I once led a group of college students in a discussion about the Pledge of Allegiance in our public schools. Most of the students condemned recitations of the pledge - especially its phrase "under God" - as an infringement upon the rights of nonbelievers. Near the end of class, though, one of the pledge's few supporters spoke up.
"Wait a minute," he said. "If the schools can worship George Washington, why can't they worship God?"
The class rose quickly to rebut him, noting that Washington is a "political" figure while God is a "religious" one. Significantly, though, even those students who opposed the mention of God in the pledge thought it was reasonable for schools to revere the Father of our Country. Schools don't pray to Washington, of course, but they certainly deify him - just as they worship America itself. And most Americans would seem to want it that way.
Consider last year's judicial ruling in California, which the Supreme Court recently agreed to review. In striking down a law requiring in-school recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals conceded that "fostering patriotism" was a legitimate educational goal. The problem with the pledge lay only in the words "under God," which were added in 1954 "to advance religion."
So patriotism is in, and religion is out. But what's the difference, really? And why is one acceptable, while the other is not?
You might reply that religion rests on faith, while patriotism is based upon reason. But history suggests otherwise. For the past two centuries, our schools have told our children that we are a uniquely free nation; that we are a force for good in the world, a beacon of liberty on a global sea of tyranny, poverty, and oppression. And we have taught this patriotic catechism exactly like a religion: Students are instructed to believe it, not to question it.
In the 19th century, especially, school textbooks emphasized America's innate superiority. "What is the national character of the United States?" asked an 1825 geography text. In the next sentence, it gave the book's only correct answer: "More elevated and refined than that of any nation on earth."
After the Civil War, to be sure, Northern and Southern textbooks taught divergent stories about America's great sectional conflict. Within each region, students received a single perspective rather than a variety. Below the Mason-Dixon Line, the term "Civil War" itself became taboo; texts called it the "War Between the States" or the "War of Yankee Invasion." Northern books were friendlier to the Union cause, but they ignored or denigrated African-Americans' efforts on behalf of the war as well as their tribulations after it.
In the early 20th century, a new generation of self-described "Progressive" historians began to question the sunny national narrative. During the American Revolution, they pointed out, one-third of Americans fought on the English side. After the war, the Progressives argued, rich Americans drafted a Constitution that protected their wealth from a rabble they reviled.
Some of this critique made its way into textbooks. But it disappeared in the 1920s, when a wide range of ethnic groups - including Poles, Germans, and blacks - joined hands against the new interpretation of the American Revolution. Poles rallied around Thaddeus Kosciusko; Germans celebrated Friedrich von Steuben; African-Americans venerated Crispus Attucks. All of these heroes had fought for the Revolution, and in the minds of ethnic minorities, any diminution of the larger cause would also diminish these figures' special contribution to it.
The next great change in textbooks occurred during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, when the books opened their pages to an enormous range of new multiethnic heroes: Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, Susan B. Anthony and Betty Friedan. Yet the textbooks folded this new cast into the old story of liberty, never asking how slavery, sexism, or genocide might alter it. In the strange world of school, Americans' deviations from freedom merely proved the nation's dedication to it.
Perhaps we don't really believe in America as a land of individual freedom - especially freedom of thought. If we did, we wouldn't tell every individual what to think. Instead, we'd expose our children to different views of America. And we'd urge them to make up their own minds - and tell their own stories - about it.
Similarly, the very practice of the Pledge of Allegiance contradicts its central message. A society that truly respected "liberty and justice for all" would not lead children in collective prayers to a single nation, or to a single God. Americans construe their deities - like their patriotism - in myriad ways. Why pretend otherwise when the kids are in the room?
In the end, then, my pledge-defending student was correct in his premises but wrong in his conclusions. We do worship George Washington in our history books, just as we worship God in the Pledge of Allegiance. But neither type of reverence belongs in our schools, which should teach children how to ask questions on their own. And they can't do that if they already know the "right" answer.
• Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of 'Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools.'