Patriotism and the practice of honest citizenship

By Andrew Wilkes, Campaign Manager, 50x2026

Patriotism that prioritizes the love of country without telling the truth about that country that we love is not patriotism. It is, instead, a hollow piety that ridicules the dignity and practical force of constitutionally protected free speech. The net result of such unreflective adulation is that teachers, students, and our communities — not to mention our political culture — suffer. A nobler patriotism, one which is the goal of comprehensive, experiential civics education, is captured by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “the life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.”

In an oft-overlooked February 1968 BBC interview, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made the following observation, in words which feel as relevant now as when they were first uttered:

“I think we have to honestly admit that the problems in the world today, as they relate to the question of race, must be blamed on the whole doctrine of white supremacy, the whole doctrine of racism, and these doctrines came into being through the white race and the exploitation of the colored peoples of the world…”

Critical race theory is frequently denounced yet rarely defined. The honesty which King cites here is seldom invoked by those who appeal to his legacy and by those who malign critical race theory as fostering white guilt and undermining patriotism. This varied field of scholarship essentially argues that racial inequities, despite some legal advancements, appear intractable in the nation. It is not, despite the claims of some of its detractors, an attempt to engender a universal sense of aggrievement, loss, and division among the nation’s citizens and residents.

This discipline, instead, should be seen as public-spirited scholarship whose broad intent is to promote understanding and redress of the country’s policy legacies of structural racism, including educational policy related to how our public institutions work and whose voices are valued in our political culture.

The fact is our nation’s history is not perfect. Generously interpreted, America’s founders intended to create a country of equal treatment for all persons, as spelled out in the opening words of the Declaration of Independence they signed 245 years ago. We have not fully realized that aspiration. To argue otherwise would be to deceive ourselves and our future generations. And to prohibit educators from teaching students and helping them learn from the lessons of our past to help strengthen the fabric of our communities seems antithetical to our Founders’ intent. It would seem to be against the very idea of the American Experiment.

As a campaign dedicated to ensuring that all students receive a well-rounded, experiential democracy education, we view that process as deeply patriotic and honest, a civic undertaking worthy of all our best efforts. We invite you to join us as we work towards full participation in our multiracial democracy through expanding access to comprehensive, experiential civic education.

50x2026 is a national initiative to elevate civics education policy, in every state, by 2026 — the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.