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Dr. Arthur Schwartz



Note to reader: This is the second in a new blog series on questions that are helping to shape the work of Character.org. At the end of this post I pose 3 Questions. If one sparks your imagination, I hope you will share with me your ideas. I’m eager to learn.

Every week at Character.org we conclude our weekly staff meeting with a staff member sharing a “Character Moment.” This past week my colleague Lili shared how the war in Ukraine has inspired her to deeply reflect on two character strengths: empathy and courage.

These past few days, motivated by Lili’s insight, I have been thinking about how the people of Ukraine are also teaching us about patriotism and love of country.

I know the word “patriotism” is a hot-button term right now in the United States. This blog post could result in my getting “canceled.” But at this moment, I need to summon my own courage.

Aristotle asserted that we are by nature political animals. I beg to differ. I think we are belonging creatures. Our deepest longing is the longing to belong. 

The roots of patriotism can be found in our deepest attachments. For some, the seedbed of this character strength is our love of family. For others it may be their love of God or their love for friends, teammates or sorority sisters. Developmentally, our larger loyalties are forged out of these primary (primal) ties. Patriotism is the love of one’s country and often includes a bonding with those who share that love. 

In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln helps us to more fully understand this “longing to belong.” He calls us to listen to our “mystic chords of memory” – the chords that profoundly touch our hearts and reveal “the better angels of our nature.” Lincoln reminds us that these “mystic chords” power up whenever we need to care for or protect those we love, including at times the love to make the ultimate sacrifice

A recent Quinnipiac poll asked Americans what they would do “if they were in the same position as the Ukrainians are in now: stay and fight or leave the country?” 38% of our fellow Americans say they would leave the country

I wonder whether our current political turmoil is one reason for this percentage being much higher than I expected. But I’ll never join the chorus of those who reduce patriotism to “love it or leave it.” The virtue of loving one’s country does not require us to wrap ourselves in the American flag. Patriotism is much more than “blind love.” We can simultaneously love America and love her ideals even more. Patriots are also those brave enough to stand up and speak out when our Nation is falling short of her ideals.

Patriotism and love of country are best understood as connected to our civic character.  At its core, this domain of character focuses on how we should treat all people with respect, courtesy and dignity. Yet, our civic character is also about volunteering and contributing to the common good for intrinsic reasons. Fred Rogers beautifully captured these civic virtues when discussing how his mother always encouraged him to “look for the helpers.” 

The real crisis facing the United States is our failure as parents, schools, and communities to inspire young people to care for and strengthen the “common good.” Rather, our children and teens learn quickly that they need to be self-interested creatures. Alarmingly, there is compelling new research that a “beyond-the-self” orientation is an atypical adolescent experience. Dr. Michele Borba, Character.org’s current “Sandy Award” recipient, calls the era we’re in the “selfie syndrome.” Unless we reverse this trend, the ideal of the “common good” may soon evaporate into a dark, digital cloud that promotes only an “It’s-All-About-Me” ethic.

I’m reminded of a lyric from the song Bobby McGee: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” We need to ask ourselves: Are we encouraging young people, through a hidden but pervasive curriculum, to get on that metaphorical “open road” — unattached to anything but their own needs and ambitions?

If so, we risk building a future void of any of Lincoln’s shared “mystic chords of memory.”

I can’t stand by and let that happen. Neither can Character.org. Can you?

3 Questions

1. Is patriotism and love of country an ossified concept? Should we instead focus on developing in young people the mindsets and skills of a global citizen? [Note: In a recent poll 43 percent of Americans view themselves primarily as global citizens]

2. Scores of young people are concerned about sustainability and climate change. Shouldn’t these issues supersede patriotism and love of country?

3. Has patriotism and love of country become concepts that only one political party wants to promote and defend?

Four Resources

Illinois Civics Hub
An amazing collection of tips for K-12 teachers on ways to help their students understand the war in Ukraine. I loved the resources on teaching about resiliency.

Citizen University
Want to feel inspired? Check out the work of Citizen U. What an honor it is for me to be part of their Civic Collaboratory.

Report on Educating for American Democracy
From my perch, this bi-partisan effort offers K-12 schools a dynamic roadmap to equip students with essential civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics
This report, published by the National Association of Scholars, is critical of the “New Civics” because of its “tilt” toward progressive ideas and causes. 


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