It is telling that those who speak loudest about Making America Great Again tend to refer to themselves as nationalists rather than patriots. George Orwell took the measure of contemporary nationalism in a 1945 essay on the subject. Nationalism, he noted, is “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects.” Patriotism, on the other hand, is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world.” The United States could do with more patriots and fewer nationalists.
One of the ways to grow patriots is through engagement with the past. Self-described white nationalists do not need to know anything—in fact, it is easier if they do not. It is not surprising that the chief American nationalist these days has proudly noted that he has not read a book for half a century. To understand and truly appreciate one’s own requires knowledge; to cruise the world inflaming your supporters, looking for trade fights with allies and murmuring soft words for dictators, on the other hand, ignorance does the job quite nicely.
Unsurprisingly, the events of the last two years have evoked a resurgence of interest in civic education, and particularly historical education. This is a good thing. Amid all the dismal statistics about American kids being unable to describe what is in the Bill of Rights, from which country the US won its independence, and whether Benjamin Franklin was president, there is good news. Even the usually wary Thomas B. Fordham Institute cheered the revamping of the Advanced Placement US History program by the College Board in 2014. At a grass-roots level there are a lot of teachers, school boards, and anxious parents who realize that the kids need to learn about who Americans are, how to think critically, and how democracy works.