American Disenchantment and the Psychology of Patriotism

In this era of polarized political discourse and deadlocked Congresses, the fight to define the United States has become increasingly divided between nostalgia and reform.  Both views are the same sides of one coin: American patriotism.  We love our country and we want what is best for it.  That’s good, right?  

But when does our patriotism become problematic?

Earlier this year, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem and sent many white Americans into apoplectic rage.  His assertion that he would not stand for a flag that symbolizes the systematic oppression of black people was drowned in howls of outrage that he wouldn’t stand for a flag that symbolizes the sacrifice of thousands of veterans.  Because of his method of protest, people refused to recognize the motivation behind Kaepernick’s protest.  His “disrespect” of the flag clashed with the psychology of their patriotism.  

The cultivation of highly symbolic, highly idealized patriotism has roots in the development of American secondary education.  When the National Education Committee convened in 1918, they formed a Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education to propose a new structure for American high schools.  The Commission put forth a pamphlet titled “Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education,” arguing for the use of the secondary school as an assimilatory mechanism for fostering patriotism.  What we currently regard as “school spirit” was in fact a carefully designed exercise to promote loyalty to an overarching “nation” rather than to a specific ethnic or religious background. 

In a country struggling to assimilate thousands of new immigrants while on the brink of a global conflict, this 1918 pamphlet illustrates the push to create a patriotic citizenry, a push which has been enormously successful over the past century.  For many of us, the American mythology we devoured in school seems like a tale as old as time: the virtuous Founding Fathers, the fearless pioneers, the abolitionists and civil rights advocates who finally won their day.  The tale seems to have finally capitulated in the equal, enchanting society we enjoy today.  We are emotionally bonded to the perfection of the American nation.

The breaking of that bond brings our patriotism crashing down around its ears.

Patriotic disenchantment can be a terrifying process.  Realizing that our nation has perpetrated historical horrors shatters the wholesome national pride we formed in our social studies classes.  For me, disenchantment began when I read about the Philippine-American War (Here’s a great article connecting that conflict with the Buffalo soldiers of the early twentieth century).  For others, disenchantment comes with the recognition of injustices perpetrated against Native Americans by the United States.  This process is not easy to begin.  It’s even harder to carry through.  The fear of the psychological letdown followed by disenchantment is part of what hinders people with privilege from recognizing systematic oppression.  

People excluded from the mainstream mythology–whether by race, gender, income, or country of origin–may have never built up a psychology of patriotism.  They have felt let down from the very beginning.

In a discussion last week, another Humanities Fellow told us that she had never felt that America was for her.  Most of her life had been spent feeling on the outside of the American system: But she is just as much a participant in the American system as any of us.  

In order to overcome our polarized politics, American dialogue must recognize different psychological struggles with patriotism.  Some of us have never been inculcated into the American myth.  Some of us have become disenchanted with that myth.  Still others of us cling to that myth with faith like a child.  Whatever your image of America, whatever your love for it—justice and action begin when we reconcile our patriotism with that of our neighbor’s.       

Works Consulted

Cardinal Principals of Secondary Education. Proc. of Commission on the Reorganization of   Secondary Education, Appointed by the National Education Association. Vol. 35. Washington, D. C.: US Department of the Interior, 1918. ERIC.  Web. 28 Oct. 2016.

Mondale, Sarah. School: The Story of American Public Education. Boston: Beacon, 2001. Print.

Vasilogambros, Matt. “”Did Colin Kaepernick’s Protest Fail?”” Atlantic 30 Aug. 2016: n. pag. Web. 28 Oct. 2016. <>.

Hannah Eckstrom

Hannah Eckstrom is a Spanish major with a K-12 Teaching Certification.  She decided to join the Fellows to pursue a combination of my academic passions and community outreach, and is excited to learn more about the culture of Harrisburg as she participates in Fellowship projects. 


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