Patriotism, education, and the Obamas

Barack and Michele Obama seem to be exemplary parents. They're sending their daughters to a fine D.C. private school (while withdrawing similar options from hundreds of low-income Washingtonians). They left the girls home where they belonged--with Grandma and teachers--instead of carting them off to Europe. They reportedly insist that the kids make their own beds and eat healthy food. A swing-set was recently installed on the South Lawn. And after a judicious interval, and with help from Senator Kennedy, they've even delivered the long-awaited--and now much publicized--post-election puppy.

When it comes to many core American values--telling the truth, working hard, holding oneself to high standards, persevering, walking the dog, etc.--I'll bet the First Parents are also doing right by their children, both talking the talk with them and walking the walk. One gets a partial sense of this by watching Michelle Obama inspire other young people in schools from Anacostia to London. She's dazzling in this role.

I wonder, though, how they approach the value of patriotism. How are their two young daughters being taught to view the United States? More important, what examples are the Obamas setting for fifty million other American kids and their teachers and parents? What walk are they walking?

Is America, in their eyes, "the last best hope"? A place that doesn't always live up to its ideals but comes closer than anyplace else? A place worth defending from all enemies, foreign and domestic? And is that something they believe is important for grownups to impart to children? Or do they think it's the proper role of parents and teachers to emphasize the country's shortcomings?

One recalls without pleasure Michelle Obama's remark during last year's campaign (February 18, 2008, in Milwaukee, to be precise) that "for the first time in my life I am proud of my country." Though aides hastily corrected the record and (presumably) admonished her to choose her words more carefully, it's hard to imagine such a sentiment being uttered in the first place by someone who didn't actually believe it.

Then there's the President's "major foreign address" in Prague, during his recent Europe/Turkey/Baghdad swing, the speech in which he committed the U.S. to a world without nuclear weapons. As Charles Krauthammer observed in a trenchant column last week, "Our president came bearing a basketful of mea culpas. With varying degrees of directness or obliqueness, Obama indicted his own people for arrogance, for dismissiveness and derisiveness, for genocide, for torture, for Hiroshima, for Guantanamo and for insufficient respect for the Muslim world." In geopolitical terms, Krauthammer notes, the President got very little in response--though he got plenty of applause for his friendliness, humility, eloquence, cooperativeness and, above all, his Not-George-W-Bush-ness. Otherwise, it seems, his apologetic approach didn't pay off. But it got me wondering--should get us all wondering--what that approach may signal about his view of the nation that he leads. And what example does it set for tomorrow's citizens and those who teach them today?

To be sure, he thanked the troops in Baghdad and made clear that he's grateful to them. In no way do I suggest that he's unpatriotic. But that's not the same thing as signaling to one and all that he loves and is proud of his country and wants his kids and our kids and grandkids to feel that way, too. Insisting that they understand what evokes that pride as context, in part, for understanding what still needs to be set right.

Though it may well be true, as Bill Bennett and others have suggested, that patriotic values are ingested with the air and water supply in the United States, we also know from innumerable assessments and other indicators that civic and history education in American schools leaves much to be desired. Young people are ignorant of how our government works, where our core values come from, and what happened during the country's two-century-long efforts both to implement and to defend those values.

As the "greatest generation" passes from the scene, and its progeny, the boomers, retire from school and university classrooms, it's the post-Vietnam crowd that's shouldering responsibility for raising and teaching tomorrow's Americans. When the country chose Barack Obama over John McCain, it opted for a member of that crowd and for the youth and change and energy that come with it. Well and good. The President certainly has his hands full on many fronts and one can only wish him well. Nobody expects him to be the national K-12 curriculum director, too. But he and his wife are inevitable role models. How he views America matters in a thousand ways, including--though surely not limited to--how our children and teachers will view it. His children, too, come to think of it.

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