Patriotism and perspective: Teaching ‘Born in the U.S.A.’

The famous Bruce Springsteen anthem provides an avenue to deep discussions about multiple ways to understand a text.

As a teacher educator and former high school social studies teacher, I want to encourage my students to consider multiple points of view about their country and about the texts they study and teach. To that end, the 1984 Bruce Springsteen song “Born in the U.S.A.” — which tells the tragic story of a U.S. soldier who is sent to fight in Vietnam and returns home to unemployment and despair — has been a valuable resource.

Since I began teaching with the song in 2004, the lesson has evolved somewhat, and I’ve adapted it to fit specific classes and contexts, but I’ve settled on a basic structure that works for most situations. I begin by asking my students to listen to the 1984 version of the song. Usually, though I don’t name the song, a majority of my students (be they 9th graders or college seniors) instantly recognize it, even if only faintly. When the recording finishes, students free-write about the song before we discuss our reactions as a group. Then they listen again, making notes on a copy of the song’s lyrics. When the song concludes again, they free-write and we discuss further, taking note of the similarities and differences between the two listenings.

Complicating questions

At this point in the conversation, I like to stir the pot by asking the question: Is “Born in the U.S.A.” a patriotic song? Typically, there’s robust disagreement. Some students, pointing to the emphatic, recurring chorus line of “I was born in the U.S.A,” assert that the song is unquestionably patriotic, that it stirs in them a feeling of deep love for their country. Others, asserting that the song is not patriotic, see the chorus as a plea for a better country and the depressing story of the verses as evidence that Springsteen is a (perhaps ungrateful) critic of the country. And while agreeing that Springsteen is critical, still other students contend that his criticism is itself patriotic. In short, the class quickly comes to see how tricky it is to pin down the meaning of patriotism.

One guitar shaped old grunge vintage dirty faded shabby distressed American US national flag isolated on white background

To add to the complexity, I then show a recording of Springsteen and his E Street Band playing the song in Barcelona, Spain, in October 2002. When the first notes of the song are played, thousands of audience members, seemingly in unison, raise their hands and jump up and down, repeatedly shouting, “Booooooorn in the U.S.AAA.” If the song resonates so powerfully with a non-American audience, I ask, what does this say about its status as a patriotic anthem?

I also like to show a video of Springsteen playing the song in 2000 in New York City. He is alone under a spotlight, playing a 12-string guitar with a slide, and it is a very different arrangement from the 1984 version. During the long acoustic introduction, and sometimes even after Springsteen begins singing, many students don’t realize that it’s the same song. It is fascinating to watch their reactions as they catch on, and equally fascinating to get their thoughts on the ways in which the same song can vary in its meaning and impact depending on the presentation. When the recording concludes, they excitedly take up the similarities and differences between the two versions of the song, arguing about how the performance style affected their understanding. Thus, the song provides an entry not just into the uncertain meaning of patriotism but also into the practice of thinking critically about texts and the perspectives embedded in them, as well as the perspectives that we bring to our analysis.

Always learning

While I’ve listened to the song dozens of times, my students’ reactions sometimes show me new ways to understand it. For instance, in a high school American Studies course, the discussion came to focus deeply on the lines:

I had a brother at Khe Sanh
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone

He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now

As they talked through the passage, students decided that the narrator’s brother had died at Khe Sanh and “They’re still there” indicated that the fighting was pointless, that nothing had changed except for bloodshed. But as students wondered about the last two lines, one young woman, Tara, confidently asserted that the narrator’s brother fell in love and had a baby with a Vietnamese woman in Saigon, and the narrator now possessed a picture of the woman and her child, who looks exactly like the child’s deceased father.

Wow! Tara halted me with her analysis. I had always thought the narrator simply had a picture of the brother and this woman, but Tara’s understanding not only seemed more plausible but also complicated the storyline further. The song, like patriotism, like perspective, was neither simple nor straightforward.

Citation: Kissling, M. (2018). BACKTALK: Patriotism and perspective: Teaching ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (2), 72.

MARK T. KISSLING (mtk16@psu.edu) is an assistant professor of education at Penn State University in State College, Penn. He is the guest editor for the Fall 2018 edition of the Bank Street Occasional Papers Series: Am I Patriotic? Learning and Teaching the Complexities of Patriotism Here and Now.

2 comments

  • Tom Kissling

    Great article! Love, Dad

  • Tom Adams

    Really enjoyed this. Tara’s perspective is outstanding; such a reminder to let students have a voice! “Ghost of Tom Joad” and its different versions afforded me a similar opportunity. Thanks for this insight!

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