There’s a reason they call such things as saluting the flag or standing for the Pledge of Allegiance “showing your patriotism.”
Such acts are not the patriotism itself. They are symbols of it.
Likewise, there’s a difference between showing pride in America and actually showing an interest in it.
How are we doing on both counts?
Well, we obviously saw a spike in shows of patriotism after the 9-11 attacks, a dozen years ago this week. But shows of patriotism ebb and flow over the years. They are based on emotions, and emotions are difficult to maintain over long periods of time.
Feelings of patriotism also vary among generations. A 2011 Pew Research report reveals that 48 percent of Americans say this is the greatest country in the world, but only 32 percent of young adults – so-called “millennials” – can say the same.
Some of that disparity is just natural; older Americans are more sentimental and simply know better because they’ve been around the block a few times. But it’s also likely that younger Americans today feel less patriotic for several reasons:
• they came of age after the fall of the Soviet Union, and therefore never knew the chilling shadow of the Cold War
• the American education system in recent decades has appeared intent on correcting what some feel were overly flattering depictions of American history – but academia may have over-corrected to now accentuate our faults to the detriment of our virtues
• the media appear to have done the same, and now often find expressions of patriotism garish and even offensive
• the legal system is often used to suppress patriotism in schools on behalf of a very few who find it distasteful
• rampant political correctness, which seems to be behind the media’s latent desire for us to forget or at least downplay 9-11, lest it offend Muslims
Have you noticed, for instance, how infrequently video from the 9-11 attacks has been shown on television in these intervening years? Imagine if we’d similarly downplayed the images and memories of World War II so as not to offend the Japanese and Germans.
Our schools were once the bastion of patriotic instruction. But as syndicated columnist Esther Cepeda, the daughter of immigrants, wrote last February:
“My peers and I didn’t get (patriotic) just based on our parents’ sunny dispositions. It was drilled into us by that great assimilation machine called public school. It’s an education system that, as I learned while earning a graduate degree in education, has its roots in the mission to teach students patriotism and moral values.
“We want to teach our students to think critically about their history, to be outraged at past wrongs. But too often, criticism is delivered to impressionable young minds with no real sense of historical context. The result is a constant drumbeat about how terrible America is. ...
“In a nation where lawsuits are filed in order to avoid the supposed tyranny of having to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, the prospects for inspiring patriotism in our children are bleak. Prepare for the next wave of second-generation Americans to be far less admiring of their country than their predecessors were.”
As for active patriotism – showing interest in and taking part in our system of self-governance – the news is actually worse.
On the National Assessment of Educational Progress:
• just 22 percent of American students test proficient in civics
• only 18 percent are proficient in U.S. history
And on a civics test offered to the general public by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute:
• 71 percent got an F; the average score was 49 percent
• just 3.4 percent received an “A” or “B” grade
• among those who have held elected office, the average score was 44 percent
Read over those statistics again. Go ahead. We’ll wait. In the meantime, consider the last one – that our elected leaders’ average score on a civics exam is 44 percent. Even elected officials don’t know what makes this country tick!
Showing our patriotism is a great thing.
But doing the grunt work of patriotism – keeping up on current events, knowing your history, voting, holding the government accountable, and otherwise tending to the community’s and country’s needs – that’s where the rubber meets the road.
Over the next year, this newspaper will embark on a campaign to rebuild America’s civic infrastructure, to inspire a renaissance of substantive patriotism through action. We’ll need your ideas and input, and we’ll ask for help along the way.
Let’s do more than show pride in America.
Let’s show some actual interest in it.