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Not a National Family: Critical Race Theory, Civic Education, and the Ties That Bind

If a shared identity is to emerge and persist, if citizen strangers are to have a shot at becoming civic friends who recognize a mutual obligation to create a just land, the foundational principles of our constitutional order must be consciously taught and reaffirmed. And, of course, teaching and affirming these principles does not itself entail a claim that America has historically lived up to them.

Despite many Americans’ tepid response to the Tokyo Olympics, summer 2021 far surpasses its predecessor in one vital respect: the urban infernos that engulfed the country in 2020 have been replaced by hot debate in local school board meetings and state legislatures. Race is still the issue, but this time, the controversy centers on how the American experience of slavery and racism should be taught in K–12 public education. Many parents—even Biden voters—are greeting the New York Times’ 1619 Project with far less fanfare than it enjoyed on the east coast soirée circuit.

Undeterred by objections that only a coterie of elite academics really knows what “critical race theory” (“CRT”) is—and that it’s not being taught in schools anyway!—state legislators have entered the fray in an effort to ensure that the latter claim is true. By one account, at mid-summer over half the states had taken some measure to regulate teaching about race in public schools, most of it “anti-CRT” legislation. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) recently weighed in with his “Love America Act,” which would deny federal funds to any school that teaches America’s founding documents were the product of white supremacy or racism.

As is his wont, political pundit David French is standing by to psychoanalyze Middle America with what has become an invariable diagnosis: fear. “Where I live, in a deep red part of the country,” he opines in a recent Time column, “the fight over history . . . is often rooted in fear. Parents are afraid children will not love their country unless they are taught that their country is good.” French adduces a provision of Texas’s HB 3979, which forbids teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.” This is dangerous protectionism, he argues, that whitewashes history and depends on a narrative of national greatness—even supremacy. By contrast, true patriotism is rooted in a personal, everyday love of home.

If we put his facile psychoanalysis aside, French makes an important argument here about love of country, drawn from C.S. Lewis’s classic The Four Loves. It’s worth considering in greater detail how it applies to our present debates over civic education and race.

The Love of Home

As Lewis points out, the love of home is a profoundly personal affection, a familiar attachment to particular people, places, and customs. Though it’s certainly a cause of national pride to see runner Allyson Felix atop the medal podium, we love our country no less when our Olympians lose. And, as Lewis observes, “Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs—why, good luck to them and let them have it.” We love our families regardless of their deficits and without comparison. “Best Dad Ever” is always a deeply relational claim made out of love, despite experiential knowledge of imperfections. An actual comparison of fatherly virtues would be entirely beside the point.

Patriotism grounded in this same kind of love, French argues, does not expect or demand perfection from one’s country. It takes the bad along with the good and goes on loving because to love what is one’s own is as natural and ineluctable as self-love. According to patriotism rightly conceived, therefore, we love our country because “[i]ts citizens are our neighbors. It is our national family. As with any family, loving our family means knowing our family. And yes that means telling our full story, the good, the bad, and the ugly.” Thus, French concludes, education should not seek to promote patriotism. Rather, it should seek to inform citizens of their country’s history and allow love for home to grow out of greater knowledge.

I have no quarrel with the basic insight from Lewis that French employs here. Patriotism as love of home, neighbor, and a way of life is a vital dimension of political identity (an “ingredient,” Lewis calls it). Edmund Burke emphasized it over against the philosophical abstractions of the Jacobins. G.K. Chesterton used it to expose the pretentions of British imperialism. Roger Scruton extolled love of home in opposition to the “oikophobia” of global elites. It is vital to a healthy understanding of patriotism. Nevertheless, it is only a piece of the puzzle—only a part of the political theory needed to answer the questions French seeks to address.

Our “National Home” and Civic Friendship

Why this is so becomes clear when we consider concepts like “national home” or “national family” more closely. “Home” bespeaks a place of belonging, of intimate familiarity and friendship, of knowing and being known, of cultivating relationships of mutual responsibility in a shared life together. As such, its central meaning attaches to the nuclear family, an association that realizes these qualities to the greatest degree. Still, to speak of a national home makes sense insofar as individuals and their families find protection, provision, culture, institutions of justice, and so forth, in a much broader political community.

In a healthy political culture, we develop palpable affection for the places, symbols, and institutions of that broader home. Yet we nevertheless recognize it as “home” in an attenuated sense. An American abroad returning home may fill with emotion at the sight of the Statue of Liberty when touching down in New York City (though, significantly, he doesn’t know his fellow citizens on board from Adam). He is, in a sense, “home.” Yet, what we mean by this deepens and intensifies as he travels from New York to Arkansas, from Little Rock to Hot Springs, and finally arrives at one particular drive to wind past the dogwood and the black gum, up the brick walk, and finally into the center of an intimate life shared with family and close friends. This is home.

The human experience of social attenuation increases if we tighten our focus on the personal relationships denoted by “family.” There is a sense in which our traveler shares a common life with fellow citizens in New York whom he does not personally know at all. These connections are latent and indirect, however, and only become immediate and conscious in particular circumstances, such as national celebrations, crises, elections, and other moments of political awareness. Even then, however, connections among citizens are normally still quite diffuse and temporary.

Aristotle noted a closely related paradox in his consideration of civic friendship. It is most characteristic of friends that they live life together, whereas fellow citizens (even in the much smaller polis of his time) have no personal knowledge of most of their fellow citizens. In what way are they friends—anything more than fellow subscribers to a giant defense and dispute-resolution utility?

What Binds Us Together

For Aristotle, the answer lay in political institutions established according to principles of justice and the common good. These institutions and the principles that animate them embody the mutual goodwill necessary to any form of friendship. To be committed to a just constitutional order is to show concern not only for one’s own good but also for the interests and flourishing of one’s fellow citizens. Mutual goodwill embodied in institutions and expressed in a nation’s essential principles, texts, and practices provides the foundation for meaningful collaboration and debate among citizens. Absent the personal connection and expressions of goodwill that usually attend friendships, a nation’s political principles inform the relationship among citizens and enable pursuit of justice and the common good.

The point of all of this should be evident. Cultivation of a national home or friendship among citizens presupposes something that binds disparate individuals and groups together and inclines them, in Roger Scruton’s words, to think of themselves in the “first person plural”:

Democracy means living with strangers on terms that may be, in the short-term, disadvantageous; it means being prepared to fight battles and suffer losses on behalf of people whom one neither knows nor particularly wants to know. It means appropriating the policies that are made in one’s name and endorsing them as “ours” even when one disagrees with them. Only where people have a strong sense of who “we” are, why “we” are acting in this way or that, why “we” have behaved rightly in one respect, wrongly in another, will they be so involved in the collective decisions as to adopt them as their own. This first-person plural is the precondition of democratic politics, and must be safeguarded at all costs, since the price of losing it is social disintegration.

David French supposes that love of home will be sufficient for this. Citizens, he suggests, will see each other as neighbors and thus embrace “the obligations we owe each other to create a more just land.” Yet we are neighborly with very few of our fellow citizens. What obligations do we, in fact, owe each other? What binds together the “we” of “We the People?” We cannot suppose that merely living together in a shared locality will answer the need. After all, even families are vulnerable to dysfunction and disintegration when their life together is not grounded in mutual commitment to individual and common flourishing.

The Purpose of Civic Education

This casts the civic education of America’s youth in an important light. We cannot simply suppose that growing up in America will form the civic identity—the American “we”—necessary for democratic politics. We cannot assume that rising generations will come to understand American history, good and bad, as “our history.” We are not, to put it bluntly, a “national family.” If a shared identity is to emerge and persist, if citizen strangers are to have a shot at becoming civic friends who recognize a mutual obligation to create a just land, the foundational principles of our constitutional order must be consciously taught and reaffirmed. For they embody the goodwill of fellow citizens committed to seeking a truly just common good—“a more perfect Union.”

 

It is important to recognize that teaching and affirming these principles does not itself entail a claim that America has historically lived up to them. To affirm the American creed as expressed in our Declaration, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address is not to present a valorized American story. It is to preserve the essential foundation of our shared political identity and the thus the capacity to perfect our union.

There are some, no doubt, who would argue that America’s founding principles do not, in fact, embody a just pursuit of individual flourishing and the common good to which all Americans can assent. They are welcome to make such arguments, of course, protected by the very principles they reject. The public square is open to debate. But let us not pretend that a redefinition of America’s founding ideals is simply presenting a different or more honest historical narrative. Nor should we be so sanguine as to think that honest debate about the very legitimacy of our constitutional principles is genuinely possible among K–12 youth who are still learning the meaning and history of those principles—who are still learning on what basis they join fellow citizens as “We the People.”

David French objects to a law that forbids teaching public school children that slavery and racism are not contrary to America’s foundational political principles. Such a prohibition safeguards a sanitized version of American history, he claims, in an effort to make patriots convinced of the greatness of their country. This is a red herring. A fair reading of the provision reveals quite a different concern: the redefinition of our constitutional principles.

If racism and white supremacy do not betray American principles, the implications are obvious. We need a new constitutional order. For although it is not necessary for citizens to believe their country has always been good, the social order depends on their affirming the basic goodness of its principles. Without such an affirmation, there are no reasonable grounds for committing oneself to the community. It is, in fact, not a community in any real sense (much less a “national family”), since it lacks a just process of pursuing a common good. And it is hard to imagine what legitimate interest in self-preservation a community has if it does not have the right—indeed, the responsibility—to prevent rising generations from being robbed of any principled foundation for extending to their fellow citizens a hand of friendship.

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