Can teaching patriotism protect France?

tags: France, patriotism, Charlie Hebdo

Robert Zaretsky is professor in the Honors College at the University of Houston and author, most recently, of “Boswell’s Enlightenment” (Harvard University Press).

... Two weeks ago, [French Culture Minister] Vallaud-Belkacem announced a renewed strategy by which the state would “transmit republican values.” Teachers would lecture on rites of the French republic and emblems like “La Marseillaise” and the tri-colored flag, and thus reestablish their authority. Along with this back-to-basics curriculum would come a renewed focus on mastery of the French language, seen as a way to inoculate French youth against both the siren calls of jihadist websites and the often brutal argot of hip-hop culture.

From this side of the Atlantic, there is something both deeply familiar and unsettlingly strange about this new emphasis on schools as the crucible of patriotic values. Though American schools have frequently been cast in that role, we’ve come to think of that as a conservative principle; in France, by contrast, that call is coming from a socialist government. Ultimately, this ideal is less liberal or conservative than it is a reflection of what a multicultural country sees as its greatest threat. And on this front, the United States and France have in the last several decades diverged.

EVER SINCE 1789, French republicans have embraced the notion of a single and indivisible nation, united by the universal values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The political left has long laid claim to the nation’s symbols and rituals, from the image of Marianne (the personification of liberty) to the singing of “La Marseillaise,” while the particular patriotism of the political right was more associated with the throne and altar. At the end of the 19th century, republican governments transformed the schools into something like patriotic boot camps. As the so-called hussars of the Republic, teachers rode into classrooms across France and transformed their young charges, whether they were peasants or urban laborers, Breton or Basque speakers, into Frenchmen and women.

“Our ancestors, the Gauls”: The celebrated opening line of a late-19th-century history text still informs France’s values. Though it has always been a country of immigrants, its people are still leery of a hyphenated citizenry. In their eyes, multiculturalism, which allows individuals to define themselves in terms of their ethnic or religious identities, risks debasing the currency of French republicanism. And, through the first half of the 20th century, central and southern Europeans who immigrated to France willingly subordinated their historical heritages to their newly won French identity. It was only after WWII, and the great waves of immigration from France’s former African colonies, that the republican model began to falter.

Steven Mintz, an education specialist at the University of Texas, points out that our own history of schooling differs in many ways. Unlike in France, he told me, school policy in America was until very recently “almost entirely a local matter.” There has long been a “great deal of uneasiness about demanding conformity.” To give just one example, German remained the language of instruction in certain schools in Texas through much of the 19th century, though that’s surprising to recall now amid recent debates over bilingual education. While schools did seek to instill a sense of national identity, Mintz noted, patriotic ideals were less present than “the values of self-improvement and gentility.”

Yet the distance between Paris and Texas is not as great as it appears: Like their French counterparts, American educators have also sought to channel our nation’s revolutionary heritage into school curriculums. Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education and history at New York University and author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in Memory and History,” cited the long trajectory of the Pledge of Allegiance. These days, American liberals often see the pledge as a Trojan horse carrying God and right-wing values into the classroom. But when he created the pledge in 1892, Francis Bellamy had motives not so different from today’s French government. A Christian Socialist himself, Bellamy conceived of the pledge as the means to galvanize the moral and civic imagination of American students, too long mired in the muck and corruption of the Gilded Age. (The phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge in 1954.) ...

Read entire article at Boston Globe