Patriotism is as blind as any other love

3rd February 2012 at 00:00
Devotion to your country is a controversial subject and should be taught as such, a report argues

Patriotism is not necessarily a good thing and promoting it in schools is therefore unjustifiable, according to a new report.

Dr Michael Hand, reader of philosophy of education at the Institute of Education, University of London, argues that patriotism should instead be presented to pupils as something that is neither inherently desirable nor objectionable.

Teaching patriotism in schools has been a government priority since the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005. In 2006, Gordon Brown called for a history curriculum that focused on the British national story. A year later, a curriculum review by the former headteacher Sir Keith Ajegbo recommended that schools should address "identity and diversity" among pupils.

More recently, education secretary Michael Gove has appointed historian Simon Schama to advise the government on how to put British history at the heart of a revised national curriculum.

Patriotism is defined as a love of one's country. "It is a certain kind of emotional attachment to a certain kind of object," Dr Hand says. "To ask about the desirability of patriotism is to ask whether ... it is good or bad for people to have this feeling about this object."

He therefore examines the rationality of love. Most emotions are motivated by thoughts about their objects. For example, thinking that something is dangerous or unfair is a necessary condition for the emotions of fear or indignation.

Love, however, does not require such motivating thoughts. "The love of parents for their children, a form of interpersonal love as deep and steadfast as any, does not depend on any thought of the children's merits," Dr Hand says.

Because of this, patriotism cannot be defended by simply pointing to a country's merits and achievements, which Dr Hand claims "is analogous to defending one's love for one's children by pointing to their school reports".

To determine whether or not children should be patriots, therefore, any examination of the nature of the country in question becomes irrelevant. Instead, teachers and politicians should look at the potential gains and losses of loving one's country.

Patriotism, Dr Hand argues, could spur a country's citizens on to civic duty. For example, if members of a community are impoverished, it is distressing to those who love the community. By acting to reduce their poverty, they also relieve their own distress.

But cause and effect are not irrevocably linked. "Some will make the sacrifices justice requires, just because justice requires them," Dr Hand says.

And there are different types of motivation for civic duty. "Many of us, for example, are prompted to play our part in the redistribution of wealth less by patriotic sentiment than by fear of the penal consequences of tax evasion," he explains.

Patriotism also has intrinsic value: it can be inherently pleasurable. But, Dr Hand insists, happiness does not depend on patriotism. Many other things - individuals, ideals, sports, books - are similar sources of pleasure.

And patriotic attachment can have drawbacks. In their eagerness to celebrate their country's achievements, patriots tend to lose sight of its flaws. "The claim here is not that love of country is more prejudicial than love of other things," Dr Hand says, "but rather that the consequences of the prejudice are more serious in this case." For example, being blind to the faults of a favourite novel is unlikely to have political consequences; being blind to the faults of one's country may.

There is, Dr Hand states, no unit of measurement by which such impediments to judgement can be weighed against spurs to duty or sources of pleasure. And in this case, neither argument is overwhelming. (Compare this to other forms of loving attachment, which carry much greater benefit: the centrality of family relationships provides a compelling reason to love parents, partners or children.)

Therefore, Dr Hand concludes, patriotism cannot rationally be promoted - or discouraged - in schools. "We are no more entitled to warn pupils off patriotism than to press it upon them," he says.


Dr Michael Hand, Institute of Education, University of London


Hand, M. "Impact No 19. Patriotism In Schools"

(2011). Journal of Philosophy of Education, Society of Great Britain. http:bit.lywt9VbV


Dr Michael Hand points out that it is impossible and impractical for teachers to avoid any discussion of patriotism. "Vast swathes of history and substantial areas of contemporary political discourse would be incomprehensible in the absence of some understanding of patriotic feeling and nationalist conviction," he says.

Teachers must therefore equip pupils with an understanding of patriotism and the ability to make judgements about its value.

The way to do this, Dr Hand believes, is to teach patriotism as a controversial subject. This involves exploring the advantages and disadvantages of patriotism, without endorsing any particular point of view.

"Our responsibility as educators ... is to acquaint pupils as even- handedly as possible with the benefits and the drawback of loving one's country, and encourage them to decide for themselves how to handle this aspect of their emotional lives," he says.

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