Patriotism, Pedagogy, and Freedom

Jen: Patriotism, Pedagogy, and Freedom: On the Educational Meanings of September 11

In this article, Apple argues that in the wake of the tragedy of September 11th, as a teacher and a U.S. citizen, it is important to do two things.  The first is to create space to express anger, sadness, and frustration about the attack and what happened to our country.  The second is to ask critical questions about why people in the world had such negative feelings towards the United States (Apple, p. 491).  Apple poses some serious questions about approaching the latter without justifying the attacks.  Apple asks, “How could one condemn the murderous events, give one’s students a historical and political framework that puts these events in their larger critical context, and provide a serious forum where disagreement and debate could go on fruitfully…and at the same time not be seen as justifying the attacks” (Apple, p. 493).  I agree with Apple that these are very tricky questions to ask in the wake of such a tragedy.  However, I also think they are important to ask because the answers prevent people from developing generalizations that link all people from the Middle East to the mindset of those that committed the attacks on the Twin Towers.

Apple’s idea of giving students space to vent should be the first step.  After they have a chance to get their frustrations out, I think a very common question that many students will ask is “Why do they hate us?”  I think the only way this question can be answered is by looking at the historical relationships between countries and U.S. foreign policy.  This promotes more of an accurate of understanding of what Apple is trying to get at- “to ask critical questions about why people in the world had such negative feelings towards the United States” (Apple, p. 491).

One particular part of Apple’s article that I found interesting was when he talked about the school board in Wisconsin that came under criticism for only allowing the instrumental version of the Star Spangled Banner to be played because they felt playing an anthem with lines such as “bombs bursting in air” might not be appropriate after the attacks on September 11th.  This came under criticism as being unpatriotic, so eventually the board decided to allow each individual community to make the choice whether to play the anthem with the actual words or just the instrumental version.  Apple said, “This decision defused the controversy in a way that has a long history in the United States.  Local decisions will prevail, but there is not guarantee that the decisions at each local school will uphold a vision of thick democracy that welcomes dissent as itself a form of patriotic commitment” (Apple, p. 497).  I agree with Apple that this mentality has a long history in the United States.  For a long time, the term “states’ rights” was used as a cover for states that wanted to continue slavery and that if the government abolished slavery, it would intrude on “states’ rights.”  In this case, states’ rights were used in a way that did not uphold democracy and human rights.

I agree with Apple that the best way to show patriotism and commitment to your nation is to critically think about and question what is going on (Apple, p. 497).  Those that truly love their country want to hold it to high standards and make sure it is a place where people are truly treated equally.


2 thoughts on “Patriotism, Pedagogy, and Freedom

  1. Jen, you did a great job of summarizing the articles main points!

    I think responses to situations such as 9/11 are significant in forming the general psyche of our students, and ultimately, will alter the way they see the world and what they believe their role will be within it. Thus, I believe it is a teacher’s obligation to address these sensitive issues with students, and not resort to “normality as a defense.” (One can easily think of the Boston Bombings; however, many debate the notion of comparing the two tragedies.)

    When discussing these issues, I also agree that we must “begin at the personal level” as “we are not immune from the same feelings,” and this can be applied to all manners of teaching across disciplines/topics. We must all be very aware of where we stand on issues and what biases/prejudices we may have before discussing any topic, in fear that these preconceptions may transfer to our students. You can’t be neutral on a moving train. (

    When Apple encourages us to “ask critical questions about why people in the world had such negative feelings towards the United States,” its our role of the teacher to play devils advocate, to always take the position of the marginal nad less represented—to be “the other.” I believe this notion of “understanding of the other” should be woven into the fabric of our entire pedagogical approach. Yet, this is the most difficult aspect of teaching in my opinion, having students step beyond themselves and “put themselves in the place of the oppressed.” Particularly, when presenting the possibility that the United States (we) may be the “world’s oppressor.”

    I also struggle at times asking, “Why do they hate us?”, and the terminology of “we”, “us”, “them”, etc. It seems that this only reaffirms the “us verse them” concept, that there is something fundamentally different between the groups in question.

    Ultimately, I this article does drive home a significant point, which I wholeheartedly agree: “social criticism is the ultimate act of patriotism.” Interroga Omnia.

    • For me, 9/11 is inseparable from a pedagogical context because I was teaching high school English in Colorado when it happened. I remember, as if it were yesterday, how I was just about to begin my first period class when my wife called my classroom, asking me if I had heard yet about the plane “accident” that had occurred. First period was then filled with befuddlement about how such a terrible “accident” could have happened. By second period, it was clear that we needed to turn on the television because the second plane had hit – this was no accident. We were mesmerized by the surreal images of the burning towers. By third period, the towers had fallen and the sadness of the seemingly immeasurable loss of life began to hit home. By fourth period, this sadness began to change to anger, with several students openly blaming “Muslims” for the attack. By fifth period, my Middle Eastern (or Middle Eastern-looking) students began to fear for their safety, with several enduring verbal and physical attacks. By sixth period, a feeling of deep unrest had beset our school. I’m not sure any of us have ever recovered. And this was in a state geographically distant from the events.

      As I look back on the state of education from then until now, it is clear to me that our classrooms have suffered from deep division regarding topics like patriotism, democracy, and religious tolerance. And as Matt so aptly put it, we as teachers often have to play the role of “the other” in order to get our students to think critically about what it means to be patriotic or to understand the viewpoint of the attackers. This is a vulnerable position to assume because so much patriotic rhetoric condemns any attempt to understand these other viewpoints as unpatriotic or even an act of treason. One former professor from my alma mater, who also falsely claimed American Indian ancestry, was involved with an extreme example of this:–nazi-comparison/#.UdG7oeDDfCE.

      One question that I ask my students is this: “Can patriotism exist without scapegoating or excluding groups of people?” Most of the time students come to the conclusion that we it cannot, which then forces them to challenge all acts of patriotism. This is very unsettling for many of them.

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