With our long sustained postmodernist critical theory march through educational institutions, nationalism and patriotism have fallen from favor. This is complementary to the postmodernist critique which seeks to foster a fragmentation of the nation into identity groups of various degrees of victimhood. If postmodernist critical theory was really a Gramscian strategy of the old Soviet Union, it has paid handsome dividends in sowing dissension and discord within the nation. If we do not see ourselves as equal citizens with a shared interest in one another and perspective of the world, then a retreat into vying sections makes sense.
Hirsch is arguing that we should once again expect our education system to build a foundation of knowledge about and pride in the classical liberal achievements of our nation. I agree. The American communitarianism is the not the same as the postmodernist communism and collectivism. You can have a shared respect for both individualism and the value of communalism.
We need a reinvigorated understanding of ourselves as a community of equal individual citizens and understand that that is not an endorsement of either communism and collectivism. We need to excise the group focus of postmodernism in order to rebuild our communal trust.
Over the past six decades, changes in the early grades of schooling have contributed to the decline of communal sentiment. Under the banner of “Teach the child not the subject!” and with a stress on skills rather than content, the decline in shared, school-imparted knowledge has caused reading comprehension scores of high school students to decline. Between the 1960s and 1980s, scores dropped half a standard deviation and have never come back. In addition, school neglect of factual knowledge, including American history and its civic principles, joined with a general de-emphasis of “rote learning” and “mere fact,” induced a decline in widely shared factual knowledge among Americans. This not only weakened their ability to read and communicate; it has left them with weaker patriotic sentiments, and with a diminished feeling that they are in the same boat with Americans of other races, ethnicities, and political outlooks.
My calling attention to these educational outcomes is something one might expect from a political conservative who is complaining about political correctness and a decline of patriotism. But my intended primary target audience is my fellow liberals. Ever since the war protests of the Vietnam era, in which I joined, the left has been leery of overt patriotism and boosterism. But as Richard Rorty presciently observed in a New York Times op-ed in 1997, a high-minded, unpatriotic left will not manage to get much done, and will be despised by other Americans for its lack of simple civic sentiment. Rorty distinguished between the old union-led left that he and I shared, and that achieved practical improvements, with the new, academic left that tries to “stay as angry as possible.”
I seek to address those whose main political and social objectives include greater equality of education and income, and higher status for previously neglected or despised groups. I’m not chiefly addressing readers who equate American patriotism with flag waving and competitive forms of tribalism, but rather with those who subscribe to the best of our Enlightenment ideals that have made us in fact the greatest country in the world—as judged by, for instance, our effective assimilation of widely diverse persons, which Hamilton exemplifies.
My thesis is that our young people’s low opinion of their own country has been intensified by the current disrepute of nationalism in any form in our schools and universities. This anti-nationalism has been a big mistake, a self-inflicted wound on our individual and collective state of mind, as documented in Tribe. The political and psychological stakes are high. In an ambitious series on the disintegrating Middle East published by The New York Times, a major reason offered for the disintegration of the countries in that region is the “lack of an intrinsic sense of national identity.” Such lack of national identity in a modern nation leaves the field open to narrow ethnic enmities and political polarizations.