David Brooks, Weekly Standard, May 21, 2001.
Noah Webster didn’t just produce a dictionary; he also wrote one of the most influential school textbooks in American history. It was called An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking, and it went through seventy-seven editions in the half century after its publication in 1785. It included famous patriotic speeches, the Declaration of Independence, and George Washington’s farewell orders to the army, selections from Swift, Pope, and Shakespeare, and a long section from Cato, Joseph Addison’s play about patriotic honor.
Webster was trying to acquaint children with their own country, to cultivate patriotic pride and to hold up American exemplars. He put a dictum from the French republican Count Mirabeau on the title page: “Begin with the infant in the cradle; let the first word he lisps be Washington.” Webster’s textbook was eventually supplanted by the McGuffey Readers, which sold 120 million copies between 1836 and 1920, and which performed the same cultural tasks. They also contained patriotic texts, classic readings, and bits of religious instruction (though fewer with each new edition).
But now all that is changed. Americans still love their country, but schools no longer set out to inculcate patriotism as they once did. Indeed, it’s not just schools. Across our society, patriotism is tongue-tied, and nationalism, after all the horrors of the twentieth century, is suspect. These days, in short, patriotism is a problem. Most people just find it easiest to avoid the whole issue. They may stand at the playing of the national anthem, and they may tear up during the Olympics, but they store their patriotic emotions in the attic of their hearts.
Walter Berns, the distinguished scholar of American government and now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has wrestled with the problems of patriotism in his wise and penetrating new book, Making Patriots. Nobody is born a patriot, Berns argues. Patriotic convictions have to be inculcated, and the country depends upon them for its continued greatness.