What Makes History “Patriotic”?

by W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.

Lately, we have heard a lot about something called “patriotic history.” The term is hard to define. How do we teach history that is grounded in the documentary evidence, promotes an honest understanding of our past, and develops a proper love of country?

The Chinese define patriotic history as a sanitized narrative of glorious deeds by heroic leaders. Since the absorption of Hong Kong into the Beijing government, Communist officials, in a blatant act of censorship, have rewritten Hong Kong’s school textbooks and curriculum. They have omitted anything deemed critical of the Party or country, fearing that such honesty about the past would undermine their legitimacy. Only a government-approved history that paints China’s past in a positive light is permitted.

Conversely, history teachers in the U.S. have always challenged students to think critically about the past. Rather than requiring students to simply memorize government-approved facts and dates, they examine how events and people have shaped the world we live in today. They use the complex story of our national experience to illustrate how America has evolved over time.

Lately, however, teaching history has become more complicated. Concerned about the intrusion of Critical Race Theory into the classroom, several states have recently passed laws forbidding teachers to discuss “divisive” topics, especially around race and gender. A “Teacher Loyalty” bill pending in New Hampshire goes one step further, requiring educators to present only a “positive” view of America’s past, echoing the mandate issued to Hong Kong. The subjectiveness of the language and the heavy financial penalties imposed by these bills have many teachers worried that the material they traditionally cover with their students might be misconstrued as something other than history.

But history, even when it examines the darkest parts of our shared past, is not a “divisive ideology.” In fact, learning and acknowledging the full and honest story of America should serve to heal and unify us by demonstrating how we have evolved and grown in our understanding of liberty, justice, freedom, and the other ideals we share as Americans. Exploring our nation’s past in all its glory, messiness, and complexity should give us a sense of common identity, purpose, and destiny.

At the Georgia Historical Society, we are committed to supporting Georgia’s educators during this challenging time by offering them the tools they need to teach effectively, especially about difficult topics. For example, our Teaching with Primary Sources program (TPS) provides teachers with copies of original documents from our archives—letters, photographs, and other records—and trains them to use this evidence to explain the historical links between past and present, enhance critical thinking skills, and encourage students to ask questions of the past, just like a historian.

Teachers know better than most what constitutes “patriotic history.” Indeed, it is often their fierce sense of amor patriae that prompted them to become educators. They know that the story of America is sometimes difficult and complicated. But they also know that when a nation is honest with itself and can look unblinkingly at its past, it will never lose the love and loyalty of its citizens.