Many students see citizenship as ‘stupid’

It’s not just that many U.S. students don’t know civics or U.S. history, writes Stanford Education Professor William Damon. Increasingly, they don’t care about citizenship.

“Being American is not really special,” said one high school student in a survey.  Another replied that citizenship is “stupid to me,” saying,  “I don’t want to belong to any country. It just feels like you are obligated to this country.”

Many influential educators believe “global citizenship” is the proper aim of civics instruction, not allegiance to the U.S., Damon writes.

As global citizens, it is argued, our primary identification should be with the humanity of the world, and our primary obligation should be to the universal ideals of human rights and justice.

Devotion to one’s own nation state, commonly referred to as patriotism, is suspect because it may turn into a militant chauvinism or a dangerous “my country right or wrong” perspective.

Schools with large immigrant populations neglect teaching students about “American identity and the American tradition,” he writes.

Educational critic Diane Ravitch observed this phenomenon when visiting a New York City school whose principal proudly spoke of the school’s efforts to celebrate the cultures of all the immigrant students. Ravitch writes, “I asked him whether the school did anything to encourage students to appreciate American culture, and he admitted with embarrassment that it did not.”

These and other American students are being urged to identify with, on the one hand, customs from the native lands they have departed and, on the other hand, with the abstract ideals of an amorphous global culture. Lost in between these romantic affiliations is an identification with the nation where these students actually will practice citizenship.

Adding to the dysfunction of this educational choice, as Ravitch writes, is the absurdity of teaching “a student whose family fled to this country from a tyrannical regime or from dire poverty to identify with that nation rather than with the one that gave the family refuge.”

Damon suggests civics instructors teach students to take pride in their country’s best traditions. In our recent history, students could learn about “the civil rights movement that extended rights to millions of citizens,” the victories over totalitarianism that “extended new freedoms to millions of subjugated people in Europe and Asia” and “the building of a middle class that offered economic freedom” to citizens and immigrants alike.

Damon is the author of Failing Liberty 101.

About Joanne


  1. This is the main difference of immigrants who came to the United States in the early 1900’s. They wanted to work, assimilate, and understand their new country. Many immigrants who have come to the US in the last 20 years could care less about the United States and it’s traditions and laws (except when it works in their favor).

    Of course, not every immigrant is like this, but I fear the US will wind up losing it’s national identity within the next 25 years (if not sooner).

  2. Oh, lord, the one thing we do NOT need to do is yammer on about civil rights and our triumph over totalitarianism. That’s what history teaching is today, and what got us into this mess. We should never mention the words “oppressed”, “subjugation” or “empower” in history or civics class.

    Our history is fascinating. Many, many history teachers think the “founding father stuff” is boring and zip through it and all of America’s economic and territorial development. Instead, it’s a journey through various groups’ journeys through the evil American system, demanding power. It’s horrible, how it’s taught.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    I believe Howard Zinn was card-carrying, as in had his dues current, in the CPUSA.
    And where do these kids spend much of their waking hours…?
    I believe I mentioned on another JJ thread having gone around with some HS history teachers about how come, if the Rev was supported by one third of the population, opposed by one third, and the rest trying to stay out of the way, why so many more rebels than loyalists showed up to fight.
    After trying lame excuses, as if I were one of their students who couldn’t afford to point out their lameness, they agreed that the reason I was so thickheaded and backward was because I must be a patriot.
    Can’t be any connection, can there?

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    …how come, if the Rev was supported by one third of the population, opposed by one third, and the rest trying to stay out of the way, why so many more rebels than loyalists showed up to fight.

    Just off the top of my head? Part of the reason that you support the King is so that the King’s troops do all that nasty fighting stuff.

    Servitude hath its privileges, few as they are.

  5. This is why I’m so apprehensive about my school’s adoption of IB – I fear that my students will not learn to appreciate just how wonderful this country is.

  6. There is a difference between being honest about mistakes in our country’s past and disproportionately dwelling on them. For example, there is not a place on this planet that did not have slavery at one point or another. How many nations went to war with themselves to end it?

    If you’re not proud of the country you live in, there are plenty of others to choose from. Assimilation is not a complicated idea: when you move to another country, you learn their languages and traditions (deciding which of your old traditions are important enough to keep and why, and be able to explain them to others), and bring along your old cookbook. Thus are all enriched. It is the job of each person to teach about where they are from, not vice versa.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Michael. You may be right. The folks in question tried, “the loyalists were older”, and the loyalists were mostly Church of England. Never explained the connection. Various others.
    My point, however, was that asking the question, based on a fact that the teachers found inimical to the world view they wanted others to have, decided the reason for my dumbheadedness was that I must be a patriot. IOW, stupid, chauvinist, right-wing, unreconstructed, believing in certain things we must deconstruct.
    Then, when I made a point about folks leaving upstate NY for the midwest due to its better ag prospects, they hauled out quotes from a nineteenth century pssuff piece. All about the fruitful orchards and waving grain and contented cattle. Thing is, I’d already told them I come from New England–you can’t farm scenery–and am now in the midwest. I know places like the one described in some real estate promoter’s bs. Runs about a mile from the river bank to the first granite ridge. Now, driving the back roads of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, the flat parts of Missouri and Arkansas. And I’d already told them about what I know. But, no, I’m the dummy.
    The habit of speaking to kids who know not to object, since they need the grade, apparently carries over to talking to adults.
    Larger point is, the acitizen–made that up but you can use it without attribution–likely was in a class taught by clowns like these.

  8. What scares me about the “citizenship doesn’t matter” sentiment is that it seems to be NATIVE BORN kids – “automatic” citizens – rather than immigrants.

    I suspect some of it comes down to what I see, pessimistically, as a rising attitude of “I don’t want the obligations or responsibilities.” They want the goodies that living in a country like this can provide, but they don’t want to take the responsibilities of citizenship. (I may be sour about this because I’ve been dealing with some “I don’t want to take any responsibility for stuff” people who are ADULTS and should certainly know better, but I do feel some day like those who are willing to try pulling their weight are fewer and fewer).

    I dunno. I grew up in the 70s when WWII veterans were still fairly young, and I heard a lot of stories from them…and I had pretty good History and “Social Studies’ classes through school. Even though I was a pretty sheltered kid in a lot of ways, I still think I was better-informed than a lot of our students (even college students) are today.

  9. Alternative headline: Many citizens see students as “stupid”.

  10. supersub says:

    And is anyone surprised that with such an attitude permeating society that we have such a collection of clowns that have been elected to run our nation? I blame the hippies.
    Also looking forward to the totalitarian starship trooper-style government that will develop as a result.

  11. My parents are diehard liberals but also very patriotic and they get very upset about all the America-bashing on the left. They know we’re not perfect and certainly disagree with plenty of what our country’s politicians do, but they still think that we’re the greatest country in the world and are proud to raise us kids that way. I wish more liberals felt the same 🙁

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Far be it from me to suggest, this being an education blog, that a discussion about the place of education in this issue might be appropriate.

  13. Cranberry says:

    Please do not criticize the patriotism of recent high school graduates:

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    Cranberry. I was a soldier. So were most of the men in my family for a number of generations.
    Thus, I am entitled to inquire where the idea that citizenship is stupid came from.

  15. SuperSub says:

    Do not let the exemplary character of some individuals mask the corruption that has infected others…

    We had a SS teacher retire recently who taught 11th and 12th grade electives such as PIG (Participation in Government). He was a very popular teacher, but his PIG class focused solely on protests, civil rights movements, and conspiracy theories (grassy knoll, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, etc.)

    During the last election he led his students in making pro-Obama t-shirts and buttons, which led one student to write in to the local paper to criticize him.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    How many Zinn books have school boards purchased and teachers assigned?