Civic Liberalism’s Conception of Patriotism includes Critical Thinking: Response to Maxine Eichner

James E. Fleming & Linda C. McClain

We thank Maxine Eichner for her thoughtful posts concerning Constitution Day, the Pledge of Allegiance, and our book, Ordered Liberty. Before offering some concluding thoughts about our disagreement with her about the Pledge, we want to bring out how close her conception of civic education and of civic virtues in her book, The Supportive State, is to ours. We agree entirely with the content of the “program” she sketches in her post of “what commitments” an “adequate but not excessive civic education” would “seek to foster.” We believe that this type of civic education is consistent with the best contemporary literature on civic education (which we draw upon in Chapter 5 of Ordered Liberty, “Government’s Role in Promoting Civic Virtues”).

Now for the Pledge: Eichner agrees with us in recognizing that observing Constitution Day does not coerce what Kent Greenfield called “mandatory patriotism,” but is fully compatible with encouraging what we called “critical thinking” about the Constitution. But she worries that recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance encourages “uncritical allegiance.” She then gives examples, including support for George W. Bush’s Iraq War and support for laws that “will disenfranchise massive numbers of citizens in the guise of protecting the state from voter fraud.” But the problem in these cases is not uncritical allegiance to our republic but the substance of the views that support these measures. For example, citizens who support “voter fraud” regulations are not saying, we support these laws because we uncritically accept what our leaders tell us; instead, they are saying (wrongly) that there is rampant voter fraud in this country enabling Democrats to steal elections and we have got to put a stop to it! We need to build critical thinking into our conceptions of patriotism and allegiance just as we need to do so into our observance of Constitution Day.

On September 11, 2001 and in the years following, we lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a bastion of liberalism. Our then young daughters attended a public school that began every day with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. That same school also had a curriculum that cultivated critical thinking and aimed at teaching tolerance and respect for difference. Further, one of us (McClain) was on the school’s Diversity Committee and recalls that the Committee’s film series for parents and children selected and showed films about prejudice toward and distrust and vilification of Muslim Americans in the United States in the wake of 9/11 and President George Bush’s “war on terror.” We recall that some Upper West Side liberals criticized the recitation of the Pledge precisely on the ground that Eichner does in her post. One of us (Fleming) vividly recalls having a “Michael Sandel” moment concerning liberals and patriotism: thinking, there they go again, playing right into the conservative arguments that liberals are unpatriotic, that they hate America, that they “blame America first,” and all the rest of it. Like Sandel, Fleming believes that civic liberals need to reclaim patriotism (with critical thinking and critical allegiance) from the conservatives along with civic education and the inculcation of civic virtue. The other of us (McClain) shares this belief, but also believes, in light of the concerns Eichner raises, that it would inform the debate over the Pledge to learn more about the actual impact – if any – it has on school children and on their understanding of patriotism.

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