Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Nation, Nationalism, Curriculum, and the Making of Citizens

  • Lukas Boser Hofmann
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_3



Following the eighteenth-century political revolutions in North America and Europe – which were followed by the emergence of modern constitutional States – public education has been seen as a conditio sine qua non for integrating a linguistically and ethnically heterogeneous population into one nation. In 1792, for example, the French politician Louis-Michel Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau (1760–1793), in his plan for national education, stated that the immortality of nations is ensured by three “monuments”: a constitution, the rule of law, and public education. A constitution and laws were important because they established the State on a formal level, defined its organizational form and institutions, and set the rules for peaceful domestic coexistence. Certain eighteenth-century philosophers and politicians argued that being a citizen was more than simply having legal status and following laws; being a citizen also meant being intellectually and emotionally attached to the cultural and ethnic entity called the nation. In this sense, it was – and still is – public education’s task to make individuals into national citizens.

Nation and Nationalism

There is no comprehensive definition or theory of nation or nationalism. Phenomenologically, nations appeared over time in different forms and in various places, as did nationalism. In medieval universities, nations were groups of students speaking the same language who sat together at the dinner table. The notion that multilingual Switzerland is a federation of nations still exists. Other concepts of the nation focus on ethnicity (e.g., the First Nations in Canada), religion (e.g., Zionism), or cultural homogeneity (e.g., the German Kulturnation). Accordingly, notions of nationalism also differ. Certain theorists such as the Germans Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) suggested an “ethnic” nationalism by tying the nation to allegedly objective facts such as race, faith, and language. Others such as the French writer, historian, and philosopher Ernest Renan (1832–1892) understood nationalism as a shared national identity. This so-called “civic” nationalism is more integrative than “ethnic” nationalism in that the former is open to everyone, whereas the latter is based on a shared heritage, language, and faith. In a famous address to the University of Paris in 1882, Renan stated that a nation is constituted by citizens’ desire to live together: a nation is “a large scale solidarity” (Renan 1990, p. 19). A nation’s existence, in Renan’s famous words, is “a daily plebiscite” (ibid.). Nationalism is therefore not only based on a preexisting nation (i.e., a country and its population) but is also the ongoing construction and self-reassurance of the existence of a nation, whereas in the absence of nationalism, no such thing exists. Or, in Ernst Gellner’s (1925–1995) words, “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist” (Gellner 1964, p. 168). Reflecting on Renan’s and Gellner’s thoughts, the Irish historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson (1936–2015) suggested that nations be understood as “imagined communities” (Anderson 1983). According to Anderson, a modern nation-state is an imagined community because as a community it is not based on personal experiences and relationships. Due to the nation-state’s large territory and population, it is likely that most citizens will never meet one another nor will they see all regions of the nation with their own eyes. Anderson therefore argued that the nation, of which the individual citizen only knows a small part from his or her own experience, is largely imagined. This idea of nations as abstract communities that are the result of (intentional or unintentional) imagination, interpretation, and even invention has proven very fruitful for understanding the complex relationships between nations, nationalism, and public education (e.g., Sobe 2014).

National Identity, Curriculum, and the Making of Citizens

Citizenship in legal terms is acquired by birth (or naturalization), whereas national identity is not. The latter results from learning processes such as enculturation, socialization, and – last but not least – informal and formal education. The building and safeguarding of nations have been seen as a political, a juridical, and a pedagogical task. From early on, modern nation-states have established symbols to prove their existence and sovereignty against the outside and to provide their citizens with symbols to identify the nation and themselves. Although national currencies, national weights and measures, and postage stamps, for example, were first and foremost introduced for economic and administrative reasons, there was always a pedagogical agenda also. Through national symbols, people are expected to become emotionally and intellectually attached to the nation. This process was also the reason for building national libraries, national museums, and national theaters and ballets and for establishing national flags and anthems, holidays, and memorial days. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the nation became the most important point of reference for answering the question of who “we the people” are. Today, national symbolism remains a part of the concepts of national teams, national histories, and even national license plates.

Since the nineteenth century, public schools have been viewed as particularly good institutions for familiarizing children with national symbols and evoking national sentiments. Integrating as many national symbols into the curriculum as possible has been viewed as the most promising way of making children from various social, cultural, ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds into national citizens. However, the curriculum had to be primarily secular and under public control so that other points of reference would not interfere with nation building.

One Nation, One Language

One of the most important school subjects has been language instruction. Language, both spoken and written, is the basis of most human communication. Language is also a very important part of the concepts of the nation and the nation-state. Long before the emergence of the nation-state, nations were identified with people speaking a single language. However, most modern States included more than one language group or, in the case of the United States, were confronted with immigrants speaking many languages. If a country wanted to be a “true” nation-state, it needed to harmonize the use of languages within its borders. France is an early example where this ideology of “one nation, one language” found its way into the curriculum. As early as 1794, Abbé Grégoire (1750–1831) asked the National Assembly to introduce French as the standard language in the new republic. Throughout the nineteenth century, French curricula were based on the maxim that every student should learn to use the langue d’oïl, i.e., standard French. However, Eugen Weber (1976) noted that it took more than a century to accomplish this task. Although it took some time, linguistic adjustments via schooling were viewed as one of the most-promising integration measures. Stephen Harp (1998) noted that in Alsace-Lorraine, a region whose national affiliation changed between Germany and France several times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, integrating the population into France or the German Reich mostly meant teaching French whenever Alsace-Lorraine was part of France and teaching German whenever it was part of Germany.

However, teaching children to use the national language was not the only task language education had to fulfill regarding national integration. In reading and writing classes, children were also familiarized with national idiosyncrasies regarding spelling, vocabulary, and typography. These idiosyncrasies distinguish two nations that share a single language. For example, the letter ß is used in Germany but not in German-speaking Switzerland; British English and American English differ in grammar and spelling as do French and Québécois.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most nation-states adopted the “one nation, one language” ideology in their curricula, and many of them have retained it to this day. Therefore, the right to teach a local or regional language or to use such a language for instruction is a strong symbol of local autonomy (e.g., the use of Catalan in Catalonia). In many nations, minorities still strive for the acceptance of their language as a language of instruction. However, not all modern States adopted the “one nation, one language” ideology. Some States, for example, Canada, Belgium, Luxemburg, Finland, Afghanistan, and Switzerland, deliberately chose not to adopt one national language. In many cases, this situation is also mirrored in the curricula in different languages and in their content regarding language education. National identities apparently can also be multilingual (e.g., in Switzerland and Canada), although this multilingualism can also be a cause of internal friction (e.g., in Belgium).

Civics, History, and Geography

Language instruction was not the only subject that was intended to shape the students’ identity as national citizens; civic education was another important subject matter in that regard. In many countries, one of the first actions to make individuals into citizens was to publish a new type of textbook: the civic catechism. Religious catechisms were well established in early modern schools and were often the only textbooks that children used. Books of this type, which were initially intended to make children into devout and obedient Christians, were revised with the goal of creating citizens who possessed basic knowledge of the constitution, State institutions, civic virtues, the rights and duties of citizens, and the moral principles and values that were held in high esteem in a State (e.g., Tosato-Rigo (2012) and Viñao (2011) describe instances in Switzerland and Spain, respectively).

History is another subject that has been greatly involved in shaping national identities. National histories began to appear at the end of the eighteenth century and flourished in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These histories traced the origins of nations back to ancient times and legitimized their existence through an allegedly long development. Narratives related the actions of heroic figures whose patriotism, virtue, courage, and self-sacrifice were expected to ignite readers’ love of the fatherland or motherland. The narrative centered on how the nation was forged in heroic and mostly victorious battles against oppressors or invaders (e.g., the “German” Arminius against the Romans, the Swiss William Tell and Arnold Winkelried against the Habsburgs, and the Frenchwoman Joan of Arc against the English). Such stories were often folk myths rather than documented historical events, and given the rising standards of academic history, many of them were deconstructed by professional historians over time. Nevertheless, the stories long remained the centerpieces of history textbooks. History as a school subject was not so much about “how it really was” in the past as it was about the assertion of a proud national heritage.

Another important subject was geography. Geography textbooks and maps were intended to provide children with an image of what their nation looked like. Textbooks were organized in the form of a tour of the nation. Through descriptions of various regions and their inhabitants, children were familiarized with their compatriots, whom they probably would never meet in person. State borders were also important for imagining the nation. They were often depicted as natural borders such as seashores, rivers, and mountain ranges to give students the impression that the national territory was a product of nature (or perhaps God even) rather than one of men. Geography was also connected to history by showing that heroic historical deeds had occurred in a particular place that could therefore also become a place of remembrance. Finally, geography placed the nation among other (neighboring) nations and assigned it a place on the map of the continent or the world. Maps published in a particular nation always showed this nation-state in the center.

The Whole Curriculum

However, important language, civics, history, and geography allegedly were in the process of making citizens; all other subjects were also involved in the task. To give but one example, mathematics teaches students to think logically and rationally, as the French philosopher and mathematician Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794), noted at the end of the eighteenth century. In contrast to the early modern period, when people acquired mathematical skills and knowledge regarding specific tasks such as buying or selling on a farmer’s market, measuring timber for construction, or keeping the accounts of a warehouse, mathematics was introduced into modern curricula in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a tool to train the students’ mental abilities in general. Rational thinking was purportedly the basis for acting as a modern citizen. Furthermore, in mathematics lessons, children learned to use national currencies and weights and measures, which were – as mentioned above – important symbols of national sovereignty and identity.

The rationale of the rational citizen was stressed again in the 1960s and 1970s, when many countries introduced “new math” into their curricula. New math aimed to teach students the modern ways of mathematical thinking (such as set theory, Boolean algebra, and bases other than 10) instead of the old-fashioned, decimal elementary arithmetic. The main agenda of new math, however, was no different from Condorcet’s plan, which was to generate logical-thinking, rational, virtuous citizens who were well equipped for living in a modern democratic State (see Phillips 2015). Although the introduction of new math was anything but a success story (actually new math disappeared from the curricula after a few years), the intentions behind this endeavor clearly show that mathematics is not a neutral subject. Mathematics conveys, as any other subject, an idea about the learning child, the (future) citizens, and the (moral order of the) State.

Nations at Risk

The alleged importance of public schooling to the nation has been a particularly prominent topic of discussion during times of national crisis. Most modern nation-states have experienced several crises. They were threatened either by other nations or States or by internal friction such as ethnic, religious, linguistic, or social tensions that could have led to turmoil, revolution, civil war, or secession – in short, to national collapse. Indeed, most modern nations were born from wars of liberation (or wars of secession, depending on the point of view) and revolutions (or rebellions). Throughout the nineteenth century, nation-states became increasingly involved in national rivalries, competitions, and belligerent confrontations. These conflicts also led to changes in the notion of nationalism. Nationalism was increasingly meant to spread and consolidate the idea of a “we” among the people of a nation-state. This “we” was contrasted with a “they”: people in other nations and those within the particular nation-state who did not share what was commonly viewed as the national identity. When nation-states faced war or internal turmoil (e.g., the Revolutionary War and Civil War in the USA, the French Revolutionary Wars, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, World War II, and the Cold War), this sense of national identity more than ever was distilled down to patriotism, allegiance, and the willingness to serve (and to risk one’s life for) the fatherland or motherland. Two institutions were charged with making young men into citizen-soldiers (soldat-citoyen): military and public schools. Although the idea of the citizen-soldier disappeared in most nations during the twentieth century, the tight connection between national security policy and public schooling (or public investment in schooling) remained because nation-states – whether presently at risk or not – wanted to foster patriotism and allegiance through informal and formal education. They also were – and still are – interested in providing students with advanced scientific knowledge that could one day be useful in defending the nation through advanced civil and military technology. Several examples demonstrate this motive. Following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, a rumor in European newspapers held that as a result of superior public education in Prussia, German soldiers were better oriented on French territory than the French themselves. It is no wonder that nation-states such as Switzerland increasingly emphasized geography and map reading in public schools in the late nineteenth century. Additional examples from the twentieth century illustrate this relationship between education and national security. Only a year after the Soviets launched their satellite Sputnik in 1957, which revealed a technological gap between the Eastern and the Western Blocs, the US Congress passed the National Defense Education Act. In 1983, a report of the US National Commission on Excellence in Education argued that national security depended on the educational system. However, the threat this time did not come from outside but rather from within: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war” (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983, p. 5). Following the report, the allegedly poor American education was not only threatening the well-being of individual Americans but also threatening the State itself by weakening the nation’s main source of strength, i.e., its well-educated, loyal, and competent citizens. Although the twentieth century has been labeled the “century of the child” – with education focusing primarily on children’s physical and psychological needs – this example shows that the making of virtuous citizens remains one of the basic tasks of public schooling in modern nation-states.



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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Applied Sciences and ArtsNorthwesternSwitzerland