Wednesday, January 24, 2018

What Is 'Americanism' Anyway?

January means that the State Legislature is back in session down in Des Moines and now that they are, the usual mix of "ugh, really?" to "what the hell are they thinking?" legislative proposals are starting to leak out. One early example of the latter category has been the bill floating around to create 'Bible Literacy' classes in Iowa's public schools. (There are already 'Bible As Literature' courses out there as well as other courses on the religions of the world, which makes this proposal something of a head scratcher.) Plenty of people have weighed in on that proposal already, but the other example that made me scratch my head a bit was a proposal to require more emphasis on 'Americanism and patriotism' in Iowa's schools.

I know this proposal is coming from a good place and perhaps even a valuable place. The sacrifices of our veterans should not be forgotten and yes, our children should be graduating from high school with a solid understanding of civics and citizenship and what it means to be an American. That said, the 'concerns' referenced in the article are awfully vague. What do they mean by 'not enough time teaching pupils about the sacrifices of veterans and the freedoms held by American citizens?' Give me examples. Are school districts cutting corners? Distorting curriculum? Which school districts? If civics and history education is being short changed, it'd be awfully nice to get some concrete examples of it.

Our flag still flies outside of every school I've ever driven past in this state. I don't know about today, but certainly when I was kid in elementary school our days started with the Pledge of Allegiance. We had government courses, history courses- in 4th grade, most of our social studies class was devoted to studying the history of Iowa itself, which was kind of cool. (Not to mention the article cites the Des Moines School District having ROTC units at a couple of their high schools, something that I'm sure would make heads implode in Iowa City- for all the wrong reasons.)

I don't think patriotism is something that can be taught. You either have it or you don't. And what is 'Americanism' anyway? How is that even a thing? The problem I have with this being a legislative proposal is that too much of concepts like 'patriotism' have been hijacked into our contemporary political discourse without anyone stepping back to consider how subjective the term is and how it means different things to different people.But I think we can always find ways to do better and in the spirit of that, I have a couple of suggestions.

First of all: let's make sure every high school graduate in Iowa can pass the US Citizenship test. (I helped my parents study for it. Its not the highest bar to clear.) If there's a basic barometer when it comes to civics education, this seems like the obvious choice- at the very least, let's administer it and see where Iowa's students land- because this article from AEI is a few years old, but it paints a pretty dismal picture of the state of civics education in America.

Second of all: let's make sure every student in Iowa knows about Iowa's history- especially in the Civil War. The issue of Confederate monuments has been a hot-button one these past couple of years. Iowa has a Congressman who keeps a Confederate flag on his desk, which only underlines the importance of our students understanding the sacrifice that 76,242 Iowans made to defend the Union. One of the coolest experiences I've had was going down to Shiloh for the 150th Anniversary celebrations. The Iowa Memorial down there is one of the largest in the park. If money grew on trees, someone should make sure every student in Iowa has the opportunity to go down there and see it.

Civics education, to me, should be as clear eyed as possible. The more people know about the history and foundations of their country, the more they'll understand their country and their place in it. All you can do is give people the knowledge. What they build from that knowledge is entirely up to them.

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