Students learn the power of informed citizenship

History teacher Peter Miedema discusses differences between patriotism and nationalism with his students.

Teacher Peter Miedema told a class of Shelter Island seniors Tuesday morning that he will hunt them down and arrive angry if they’re ever interviewed on TV and fumble a question about American history.

He and co-teacher Michelle Corbett engaged the class in, among other topics, a thoughtful discussion about the differences between patriotism and nationalism, drawing on President Ronald Reagan’s farewell speech.

The students showed what they’ve learned about citizenship, as the teachers fired off questions immigrants seeking to become United States citizens must know.

Mr. Miedema and Ms. Corbett expressed pleasure in the mastery the students showed in answering the citizenship test questions. The class has studied and learned all 100 questions and were “awesome” in their answers, Ms. Corbett said.

Last week, the Reporter published 10 questions from the 100 Maria Serano of Maria’s Kitchen (see “Island businesswoman becomes U.S. citizen,” February 28) had to answer to gain her citizenship, which inspired the teachers to quiz the class.

As rapidly as the questions came, the students shot back responses, demonstrating a mastery of knowledge about the country’s founding, the Constitution, and its history, as well as a sense of current events.

No indoctrination here — but an impressive demonstration that none of these students will have to be hunted down and berated for ignorance.

In his farewell speech, Mr. Reagan spoke about the need for “informed patriotism,” and that’s how the students saw the positive side of loyalty to their country.

Patriotism is not a matter of blindly following others, one student offered, and a consensus saw nationalism as a less knowledgeable political stance.

Ms. Corbett summed it up for them, calling patriotism an informed working knowledge of the foundations and principles of the nation.

Teacher Michelle Corbett leading a classroom discussion.

One student responded that reclaiming values makes the country a better place.

Another young scholar thoughtfully suggested that viewing patriotism as a negative or positive term depends on how it’s used. It can be a means of bringing people together if it’s informed, or keeping them apart if it’s not linked to knowledge.

Today’s students have access to multiple views and an interchange of ideas with a wider number of people, partly because they have more information at their fingertips, Mr. Miedema said. Therefore, he said he expects his students to be able to examine premises in greater depth than was available to past generations.

And, yes, he does want them to know dates, because they are critical to understanding periods of history, and to locate what may have influenced certain events.