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Beckon Us From Home

Enlisting in a Patriotic Education

Thomas Dillon (left), Kayla Wayman (center), and Julia Lair (right) attend a ceremony at Mt. Rushmore.

ISSUE:  Summer 2018

In America, in 2018, the word “patriotism” has taken on a particular meaning. “Patriotic” equals militaristic, patriarchal, obedient, maybe xenophobic; it evokes guns, red meat, the NFL, and the Republican National Convention. No matter how hard Democrats and liberals try to reclaim the word—to make the point that you can be “patriotic” while also believing that there are problems with the country—they haven’t been able to do it. 

“Patriotic education” sounds, to liberal ears, like right-wing indoctrination. But it wasn’t always this way. Plenty of twentieth-century progressive educators saw the inculcation of a civic-minded, community-oriented flavor of patriotism as part of their duties. But after Vietnam-era protests against militarism, and the work of the civil rights movements in the sixties and seventies, the ideal of “patriotic education” fell out of fashion in American public schools. Today, national youth groups, like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, invoke patriotism in specialized ways, but don’t center it in their curricula. The onetime monoculture of mainstream childhood patriotism is largely gone.  

When photographer Sarah Blesener went looking for groups of kids who were undergoing contemporary patriotic education, she found that this rightward shift in the word’s meaning made it easy for her to identify the kinds of groups she’d like to photograph. If the adults associated with a program used the word “patriotism” (or, say, “Americanism”) in a conversation or a mission statement, the group was of interest. Recording kids’ experiences at patriotic education camps and programs, she thought, would let her see how the political trickles down and becomes personal. 

Blesener found access to some of these groups to be difficult—the adults in charge distrusted the media. And the leaders’ concern is legitimate. People outside of the kinds of circles who might send a child to a patriotism camp, who hear of Blesener’s project, expect to see a certain kind of image: a line of uniformed children, their rounded kid faces and gangly bodies forming a striking contrast to the militarism of their attitudes. Blesener started this work on patriotic education inspired by old propaganda photos of children in formation, but soon found the depiction of these militaristic moments to be limiting and glib. In her work, you do see plenty of uniforms, but there are also many pictures of kids dancing, swimming, or goofing around—kids in the process of growing up. “Youth,” Blesener said, “really destroy the binary we have between left and right, good and bad, right and wrong.”

The photographs of the Border Patrol Explorers, who are almost all Mexican American, go a long way to challenge that binary. These kids practice apprehending “immigrants,” learn to navigate the terrain around the border, and enter virtual-reality environments for training purposes, just like adult Border Patrol agents. Blesener’s understated images poke at our expectations about the kinds of children who might be interested in policing the border. 

There are many weapons in these photographs—some replicas (like the ones used by the Border Patrol Explorers) and some real. Blesener tries not to over-rely on the shock value of these images, but the weapon photos inevitably fascinate. Last year, when she asked the kids why they had signed up, talk of illegal immigration and references to the 2016 election dominated. This year, after the events in Parkland, Florida, Blesener found that many of her subjects had joined the youth groups and camps to cope with their anxiety and fear about shootings. The firearms work and tactical training they underwent left them feeling that they might be better prepared to deal with an active shooter in their schools. 

The hierarchical, strict nature of the programs, many of which are staffed by current or former members of the military, is also a draw. These programs (like many other American youth groups) require members to relinquish their phones for the duration. These kids are digital natives, accustomed to constant self-presentation via social media. But they thrive on this phone-less existence. “In the beginning, I was thinking, ‘Why would any fourteen-year-old want to be given a group identity?’” Blesener said. “But really it makes sense. They have the chance to be stripped of the fear and pressure of feeling unique.” In learning “patriotism,” they can relax into something bigger than themselves. 


—Rebecca Onion

 Kayla Wayman (center) is in charge of ensuring that all of the cadet students are in their seats and at attention before driving to the South Dakota Air and Space Museum, at Ellsworth Air Force Base, Rapid City, SD. Students from five states around the Midwest spend a week at the Civil Air Patrol Joint Dakota Cadet Encampment. Photographed by Sarah Blesener Austin, nine, takes a break from gathering wood for shelter, as part of an exercise at the North Florida Survival School camp, in Florida’s Ocala National Forest. The camp’s curriculum includes survival-skills training, firearm safety, daily prayer sessions, and hymns. Photographed by Sarah Blesener Utah Patriot Camp, a week-long day camp for elementary students in Herriman, UT, teaches the Constitution, American values, military history, and Bible study, among other courses. Photographed by Sarah Blesener The Warrenton Rifles team competes as part of the American Legion’s Junior Shooting Sports Program, a national program under the Legion’s “Americanism” mission. Students train with the .177 caliber air rifle, with qualification courses provided by the National Rifle Association and the Civilian Marksmanship program. Approximately 15,000 students participate in the program nationwide. Photographed by Sarah Blesener Riley, fifteen, a Young Marine from Hanover, PA, watches as recruits learn how to build shelters as part of a weekend Recruit Boot Camp at Camp Tuckahoe, near Dillsburg, PA. The Young Marines are a nonprofit organization with an estimated 10,000 students enrolled nationwide and around the world. The program runs year-long, with meetings once a week. Photographed by Sarah Blesener Lenny Queriapa, instructor of the Border Patrol Explorer Program, leads a demonstration on handcuffing and search-and-arrest at local Border Patrol Post 125 (Nogales, AZ). The Explorer program offers fourteen- to twentyone-year-olds the opportunity to work with law enforcement and experience simulated border-patrol scenarios. Photographed by Sarah Blesener Dominique Duque, a student from the Border Patrol Explorer Program, spends the morning practicing felony (high-risk) car stops and searches at the United States Border Patrol Station in Kingsville, TX. One of the Kingsville station’s roles is to patrol the largest ranch in Texas, covering more than 800,000 acres of the state. Photographed by Sarah Blesener Ryan Dunlavy (left), Nerisa Garcia (center), and Jeremy Cabral (right), students from the Border Patrol Explorer Program, practice active-shooter scenarios and room clearing at the United States Border Patrol Station in Kingsville, TX. The Explorer program is a branch of the Boy Scouts of America and is sponsored by the US Department of Homeland Security. Photographed by Sarah Blesener Young Marines attend a meeting that focuses on drug awareness (Hanover, PA). The Young Marines is a nonprofit organization focusing on youth development in categories such as citizenship, patriotism, and drug-free lifestyles. The group has approximately 300 clubs across the United States and internationally, with students ranging in age from eight to eighteen. Photographed by Sarah Blesener Students prepare for physical drills at Marine Military Academy, an all-boys institute in Harlingen, TX. Attendees comprise boys, ages twelve to eighteen, from around the world, with almost 400 cadets in attendance. Photographed by Sarah Blesener Students from Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus celebrate the grand finale of its seventh annual JROTC Military Ball at the Villa Baron Mansion (Bronx, NY). Photographed by Sarah Blesener Jamison, Jade, Gregory, and Nick (l-r) enjoy the Fourth of July holiday on the Fort Berthold Reservation, ND. In two days one of their friends will depart for boot camp for the Marines. Photographed by Sarah Blesener On the third day of Academy Week, students from the Border Patrol Explorer Program participate in a firearms-training class. Photographed by Sarah Blesener JROTC students from Fern Creek High School (Louisville, KY) practice for the National Drill Team Championships, which takes place in Daytona Beach, FL. Fern Creek’s Lady Leathernecks hold the all-time record for championship titles. JROTC is one of the largest youth programs in the world, with over 310,000 American high-school students enrolled. Photographed by Sarah Blesener



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