing successfully. It has been challenged far more effectively by, by various citizens groups. So, for example, Cindy Sheehan is one of the contributors in this book. And she has a website called “,” and if you go to that website, very few parents know or are told that they can opt out, their children can opt out of this information being turned over. But they have to do something proactive to, to have their information not turned over. And if people go to “” they can find out how to get their kids off these recruiters lists.

HEFFNER: If you were devising school curricula, what role would … not patriotism … I don’t know that patriotism has a role in it …but what would role would knowledge of our history, more importantly knowledge of our heritage play, as far as you’re concerned? Because you’re a teacher.

WESTHEIMER: Yeah. I think that it’s very important for schools and especially in history and social studies, but really across the curriculum to teach students that they have an obligation and a responsibility to understand all the different perspectives around these issues. Right? That’s what’s required of democratic citizens and the whole idea of politics … I think a lot of this plays off of, you know … politics has become a bad word in our culture. Right?

If I say, “Dick, you’re being political”, it’s like an insult. You know you’re a mudslinging candidate running for office. But politics … there’s a great classic book Bernard Crick, called In Defense of Politics … and in it he argues that politics is the way that people in a democratic society come together to work out their differences and figure out where to go, what to do. It’s that kind of politics that I think need to be in the curriculum.

In other words, people always say, “Well, we have to keep politics out of the school.” I would say the other thing … we have to bring politics into the school. Right?

Schools and students need to understand that there are a lot of competing ideas out there and they need to be educated in them, they need to reach voraciously about them, they need to listen to shows like this. They need to know that there are many different opinions around many issues and that it’s their responsibility to learn about those issues and decide where they stand on it and what they want to do about it. Not to follow one specific, you know, truth … so-called truth.

HEFFNER: And what we called a century ago, in my day … civics?

WESTHEIMER: I think that it is a form of civics. Not that a century ago was all golden years. I mean there, there were some of these same issues, but not as bad as it, as it is right now.

But civics in the sense that students need to learn that they are a part of making history, that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. That’s the kinds of lessons that need to be taught. And let’s talk about patriotism for one second. Let’s say kids are reciting the Pledge. Virginia just … the House passed a law, 94-3 … vote 94-3 … that any student not … who declines to stand up or recite the Pledge … teachers and administrators are required to inform the parent … it’s like a little tattle-tale law. Okay?

Now … so are … what do students learn about the Pledge? For example, a lot of your viewers probably know that Francis Bellamy in, in 1892. It didn’t have the world “God” in it back then … that came much latter.

But what people probably don’t know and students don’t learn is that Bellamy, first of all was a Christian Socialist. He was very patriotic, but he was highly critical of certain aspects of American life. For example, what he called “unrestrained capitalism and growing individualism.” He had many of the same concerns we had … that students aren’t thinking of anything beyond their blue jeans … or if … you know … if he had them then, their iPods, or their Nike sneakers.

And his response to that was “let’s create a pledge of Allegiance that would let students think about these issues.
And it’s that … that’s how the Pledge developed. Now was Bellamy, you know, patriotic? Of course. But not the kind of patriot that John Ashcroft or Ari Fleisher or Dick Cheney wants, a very different kind of patriot … one that’s deeply engaged with making our society better and thinking trough questions about where we’re going.

HEFFNER: A subject to be continued. Thanks so much for joining me today, Joel Westheimer … talking about it today.

WESTHEIMER: Thank you very much, Dick

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again here next time. For transcripts, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.