“Patriotism, Pedagogy, and Freedom”

In his essay, “Patriotism, Pedagogy, and Freedom: On the Educational Meanings of September 11,” Apple addresses the role of an educator in the aftermath of September 11. He discusses the need to balance the emotional responses of students with the need to critically examine the context of the event. He writes that, though the gut reactions after such a disaster may lead to anger, nationalism, and even jingoism, it is still important to engage in discourse about the events and policies that led to 9/11. This includes the question of why people would want to attack us. By looking at the event from multiple perspectives we can better understand (though not necessarily condone) the actions of the attackers. This critical discourse also prevents us from overly nationalistic or hyper-patriotic displays that ignore or attack anyone who disagrees with the government.


I think that Apple makes some interesting points about the way that democracy is changing in the wake of 9/11. In his description of the Madison, WI school board vote to uphold the school board’s decision to play the music of “The Star Spangled Banner” (without the militaristic words),  Apple describes the intimidation and animosity with which voters were met when they supported the school board’s decision. He describes how voters endured “quite personal attacks on their patriotism” as a result of them voicing their opinions (495). This election, Apple claims, forces upon people a certain brand patriotism, leaving no room for people who disagree with the militaristic overtones of the national anthem or for people who disagree with the country’s politics. This enforced patriotism Apple argues, flies in the face of true democracy; enforced patriotism lends no voice to dissent, despite the fact that democracy means debate and dialogue with other schools of thought. According to Apple, these “nationalistic, anti-immigrant, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-communist, promilitary” and religiously conservative views crop up during times of crises(495). Based on Apple’s (brief) description of the historical and political context leading up to 9/11, these narrow viewpoints create a vicious cycle in which people become desperate to get their point across, even when making that point can seriously harm others.


Overall, I think Apple makes a good argument for teachers to not only address the emotional aspects of what students are experiencing after a crisis such as 9/11, but also to examine the context and framework of the event. If democracy truly allows for dissent, students should be able to examine the situation from all sides in order to form and advocate for their own opinions while also engaging in dialogue with others. By teaching this democratic system, as opposed to relying on enforced patriotism, we can perhaps work to minimize the need to intimidate or attack opponents, both on a local and a global level.


Some questions:


Do you think enforced patriotism is the new democracy?


How can we, as teachers, create a safe space in our classrooms to discuss events such as 9/11 or the marathon bombings? Do you believe that we should discuss these events in our classrooms?

What does Apple mean when he says that “democracy and freedom both act as sliding signifiers” (496)?



8 thoughts on ““Patriotism, Pedagogy, and Freedom”

  1. I think we absolutely should discuss events such as 9/11 or the marathon bombings in our classrooms. These events are not only part of history and cultural identity, but as humans processing an immediate tragedy takes precedence over vocabulary words (for both teachers and students!). This past school year my classes really wanted to talk about the school shootings in Connecticut. The marathon bombings occurred over school vacation week and by the time we got back, my kids weren’t clamoring to talk about it (though as a school we did provide space for it) and I didn’t hear racist comments about the bombers. I don’t have a conclusion about what that means about their level of democracy or patriotism, but am curious what others’ experience was.

    I agree with Apple that we need to balance giving students space to emotionally respond to events and also critically examine America’s policies, foreign image and history. He talks about how these gut reactions to events may lead to anger and “extreme patriotism” but what he doesn’t address enough is the importance that we as teachers approach our students with generosity and an open mind. Kids say things to gauge a response or to try out an identity or way of thinking, it is not necessarily their identity. A racist comment does not mean a 7th grader is and always will be a racist. I have seen teachers become frustrated with things middle schoolers say and simply stop the discussion, rather than engage with them and use the opportunity to teach.

    I saw somewhere that Apple got a ton of flack from the news media for his comments about the Star Spangled Banner, but I can’t seem to recreate the links I saw! Anyone find anything about Apple?
    – Sue

  2. Jessi, great post.

    I do not believe that enforced patriotism is the new democracy, specifically when thinking about the US. In my mind patriotism is usually considered a part of being proud or supportive of a country, but it does not equate to power vested in the people.

    When it comes to discussing events mentioned above, I have had almost the same exact experience as Sue. When students returned to school after the Newtown shootings happened, teachers were asked to discuss the happenings with their students during an extended homeroom period. During this time, many of my students were willing to discuss what had happened: how it made them feel, where they were when they heard the news, what their parents had to say about it, etc. However, when the Marathon bombings happened, none of my students wanted to discuss what had happened. They were allowed the same extended homeroom period, but this time students just stared at each other or took out some homework. They were not willing to share. To this day, I wonder if their was anything I could have said to spark their interest. I think I did not know how to spark the conversation because I did not know how I felt about the attack. I still do not.

    During the week following the Marathon violence, staff and students at my school were asked to wear Boston or Boston Strong attire to support the victims. So, I got a T-shirt. I believed that the T-shirt represented that I was respectful and sorry for those hurt or killed in the bombings. However, when I wore my shirt to school, kids were fist pumping me, saying “Boston Strong” with a clenched fist, and things like, “Yeah, we got those bomb guys and that one, he, he’s gonna pay. Boston Strong!” It seemed like faux togetherness, or flaunting tail feathers for another act of violence. It didn’t settle right with me so I asked my students what they believed “Boston Strong” meant (I actually did it in a DO NOW). A majority of my students seemed to think that it meant “You can’t mess with Boston ’cause we’ll get your ass.” We discussed that this may not be the best representation of the slogan, and perhaps it would be better to have a T that said something like, “Never forget you…” or “We will prevail…Boston Strong” The message being that we mourn the loss, will never forget, but will carry on. In the end, I am not quite sure that all students got the picture from the 20 minute Do NOW/conversation combo. Should I devote more time to discussing this? Did I take enough time? I mean, they gave me an extended homeroom. What would you do?

    • I wrote some of my thoughts about the article in response to Jen’s post, but I want to reply to Brian’s fascinating commentary about “Boston Strong.” Boston Strong is a perfect example, in my mind, of how patriotic discourse almost always turns ugly [and in the interest of self-disclosure, I also own a Boston Strong t-shirt]. On the one hand, Boston Strong, as a recognizable slogan, has unified Bostonians (and probably many Americans too) and raised a boatload of cash for the victims. On the other, it signifies revenge. When I think back to 9/11, it is clear to me that our reaction to 9/11 was much more damaging than the attack itself. And this is why I think that we, as teachers, must help our students critically examine slogans like Boston Strong. If we don’t, all of the goodwill that it represents will be overshadowed by “we’ll get your ass.”

  3. Brian, your experience with your students clamming up about the Marathon bombings reminded me that after September 11, although a couple of my professors (I was in college) asked if we wanted to talk about it in classes, no one did. We talked about it with each other, of course, but I think what we were resisting was an attempt to normalize, or make real and understandable, something that was abnormal, surreal, and beyond understanding.

    I had a hard time with this article, because while I absolutely agree that American imperialism has caused a lot of anger and resentment worldwide, I can’t prod anyone to accept excuses for violence. I know that a reason is not an excuse, but in his article, Apple didn’t make that distinction clear enough for my comfort.

    We do need to talk about the resentment our foreign policy and military and basically everything awful we do engenders. We do need to discuss why people are angry. But we can’t then let students surmise that when you’re angry, violence is the next logical step. I think that it’s a slippery slope from there… to Alex’s old professor, who said those killed in the World Trade Center collapse were “a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire,” so complicit in the American machine that they deserved to die. (And even if you take as true the presumption that bankers and technocrats deserve to be punished for America’s mistakes, which is a lot to swallow, a lot of people killed were blue-collar workers and emergency response personnel and kids in daycares.) I’d be very careful to make sure my students understood that most people who are angry at America/Americans for legitimate reasons are not taking steps to murder thousands of us, and that those who are have something genuinely wrong with them. Maybe I would balance a discussion on the anger with this piece: http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/regionals/west/2013/02/14/kim-phuc-girl-famous-vietnam-photo-talks-about-forgiveness/BrLEcMnoycAj90gHbCJPBJ/story.html

  4. This conversation is so critical to the work that we do, and I’m glad that we have an opportunity to discuss this together as educators. I loved reading the comments so far and really appreciate Apple’s notion that we, as teachers, have a responsibility to engage with these issues with our students, especially after the occurrence of so many horrific events in our nation’s recent past.

    I do not hang an American flag in my classroom. I imagine that this might be seen, by some, as disrespectful, that I don’t love my country, that I’m taking the innumerable freedoms of American citizenship for granted. However, that’s not the case at all. I’m grateful to have been born in the United States. I am more than aware of how many rights and freedoms that Untied States citizenship has afforded me. I’m sure many would agree with me, however that at a nation, we haven’t begun to even come close to upholding the ideals that the American flag is intended to represent. It seems hypocritical, as an educator who believes that teaching is a social justice mission, to hang a flag in my room, tell my students to say the pledge of allegiance, or to recite the national anthem. All I would be doing is allowing my classroom to become part of a manipulative indoctrination process that obstructs critical thinking, thwarts efforts to constructively question our capitalistic system, and forces students to replace independent thought with unquestionable, unconditional love for their country. Truthfully, I find that kind of patriotism scary and devastating to efforts to create a true democratic system.

    I agree with Apple when he says: “In my mind, however, social criticism is the ultimate act of patriotism.” He goes on to say that dissent “demonstrates a commitment to the nation itself,” which I could not agree with more. To that end, I begin each school year by holding up the American flag and asking students questions about what the flag represents, and how well they think of America has succeeded in carrying out the ideals represented by the flag. We use these beginning discussions and writing assignments as an anchor for the entire course, which focuses on the American Dream, and who truly has access to it.

    Although I openly encourage students to actively engage in social criticism quite frequently, I admit that I am not at all where I would like to be when it comes to maintaining this critical discourse in the wake of national tragedies. It’s unfortunate, and terribly sad that I have so many examples—most recently, the Newtown shootings and The Boston Marathon bombings. My experience with how much students were willing to talk was similar to Sue’s and Brian’s, though I will say that many students were also pretty closed off about the school shooting. I really struggled with knowing how to handle talking with my students about both incidents, and was frustrated because I couldn’t create the kind of conversations that I imagined might be helpful or productive after such tragedy. Reflecting back, I think there was a lot that played into this failure.

    First of all, I think that talking about things on an emotional level after tragedies—no matter how removed they may seem—can make many of my students feel quite exposed; many of them have layer upon layer of their own personal trauma that they have not even begun to process, and asking them to reflect on such horrific events may create vulnerabilities that they are not ready to handle. The faces of my most stoic students, many of which who have suffered horrendous tragedy in their own lives, immediately come to mind, along with the frustration I couldn’t help but feel about their apathy during the discussions I tried to have with them. I’m sure that many of my students felt more anger, confusion, sadness and empathy than they knew how to express, and it was wrong of me to tacitly suggest that they must do so publicly.

    I also think another, much larger factor, was my own emotional/intellectual wrestling with the events. I think that there is this strange thing that happens for some people after such tragedy, myself included, in which it can feel, subconsciously, I think, strange or just plain wrong to steer away from the pain of the victims and into the realm of social critique. To feel anything other than outrage for the perpetrators and sorry for the victims and their families is to be an soulless, unpatriotic jerk—which of course is an ideal emotional state for conservatives to exploit. These feelings of (guilt?) are intensified by the public response seen in slogans such as “Boston Strong,” and other “Patriotic” and “unifying” rhetoric that subtly and skillfully promotes a revenge and retaliation mindset. I guess it’s just hard, at least initially, to find a way to walk that fine line between honoring the victims of such heinous tragedies and at the same time politicizing the issue and making sense of it in a critical context, and to work through all of these feelings in the short amount of time before we have to stand in front of students. Right after an event like the Boston Marathon bombing, it’s all so emotional and raw, and because of that I, admittedly, found it hard to engage in and promote the type of discussions that, prior such a tragedy, I would envision having with my students.

  5. Thanks for the questions, Jessi!

    The beginning of a school day where I teach always consists of the Pledge of Allegiance. Although the majority of my homeroom students stand and face the flag when it is said over the loudspeaker, very rarely do I ever hear students say it aloud as well. It has been instructed of teachers to make sure that everyone stops what they’re doing when the pledge is said, and (I think) to make sure everyone stands. While I do make sure that the subsequent moment of silence is exactly that, I do not always ask reluctant students to stand. Being that it is homeroom, there isn’t any time to actually delve into the matter with the students, to ask what they think about the practice, why they might not stand, why they don’t say the pledge out loud. While I could be assertive and more strict about getting them to do so, I am inclined to think that such “management” would in and of itself be antithetical to what the pledge is reminding us of.

    While reading this article and the story from Madison, WI, I wondered about what other kinds of events I have found myself being led to say the pledge. Although there may have been a couple of government functions thrown in there, aside from school-related occurrences, most of my other patriotic recitations have happened at sporting events, when the national anthem is sung. This is puzzling to me—why don’t we say it at meals? At stop lights? Every time we see a flag or pass a memorial? I wondered if it is done at sporting events to actually help create the sense of community (or, rather, competition) that Apple discusses and that seemed, emotionally, to take over the school committee meetings in Madison at the time.

    But that incentive doesn’t exist in the same way at school. While a teacher would strive to create a sense of community, it would not necessarily be to help cheer on the home team. And would it be more effective to say to students that they may choose or choose not to recite, according to their preferences, and without fear of judgment from other classmates or teachers? It seems to me that no pledge is in truth a pledge if one is coerced or pressured into saying it. It has to be a choice.

    That said, perhaps there is some kind of connection between saying the pledge at school and the strong desire to compare our schools with those of other nations. While I cannot recall the statistics, I feel I should be able to given how often I hear about the poor rankings of US student performance. It frustrates me that such comparisons are deemed necessary if we want to improve our public education, never mind the fact that the means of comparison are most often standardized tests. In this sense, we are led to do to ourselves what we often do to our students who do not score well on the tests—we assume a deficit. While I would be far from willing to suggest U.S. Public education is just fine and dandy, there is a difference from improving because one thinks better is possible versus being led through inferiority anxieties to forced solutions such as high-stakes testing, mandates for teacher licensing, and year-round schooling (“Hey, why not just do more of the same?” seems too often to be the thinking there).

    The consideration of 9/11 and how it has, should, or could impact our schooling, along with the description of the events in Madison, all seem to again showcase the role of public schools as a boiling pot for society’s anxieties, the tool by which society unknowingly tries to “fix” itself. The school committee meeting seems to be a loud example of this: declarations of patriotism, of identity, of shunning non-believers. While I believe that public education is an amazing idea, and that we all do meaningful work, we also get to see first-hand the kind of thinking that leads to some of these problems in the first place: the dehumanizing, conforming, and anesthetizing of the self in the form of scripted lessons and high-stakes testing is yet another form of disrespect, something that inculcates a default to fear in the face of difference before appreciation of it.

  6. Holy smokes, I hit the back button and lost what I believe was a worthwhile response. Paragraphs in length. Wit and charm abound.

    Let me frantically try to recreate my thoughts.

    I think that Apple’s article is incredibly evocative, as it makes us consider the difficulty of asking students to critically assess the world around them during times of fevered nationalism. While we like to convince ourselves that we’re imbuing them with the ability to question power structures, some structures are so embedded in our cultural fabric that they can be difficult to recognize in the first place. However, I believe that those dissent are amongst the most valuable in a society, as they allow for discussions to arise in which there can be a differentiation between that which is just, fair, and equitable and that which is not.

    I found myself constantly thinking about these words of Apple’s:

    “Thus, an uncritical and unquestioning pedagogy of patriotism was what the schools needed to foster at this time of national crisis…Silencing dissent and imposing forms of compulsory patriotism were the very antitheses of freedom. A hidden curriculum of compulsory patriotism would, in essence, do exactly this” (496).

    On the bleak side of things, Apple’s reminding us that many of the rules, regulations, practices, and curricula of schools are inherently designed to keep students feeling that oh-so-comfortable jingoist pride! This of course, only becomes more true during times of national tragedy, when any who question the response to (or cause of) said tragedy are deemed unpatriotic. However, I believe that we can often use the same curricula to help foster an active engagement with these events.

    For instance, during the height of the Occupy Movement I led my students through a Henry David Thoreau unit. At the outset, most of the students saw occupy as wholly unproductive, a movement of “complainers” and “losers” (their words, not mine). However, by discussing CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE with them, we were able to have some wonderful conversations about the value of dissenting voices. Moreover, the students were also able to recognize that those who participated in revolutions & paradigm shifts that we celebrated (e.g., the American Revolution, the end of slavery), were derided in the same way as members of Occupy.

    Another teachable moment revealed itself to me after the Boston Marathon incident. During one of the first classes after April break, I told the students that I stayed up until 4AM watching the Thursday night/Friday morning coverage of the manhunt for the bombing suspects. When they asked why I even went to sleep, I told them that I had a literature-related panic attack and had to pass out. To my supreme delight, a student raised her hand and asked, “You couldn’t help but think of Fahrenheit 451, could you?”

    Having read Fahrenheit 451 earlier in the year, we were able to have a tremendously fruitful conversation about the parallels between Bradbury’s (fictional) manhunt for Montag and the (really) televised manhunt for the bombing suspects. Although we agreed that there was nothing as troubling as Bradbury’s Mechanical Hound, the students arrived at some great questions about the influence of ubiquitous media coverage.

    So perhaps it’s a means of being circuitous or evasive, but I believe literature is a perfect means of analyzing today’s social/cultural/political climate.

    Lastly, I’d love to comment on these words of Paula’s (which I’ve been diggin’):

    “It seems hypocritical, as an educator who believes that teaching is a social justice mission, to hang a flag in my room, tell my students to say the pledge of allegiance, or to recite the national anthem. All I would be doing is allowing my classroom to become part of a manipulative indoctrination process that obstructs critical thinking, thwarts efforts to constructively question our capitalistic system, and forces students to replace independent thought with unquestionable, unconditional love for their country. Truthfully, I find that kind of patriotism scary and devastating to efforts to create a true democratic system.”

    In my homeroom, I have one especially politically conscious student who chooses the road of nonparticipation during the Pledge of Allegiance. He is extremely polite, has never made a scene, and just sits quietly while everyone else pledges. Truth be told, most of the other students have never even noticed that he does not stand, but during one of the last days of the school year I made a point to join him in not pledging. When students noticed this, they were incredibly curious – one even going as far as to question my allegiance. However, we then had a brief but worthwhile discussion about the usefulness of going against the grain, the value of dissent, and even what the pledge itself means.

    Okay, I think these were most of my original thoughts.

    See everyone in class!

  7. I share many of the same experiences regarding discussing this year’s tragedies with my students. Many students shared thoughtfully in extended homeroom after Newtowne, yet our extended homeroom after Boston was pretty silent. One tragedy that has been difficult to discuss, though, is actually 9/11. Not necessarily because of the issues discussed in Apple’s article, but because many of my students do not know much about it at all! They were for the most part either a baby or in the womb during the attacks, and somehow it has become a relic of recent history. Perhaps it is TOO recent to have been taught in school, and who knows how the details have not been properly disseminated at home or through media, but the mention of 9/11 draws mostly questions and accusations from students, but very rarely facts. Maybe it is the polarizing topic itself (freedom friers v. pledge haters) which has caused teachers to avoid teaching about it in depth, or perhaps it is the fact that time-on-learning minutes for social studies have been so far cut, but this is yet another topic that I believe should be pulled into the ELA classroom if it is not being addressed elsewhere.

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