Patriotism: Is a country worth loving?

I found myself at the centre of a minor media maelstrom the week before last when a colleague and I published the findings of a small research study on the teaching of patriotism in schools. We argued in the report that teachers should not promote patriotism in the classroom, but should present the desirability of loving one’s country as an open question or controversial issue. Despite the deep offence this suggestion appears to have caused in some quarters of the Fourth Estate, I still think it’s right.I take patriotism to be love of one’s country, and thus a species of emotion or sentiment. Being a patriot does not entail any normative beliefs about how one’s country should be governed or what duties one might have to it. In this respect patriotism differs from nationalism, which is the belief that one’s nation should be, or should remain, an independent sovereign state. To promote patriotism, then, is to induce and nurture a particular emotional attachment. The attempt to shape students’ emotions in the classroom is not objectionable per se, but it does oblige us to draw a distinction between rational and non-rational ways of bringing such influence to bear. To influence a person’s emotions rationally is to offer her good reasons for moderating or redirecting her emotional responses, to help her see why the reasons are good. To influence her emotions non-rationally is to deploy methods of psychological manipulation to alter her emotional responses directly, without reference to her capacities for rational choice. Only the first of these is properly described as educational and justifiably brought to bear in schools.If this is right, our question can be reframed as follows: are there good reasons, that we can and should offer to students, for loving one’s country? This immediately raises the broader question of how we should delimit the class of appropriate or fitting objects of love.It seems fair to say that this class will be very wide: human beings are powerfully drawn to all sorts of things, and in most cases we regard the presence of powerful attraction as reason enough to love. But there are limits, and one of these is set by the idea that loving certain things is bad for us, in the sense of being directly or indirectly damaging to our mental or physical health. Loving what is morally vicious or corrupt is liable to be detrimental to one’s character and self-respect. There is no doubt that it is logically and psychologically possible for us to love things of which (or people of whom) we morally disapprove; but there is a reasonable doubt that we can do this without harm to ourselves. To love what is corrupt is itself corrupting, not least because it inclines us to ignore, forget, forgive or excuse the corruption.And there’s the rub for patriotism. Countries are morally ambiguous entities: they are what they are by virtue of their histories, and it is hard to think of a national history free from the blights of war-mongering, tyranny, slavery and subjugation, or a national identity forged without recourse to exclusionary and xenophobic stereotypes. It is therefore not implausible to regard countries as precisely the sort of objects whose moral failings make them inappropriate objects of love. I do not mean to suggest that assessing the moral rectitude of nations is a straightforward business. On the contrary, the question of how to weigh up the various kinds of vice and virtue exhibited by countries is clearly a vexed one. And just how corrupt does something need to be before it becomes inappropriate to love it? These questions are matters of reasonable disagreement among reasonable people. And this implies that the desirability of patriotic sentiment is properly construed, and therefore properly taught, as a controversial issue.Dr Michael Hand is from the Institue of Education, University of London.