I stopped being patriotic

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Gateway to nationalism

Patriotism is universally considered a good thing. It is defined as the love of one's own country, and love cannot be bad. I was raised to be patriotic and I was pretty patriotic until the age of 26 or so. However, today I see patriotism as an expression of my youthful ignorance. I also see it as a possible gateway to nationalism. The road from love to hate is not that long, and my own example proves it.

English as an eye opener

I was raised to be patriotic. I do not consider this a result of indoctrination because my upbringing was positive. There is nothing wrong with loving one's own country. There is nothing wrong with working hard to make one's land a better land for everyone. Moreover, patriotism is very natural. All positive experiences in one's town or village will build rich and positive knowledge of one's locality. Similarly, a common language, common newspapers, books, radio and TV make sure one's understanding of one's country or nation is naturally deeper than the understanding of the neighbors. If that understanding is associated with positive experience of growing up, this builds a healthy foundation for positive patriotism. This is how I became patriotic.

I started studying biology in 1980 at the age of 18, and it did not take long for me to realize that my career in science would be slowed down if I was to stay in Poland instead of just finding work in the US. However, I was patriotic, and I would not contemplate leaving. Instead, I gravitated towards theoretical sciences. I was interested in how the brain works, so I thought that computer science would be a great tool to continue: computational theory of the brain was my target. In 1985, at the age of 23, I started studying computer science. In 1988, I would still trumpet around my patriotism and that I would never leave Poland for "better lands". My claim was that "my country invested a great deal in my free education, so I cannot betray my compatriots and work elsewhere".

However, by 1990, I had already settled on a very clear dream of getting a PhD in the US. In those two short years: 1988-1990, the only notable factor of change was English. It was the time I came up with the idea of computational spaced repetition that made me master English in a wink. From being English illiterate in 1987, I passed GRE exams in flying colors in 1990. My English test results were better than those of native American graduates. English opened my eyes to the world, and I suddenly realized that I am a member of a global community. Whatever good I can do for science in Poland or in the US would benefit the entire world, not just the country of my residence. I cannot explain how, at the age of 26 that truth was still invisible to my otherwise pretty knowledgeable brain. However, neuroscience seems to have some answers: brains take decades to mature! The most obvious things are invisible if you do not pay attention. The darkest place is under the candlestick.

Today, I still love my country, but I love Europe even more for its ideals of peace, solidarity, freedom, and rational governance. I can finally see that uneven love is an expression of uneven knowledge. Strong patriotism can be an expression of ignorance of other nations, or an expression of vast knowledge of local issues, or an expression of strong emotion that is not easily controlled, or, in most cases, the resultant of all these forces: uneven knowledge with uneven associations based on uneven history of experience.

Today, all my learning is based on incremental reading. This means it tends to cover many issues in a more even manner. Interests and passions spread dendritically and are sustained by inherent value. As a result, I am still a bit patriotic, and I still have many positive associations with my local land.

Coerced patriotism

This text has been provoked by the new history curriculum in Polish schools (2017). Children are supposed to strengthen their national identity. On paper, that sounds good. However, why do we demand that first graders need to asemantically learn the Polish anthem? They can hardly see the place of Poland on the map of the world. They do not understand the anthem lyrics. Very often, their sense of rhythm or pitch is very weak. Is it healthy to speak of "foreign hostile greedy forces" (Polish anthem: "co nam obca przemoc wziela")? All that drilling happens at the time when the kid's knowledge of foreigners is that they tend to speak a different language and live elsewhere. Luckily, this kind of asemantic and coercive exercise is likely to be ignored by the young brain. It might even backfire if the coercion is cranked up, e.g. as in Chinese re-education camps. Ask the Uyghur people how much their love for the communist party increased as a result of chanting a thousand times: "I love China. I love the party. I love Xi Jinping".

The worse side effect of this patriotic exercise is that it can be very discouraging to the entire concept of schooling. I do not recall how I learned the anthem, however, roaring crowds at football stadiums must have etched the anthem in my mind pretty hard. And here comes the problem. I totally fell in love with the Polish football team that beat Brazil for the third place in the World Cup of 1974. On September 10, 1975, we beat the Dutch in Chorzow, Poland, 4:1. It was a bliss. I was in heaven. I roared the anthem through the open balcony of my 12th floor apartment to make sure everyone can hear my love within the radius of one mile. Sadly, a month later (October 15), Poland lost to the Dutch in Amsterdam 0:3. I was pretty furious. I could see Dutch players cheat. I could see the referee cheat. All the world conspired to favor the Netherlands. The day later, I loudly expressed my anger at school. I officially announced that "I hate the Dutch". I was just 13 years old. Luckily, all negative feelings were forgotten in just a few weeks or perhaps even days. It was the only episode in my life when I was aggressively "nationalistic". Today, I love the Dutch. In 1989, I spent two months in Eindhoven and I received a great deal of kindness and warm help. Even SuperMemo benefited greatly. I worked on a PC borrowed from Peter Klijn, who was a young assistant at the university. The offer was his and it was entirely selfless. For the first time I could see the value of working from a hard disk with all Pascal source files for SuperMemo at hand. Previously, I had to swap floppies in my Amstrad PC 1512. I love the Dutch. Is patriotism good? It is just one step away from nationalism. Love for one's country is a shaky ground.

Reprogramming the brain

As for my love for football, in 1982, Poland drew with Cameroon 0:0 at the World Cup. The nation was in mourning. How could the great Polish team fail to destroy the minnows? However, my African friends at the university celebrated, and that joy was infections. I loved Cameroonians. They were just beautiful, physical and able to play football with joy and love. This started my interest in African football. Around 1985, I predicted that Africa will have a world champion one day. Around the same time, Pele made the same prediction. I am not sure who came up with that prediction first. Africa became Olympic champions in 1996 and in 2000 (Nigeria and Cameroon), and world champions at youth level multiple times (Nigeria and Ghana). Waiting impatiently for my prediction to come true, I gradually became a fan of African football. The attachment kept growing over the decades with each near-miss (e.g. Ghana missed the medal in 2010 by a series of bad luck coincidences). When Poland lost to Senegal at the World Cup 2018, I celebrated. I became a patriot with changed allegiances. Patriotic feelings are based on associations stored in memory. As such, they can be re-programmed!

Patriotic feelings are a natural expression of knowledge associated with a country, nation, its symbols or even its football team. Knowledge can always be molded, as such, patriotism can be enhanced or weakened and the allegiances can change. Acquisition of new knowledge cannot be coerced because it nearly always backfires. However, it is possible to smother one's critical thinking by smuggling a great deal of positive associations by various means. My patriotic upbringing was entirely positive, and as such, it was pretty effective. National language was a key shell that sheltered my ignorance from external influences.

Patriotic feelings can be enhanced, weakened or changed by learning

In its ability to be reprogrammed by learning, patriotism is not much different from love, depression, anger, appreciation of art, and other memory-based expressions of emotion. This is great news: by changing knowledge we can change a human being. The direction of that change depends on the learning context. It is then important to remember that love begets love.

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru