Should I Teach About Nationalism the Way I Teach About Racism?

A few years ago, I decided I would strive to be a solutions-based educator when working with my students on vexing issues such as climate change and global migration. I had come to realize that it did little good to educate students about, say, dwindling fish stocks in the world’s oceans if the lesson stopped there. Now I always try to spend significant time looking at what people are doing to counteract the challenges of our current era.

I have taught a course called Globalization: Debates and Controversies since 2005. When I initiated the course, the field felt new, so new that the first unit spent a few weeks examining definitions of globalization itself. Times have changed.

Something else that has changed is the way I think about globality’s main competitor, nationalism. Ten years ago, it seemed to be on the run. The EU was expanding and the assumption (at least my assumption) was that nationalism was on the wane, the lessons of World War II long-ago learned. With Liras, Francs, and Marks exchanged for a shared future, the Euro just made sense and I felt confident that internationalism had won the day. Like them or not, free-trade agreements were sprouting up all over. If there was an opponent left on the field it was a kind of anti-modern tribalism. Groups like al Qaeda were dangerous, but there wasn’t a sense they might win.

So they are all, all honorable men–

But all that has changed with the emergence of leaders like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, with the Russian incursion into Ukraine, with the Brexit, and, now the advent of Trump and Trumpism. The narrative arc of globalization has been deflected and I feel compelled to reexamine and once again explain the logic of political integration.

This also changes the way I teach the French Revolution, which begins for my second-year students next week. Once upon a time, I unfolded the creation of modern nationalism as something of a post mortem. The wave of nationalist ugliness had crested and we watched it recede, especially in Europe. Not any more.

As I prepare for the “Nationalism Unit,” I wonder: how should the concept of nationalism be taught at this historical moment? It matters and it weighs heavily upon me.

I think about my colleagues elsewhere. How can Hungarians teach history in the age of Orbán? How can Russian teachers offer students a healthy understanding of the Russian past–it’s complex enough, I imagine, without an overlay of propaganda or fear of saying “the wrong thing.” I am thankful that my challenge extends merely to interpretation. Here in the US, there are two easy routes to teaching nationalism: American exceptionalism and cynicism.

Exceptionalism is bipartisan and little-questioned. President Obama has declared: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” He somehow squares this statement with a pledged commitment to international agreements and law. He claims the US can lead by example. But in that case, I see little use for the dangerous rhetoric of claiming once again to be the “greatest country on earth,” as Michelle Obama did recently at the Democratic National Convention. Why she offers the fact that the US will likely elect a woman president this year as evidence of America’s greatness seems odd to me and obstinately myopic in a distinctly American way. As of summer 2015, Bangladesh, Chile, Croatia, and some 15 other nations had female heads of state. Angela Merkel has been in office since 2005. Yes, the US has a huge economy and a powerful military, but its magic comes from the creativity and energy of its people. Many of those people come from elsewhere. This can be said of the UK and Australia as well–both of which have had female prime ministers.

Also available when introducing nationalism to my students is cynicism: it is perhaps the first refuge of the scoundrel. It’s the easy way out. All I have to do is hold up certain events in US history, policies and actions that long ignored the rights of peoples throughout the world, from Haiti to Iran. Proclaiming the US an empire which lectures the world on its own sins appeals to many of my young students (they turn 16 this year), but the pedagogy of easy cynicism leads to inaction and lack of curiosity. Gesturing in the direction of a smug anti-American (or at least anti-American government) pose doesn’t teach the critical skills I want them to have. Still, there is temptation in the solidarity shared feelings of superiority can bring.

And what of patriotism? Years ago I used a short reading to good effect, comparing an inclusive love of country (patriotism) with expansionist, nativist chauvinism (nationalism). But even this is a slippery slope. These terms are so easily combined. Educator Ben Johnson, writing at Edutopia, argues that “It is Each Teacher’s Duty to Teach Patriotism.” Love of country sounds nice enough, but Johnson loses me when he calls for real emotion from students when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance and declares the United States is the “greatest country … because of its freedom.” This kind of jingoism is exactly the problem, especially when it parades as patriotism. Students need knowledge about their government and society so they can become active, informed citizens. I want them to learn about heroic people who made sacrifices for the common good. Martial music, on the other hand, makes a poor soundtrack for critical thinking and engagement.

Here, after much futzing around, is my main question: should “nationalism” be put on the list with terms such as racism, sexism, anti-semitism, and homophobia, as a force taught about with care as something to resist? When I think of the ugliness that nationalism breeds, the intolerance masked as pride, I cannot imagine what other use the term has to offer. I think of a zinger by the often-offensive libertarian comedian Doug Stanhope: “Nationalism does nothing but teach you to hate people you never met, and to take pride in accomplishments you had no part in.”

Finnish TransversalIn this context, the  Finnish emphasis on “human rights, equality, democracy, natural diversity, preservation of environmental viability, and the endorsement of multiculturalism,” presented in this illustration of the national curriculum, is all the more striking.  When I see this, I reflect on the fact that love of country is earned not demanded. But also, I think that “love of country” really–or at least ideally–comes from and consists of participation in civil society. Not flag waving and hagiography.

Is this mere party politics on my part? I hope not. My mind returns to Walt Whitman’s love of the land and of the energy and power of its democratic people. His imagery is not partisan and his definition of “American” is wide-open. Here, in “Song of the Broad Axe,” is a love of country worthy of contemplation:

What do you think endures? Do you think a great city endures? Or a teeming manufacturing state? or a prepared constitution? or the best built steamships? Or hotels of granite and iron? or any chef-d’oeuvres of engineering, forts, armaments? Away! these are not to be cherish’d for themselves ….

Where no monuments exist to heroes but in the common words and deeds,
Where thrift is in its place, and prudence is in its place,
Where the men and women think lightly of the laws,
Where the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases,
Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons,
Where fierce men and women pour forth as the sea to the whistle of death pours its sweeping and unript waves,
Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority,
Where the citizen is always the head and ideal, and President, Mayor, Governor and what not, are agents for pay,
Where children are taught to be laws to themselves, and to depend on themselves,
Where equanimity is illustrated in affairs,
Where speculations on the soul are encouraged,
Where women walk in public processions in the streets the same as the men,
Where they enter the public assembly and take places the same as the men; …
There the great city stands.

I have to hold nationalism up so my students can distinguish it from “patriotism” and also “unity” and “community.” It is essentially a term of exclusion, a set of codes by which citizens must abide. Who is “truly” French? Or British? Is the English-speaking child of a Polish plumber, born in London, a member of the nation? Can the German “nation” hold close its refugees and accept them as Germans? What does “German nationalism” promise for those who need shelter from war?

Better to challenge ourselves to greater heights than to call for unquestioned love of the state. As Langston Hughes showed, we can simultaneously love the freedom owed to all, celebrate the achievements of all, even while we point out shortcomings:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Will I group nationalism with racism or sexism when our next unit begins? I think so. I think I will argue that French elites used nationalism to define “French” in a way not unlike elites in the British North American colonies who employed racism to help define the term “American.”

Does this mean that I am “against Trump” and his stated desire to “make America great again”? If asked, I will answer that I am for democracy and for peace, for universal human rights, for the free movement of ideas and of people. Like Whitman, I believe that, in a great country, “the citizen is always the head and ideal.”

Perhaps, I will suggest, we should think about nations with the same cold, bureaucratic blood as when we think about counties. As far as I can see, nationalism is about building walls to separate “us” from “them.” At this point in history we can no longer afford such chauvinism. I like Multnomah County, it’s beautiful. But who among us would put our hand on our heart and pledge allegiance to it, to sing to it?

The pointlessness of nationalism came to mind yesterday, when a British scientist working at Northwestern University in Illinois, Fraser Stoddart, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It struck me how silly it is that although he lives and works in the US, he has been given a knighthood by the British government: he is Sir Fraser Stoddart. This was doubled when he continued, in the words of the university’s website, to “underscore a key point about the importance of a global population of scientists solving research problems together in labs around the planet and publishing worldwide. He scolded those who advocate more borders between scientists and their work.”

“’Science is global,’” he emphasized.’ A lot of my colleagues are from other parts of the world, as I am, and have been welcomed to America. My research group has Koreans; it has Australians; it has Chinese; it has people from Saudi Arabia; it has people from India, and from Poland and Turkey, and we could go on and on. This is what makes it hugely rich, to have these people working beside their American counterparts.’”

Agreed. The cheap pleasures of nationalism will never match the size of our challenges as a global people whose fates are intertwined as never before. For the sake of offering solutions to my students’ shared worries and their very real problems, nationalism is a stance I can’t afford to take.


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