American Nationalism is Civic Not Ethnic

Many critics of Trump and his supporters argue that the president’s immigration policies are pushing America toward an ethnic identity nationalism that is wholly at odds with what it means to be an American. These critics are confused, in part, by a failure to distinguish between ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism. But it is also the case that many of Trump’s defenders have helped to encourage this confusion by neglecting to make this distinction clear in their own speech. However unintentional these omissions may be, they lead many liberals and conservatives to react with horror and disbelief—unwilling, it seems, to give Trump or his supporters any benefit of the doubt.

Too many see nationalism with European lenses and, therefore, as something wholly at odds with the American political experience as well as with the concept of American Exceptionalism. Yet the most serious of Trump’s intellectual defenders speak of nationalism as something more interchangeable with the concept of love of the country and its people. And because there are different ways by which “a people” are constituted into a political form—the very term “nation” needs to be clarified. A people can come into being by tribe and by birth, or it may come into being by events and a professed political understanding.

Understanding this will allow us to distinguish between “civic nationalism” and “ethnic nationalism”— and this is necessary because America was made a nation through our common civic identity as Americans. Ethnically speaking, we have always been something of a mixture.

For most of the 19th century, the term “nationalism” was taken to refer to the ethnic nation rather than to the civic nation. But if we look at the Founders and much of American political culture up until the rise of the Progressives, the form of our identity was our common constitutional culture and citizenship under the Union. This difference between two political trajectories—the American one and the European one—needs to be taken into account if we are not to confuse or conflate what is going on in America with what is happening across Europe. Although there are some similarities (a revolt against an out of touch bureaucracy and a popular disdain for ineffective immigration policies) Europeans and Americans mean vastly different things when they talk about their nations or “nationalism.”

The European experience of nationalism arose out of a reaction against the French Revolution and its overturning of the aristocratic and monarchical states of Europe. What the Revolution promised what the rule of the people, but what resulted in reality was the rule of the French over the Germans, the Dutch, the Spanish, and so on. This was resented by the various peoples who felt that the Revolution did not deliver what was promised because most of them understood “the people” to be their own ethnic and national group. As a result, these various peoples demanded that they should be governed by their own kind rather than by foreigners.

Nationalism in this context meant ethnic self-determination. The people of Europe began to identify along racial and ethnic terms. A European understood his people to be only those people with a shared set of involuntary accidents of birth such as common ethnic and racial bonds. He was not, in other words, “European,” but “French,” “German,” “Italian,” “Spanish,” and so on. These identities produce a common language, habits, and religious experience and the bonds of ethnicity—which are pre-existing and involuntary—offer an immediate and ready-made shared community that provides a basis by which a state could appear to be already present.

Aristotle noted that a political community could also be constituted and formed between people of different stock—that is to say between different ethnicities and even races—but that if such a community was going to avoid constant civil strife arising from those differences and potential fissures, the community would need a cooperative spirit to arise. As Aristotle put it, they would need to “draw breath together” so that they can operate as a team—in other words, like a team of horses with a common yoke binding them to work together.

Because a political community is not merely a once off coming together for a limited time or purpose, it must be centered around something more than a utilitarian contract between strangers. It requires that those who form it see themselves as sharing a common life together as they live together. It requires them to see their fellow citizens as one would view a sibling or, at least, as a potential friend—where one has some presumption of affection. And while friendship could emerge out of the relationship of shared utility, what makes the friendship of citizens is confidence in the feeling of philia, the love and care for your brother or friend. It is only natural then—and even good—for citizens to concern themselves with the content of the character of those with whom they are going to share their lives.

Thus a civic nation is formed politically and not ethnically. Its origins are found in an act of volition by the people who formed it to live together as a common people, to share a way of life together and not as a loose set of isolated individuals who only bother to associate for exchange of goods and services. And in forming the political community they give it laws and customs that will continue to shape the political culture of its citizens. In other words, they create a “civics” for that nation.

Contrary to the various pundits who recoil at the very mention of nationalism, the American political experience does include the need for a bond of common identity. This identity must be one that can be some form of lasting unity that can be passed down to the generations. The existence of mere economic bonds is not enough. Economic bonds of shared utility or advantage can only hold together people as long as the utility or advantage remains; once the utility and advantage is no longer present the need and benefit of the relationship ends. Such bonds come and go. These are the marks of a treaty, not of nationhood. With such fragile bonds one need not have care nor love for the other parties involved.

Therefore a political community although it may be composed of different kinds of people needs must see itself as a people—that is to say one people—if it is to survive and not tear itself apart. The bonds of citizenship are a two-way street. That street encompasses the desire individuals have to belong to and share a life with those who will be their fellow citizens as well as the desire and willingness those citizens have to accept any given individual as one of their own. Membership in this community is formed not on basis of ethnic or racial identity, but upon the desire a person has to become a member of that community and the willingness of the community to accept that person. This is a political arrangement that requires the consent of both parties, so it remains a political question and not a question of absolute right.

About Clifford Angell Bates, Jr.

Clifford Angell Bates, Jr. since 2002 has been University Professor in the American Studies Center at Warsaw University in Warsaw Poland. Since 2004 he has been an Instructor in the MA Diplomacy and International Relations program at Norwich University, Northfield Vermont. Bates holds Ph.D in Political Science from Northern Illinois University. He is author of Aristotle's Best Regime (LSU 2003) and The Centrality of the Regime for Political Science (WUW 2016).

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23 responses to “American Nationalism is Civic Not Ethnic”

  1. The Left is defined entirely by its fanatical allegiance to ethnic identity politics, and by its passionate hatred of the particular ethnic identity group which built America – white Christians of European extraction.

    There can be no reconciliation between us and the left. Either their Nazi-like program will succeed or they must be driven once and for all from the public square. As Alexander Hamilton put it:

    “The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias, and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education, and family.

    “The opinion advanced in the Notes on Virginia is undoubtedly correct, that foreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners. They will also entertain opinions on government congenial with those under which they have lived; or, if they should be led hither from a preference to ours, how extremely unlikely is it that they will bring with them that temperate love of liberty, so essential to real republicanism? There may, as to particular individuals, and at particular times, be occasional exceptions to these remarks, yet such is the general rule. The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities. In the composition of society, the harmony of the ingredients is all-important, and whatever tends to a discordant intermixture must have an injurious tendency.”

  2. Yeah these dead letters are going to the trash heap of History. Nations are based on race. That’s all it is. In Europe there were distinctions of ethnicity, but race is what nations are really. I’m not sure what this so-called “Civic Nationalism” is supposed to be, but it doesn’t exist. It never existed. It looks like crappy “diversity” shined and polished up, but still stinking. Multiracial Empires collapse. People mix worse than oil and water. Its not changing now, or in the foreseeable future. The blacks would rather starve under a black dictator than feast and be free under White rulers. There is all you need to know about your misguided civilism.

    • The concept of race or blood it tied to the Germans defined the nation and that captured the way the 19th century understood the concept. The way the French and Spanish attempts to forge the nation in the 16th century opted for common language… and language is not based on blood and can be learned and adopted into. So too with common religion and common mores/social habits. If one looks at the classical concept of the civitias or the polis –which was the Ancient form of political community one saw that although it would be easier to establish a polis or civitas from a people from the same tribe or clans or kin group, they could also be established from those composed from different tribes or clans. Look at the example of both Rome and Athens–both of these political communities where formed by dissimilar stock. Now dissimilar stock does make forming a common bond of the citizen more difficult than one where they shared common blood or clan ties but it this was why civic religion, language and shared service and sacrifice became part of civic life.

      Also one need to look closely at the working of the logic of the modern state… and when one does one sees that it rests on the will and volition of the actor to give form or to shape it and in fact even allow to bring it into being. The fact that the modern state rests in volition not blood or in kin is something most textbooks about the state often fail to address or explain. No major political theorist of the state finds that it basis is found in race or blood. And when some thinker does bring blood or race up in the 19th century it is the like of Johann Gottlieb Fichte form his Letter to the Germans and not his writing on Natural Rights or from the aesthetic and polemics of Johann Gottfried von Herder. Even Arthur de Gobineau does not really develop a model of the state in his writing and was why Tocequeville ultimately rejected his take even though he has some sympathy about on how race does influence differences in political culture. Eric Voegelin’s Rasse und Staat (Tübingen 1933) and Die Rassenidee in der Geistesgeschichte von Ray bis Carus (Berlin 1933)–both can be found translated in Vol 2 and Vol 3 of his Collected Works)–remain some of the best work on the question til this very day. Both of these works seek to show how what the Nazis and other racialist theories of the state were fundamentally flawed and imposed on the very logic and character of the state.

      • The fact that you need that much explanation for a simple concept proves the original poster correct. “Civic Nationalism” is like communism, it only works on paper, never in reality. A nation is your extended-extended family. If there is too much genetic differences in a population, then multiple nations will emerge. We see this today with Black America, Latino America and Muslim America. Each of these groups are a nation unto themselves and protect their tribe at the expense of the others. Blacks have been in this country for 100s of years. They speak English and are Christians, yet they will never assimilate because they are too genetically different from the founding population. Diversity + Proximity = Civil War

        Civic Nationalist America = New Brazil

        White Nationalist America = America from 1776 to 1965

        Where would you rather live?

      • So me the mention of anything called “White” in any of our Founding documents or even Colonial Documents. It is simply not to be found because there so no such thing as the ‘white’ race or ethnicity. While race and ethnicity plays a role in how human behavior operates–and to deny this one would be a fool–but to insist that this is the primary and central engine is again to deny human volition and choice.

        Even the family itself is not technically purely an ethnic or kin based construct in that while the child-parent relation clearly is, the husband and wife relation is best not one. Also anyone who knows anything about biology know that in bread animals are the dumbest and least healthy one. So nature itself pushes for the betterment of the organism to expand not contract the pool of mates.

        Your racialist lens is leads to fail to see that Blacks were much more integrated into our country at the time of the Founding in some states than were Irish immigrants. Anyone who was familiar with the events surround what is called Dorr Rebellion (1841–1842) where old time Rhode Islander preferred to give the Black the vote rather than to allow the new Irish and other German and French migrants to have the franchise. (To understand the division among the different Europeans in America I recommend a very interesting book for you to look into–How the Irish Became White.)

        What makes Brazil the problem has nothing to civic nationalism–there is no such thing there… but rather the failure to establish one. The failure of Brazil can been seen in what James Scott points out in his Seeing as A State.. to have a state without there being a civil society to hold the state together. Now a what Scott and others speak about as a the civil society is a society that is formed politically rather than one defined racially or through neopatrimonial and family ties. What happens in Brazil and most of the post Colonial world is that although the colonial masters brought over the institutions and structures of a working state–there never was a working nation where exists a civil society were all the people saw themselves as members of that community. Rather what happened was that certain classes or groups took control of the state institutions from the colonial master and used it to protect your class, family or tribal interests. This is what neopatrimonialism is about and here Max Weber has much to offer you to understand why this will never produce a stable civil society where all the members of it see themselves as equal and sharing in a common interest and benefit from the working of the system.

        The neopatrimionialism insures that the system is rigged to benefit the group in charge of the state institutions (as well as their friends and families). Now Brazil did not take the path the US took because one could argue the Portuguese did not have a history of civic culture whereas the British settlers of North America did. So yes the British influence that shaped the American colonies in ways that was simply not available to the colonists that shaped Brasil. Nothing here has anything to do with anyone being ‘white’ and to speak this way is to speak either crudely or ignorantly.

      • Race seems to exist for blacks and mestizos and Japanese and others, but everyone cannot see White. They call it Caucasian but all of you deny its existence. Sure Whites can be discriminated against, legally marginalized and blamed for the failures of others, but just don’t say they exist.
        Cucks or enemies, its all the same. We need not ask you for life. Shut up about the unreality and shallowness of your stupid attempt to deny observable reality.

      • What is the source? I looked in The Annals of the First Congress and did not find this. This looks like a newspaper report of the actions of Congress for 1790–which was the final half of the first Congress–which will have the Congressional election in November 1790.

      • What exactly are these genetic differences between the races? Especially given that there has been a lot of inter-breeding. Are you arguing that Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams – to name just three – are not “assimilated?” What about Frederick Douglas?

        You also gloss over some history. I was born before the 1965 Immigration Act and grew up in the country while it was still mostly what it had been the previous 45 years or so. Without discussing the issue of the status of the races and the injustices that were present, you should realize that the country we grew up in (which was really that of 1920-65) was not that of the 19th century. We had sustained mass immigration throughout the 19th century and while most of the immigrants were from Europe, there was enormous hostility to many of them, especially with Catholic and Eastern/Southern European immigrants, and exactly the same arguments you’re making about Latinos (some of whom have also been here for more than 150 years) and Blacks were made about Italians, Irish, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks, Spaniards etc. There was also considerable anti-Semitism even though Jews have been here since colonial times and fought as full Americans in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American war, and the Civil War. And yet, because our civic culture and founding principles and insistence on assimilation were universally held, within a fairly short time, we’d made Americans of all them.

        To my mind, we need a sustained immigration pause to assimilate the latest wave, English as the official national language, and the dismantling of the welfare state. I also think we need to look at the fact that some foreign cultures make for a very bad fit with us (I am thinking here primarily of Islam) and that we need to look at immigration from those countries carefully. I also think that any discussion of blacks in our country also needs to consider our history on that point. Black Americans need to realize that what was done to their ancestors by some of the ancestors of white Americans was in the past, and that fully embracing American principles is the only path to things working out. However, I also think those of us who are white, while we should not accept guilt for things we have not done, nevertheless need to understand that from 1776-1965, blacks didn’t have it so good here (to say the least) and thus that their allegiance and understanding to our country’s principles may be just a bit colored (no pun intended) by that experience.

    • The Europeans were all white and virtually all Christian and for a 1000 years – even to the present – they have fought amongst themselves over ethnic differences, so clearly nations are not based on race. In our country, all of the European peoples blended together, along with native, black, Hispanic and Asian strains, with some tensions at time – and the outright problem of slavery – and it all worked pretty until we forgot what our country was about. So, people don’t mix worse than oil and water. Cultures don’t mix well and our culture has been and must remain unitary. Opt for your “solution” and in no time at all the – presumably white – “nation” will be fighting over who is and who isn’t “white.” We’ve had tastes of that too.

  3. It’s sad to me that people do not recognize the facts of the matter.

    Native US birth rate = below recoverable (only negative consequences come from this with one exception, marginally higher distribution of wealth per capita.).

    Native population currently under massive social engineering projects stemming from the Ford Foundation and its ilk in the behavioral sciences, anthropology, and linguistics = SJWs and PC bureaucrats who have internalized the hatred of the rest of the entire world – they call their self-loathing “liberalism.”

    International Islamic philanthropies funding feminism and critical race theory in US Universities.

    China is attempting to purchase Hollywood production facilities – all of them.

    Climate scientists say “westerners should not have children, instead adopt from abroad because that is what is environmentally friendly.”

    We don’t need some idiotic new conception of US politics. We’re being taken over. The only thing Americans need to do is have more children. White might want to look into the rise in mortality and decline in fertility – those things are not happening to anyone else – it seems unlikely they are each merely random and coincidental.

    As an American that constantly reads US history, we do not need to look at Europe. We’re not like Europe – I’m sick of even hearing about Europe – they’re morons over there, except Poland, look at what is going on. Their large historical changes from feudalism to nationalism to supranationalism are far more complex than that of the US. US government form was never actually feudal; it was always corporate, even when corporate tried to emulate feudal in the colonies. We are not a “nation” in the European sense; the US is a Federal Republic; E Pluribus Unum. How tough is this stuff? [We don’t even have to abandon liberalism, like some seem to think; just crack open Jefferson/Madison/etc and read about what they meant by liberalism.]

    Practical things: We need to root out all philanthropy that stands equivalent to espionage (look into it…).

    Bring masculinity back so people can be proud of past US leaders. Jackson, Polk – these men were men, and heroes. But, we’re not allowed to say that. Once we are allowed to say Andrew Jackson was a hero, many of the problems we have will reverse.

    • Well lets not throw the baby out with the bath water… as the very idea of the state and the very principles that our political system are founded on are found and were created by Europeans. What we did in America is take those ideas and those concepts and not only turned them into reality but also showed how they would have to adopt to not only circumstance but also the preferences and desires and dream of those who would put them into practice. What happened to Europe was that they tossed away and abandoned the wisdom they help create in favor or what they thought was something both better and more enlightened… but it took Europe down a radically different path one which unfortunately turned out to be both false and ultimately destructive to the well being of Europe in the long run.

      • “Well lets not throw the baby out with the bath water… as the very idea of the state and the very principles that our political system are founded on are found and were created by Europeans.”

        First off, *we* didn’t do anything – if *we* did anything it was allow something important to decay into unrecognizable form. And, no, the principles of the US were not derived from Europeans. God, just reading that makes me want to slap you. Our Founders pretty much universally saw Europe as corrupt and wanted nothing to do with it. Jefferson said as much, Adams, several loyalists kicked out of the US during the revolution, returned afterwards and said as much. It’s sad pathetic lumps of worthlessness that want to say, now, that Europe is the US. gtfo, man. You go to Europe and save them. The US needs to look out for itself.

        “What happened to Europe was that they tossed away and abandoned the wisdom they help create in favor or what they thought was something both better and more enlightened… ”

        What wisdom? You mention nothing specific. And, what is this new thing they thought was better? Did they come up with that too? Their philosophies are garbage – existentialism, postmodernism – gee thanks…America has pragmatICISM, but no onbe knows anything about that either because of the idiot Europeans.

        The Europeans did not have anything to do with the development of government in the US. Locke and Shaftesbury did, but again, if you read about it, their Carolina was a failure. Newton and Bacon were British. Our Federalism did not come from Europe – nor did the written constitution. Nor did the concept of independence. Look at what Europe did with the US revolution – they spent the next 60 years with unsuccessful revolutions until they got socialism, fascism, and communism – fu-ck the Europeans. It was they who brought socialism and trade unions to the US in the first place. Woodrow Wilson despised them for it.

        Further, do you know anything about diplomacy? The Europeans hate the US – and they always have. The whole reason we are forced into the arms of the UK at the turn of the century is because all of Europe hated the US. The whole reason the US had to change its culture in the 1950s was because the Europeans bitched because they didn’t like the US.

        You’re an idiot, shilling for things you have no idea about. I’m beginning to think conversing with people is a waste of time. I’m even starting to think the “alt-right” garbage is an attempt by the impotent Western European males to co-opt the US. “Der her – our heritage.” Pathetic.

  4. “Civil nationalism” = Patriotism. Trump’s a patriot. The globalists are traitors.

    • Nice article, well reasoned, the term sometimes used, erudite. Not really sure of the precise meaning on that word, but I always got a kick from it.

      Here on the left coast the strategy that has won is, if you don’t like your electorate, import a new one. And keep very close control who teaches and what is taught.

      This is boiling up to the tipping point. The question will soon need to be answered, whose country is it ?

  5. My dad told of horrific discrimination against the tsunami of immigrant Italians post-WW1. To use his terminology prevalent in the 1920s, “A Dago is a Ni**er turned inside out!” A decade or so later, Italians were “”indistinguishable” from any other citizen, while bringing al Americans all the great aspects of rIch Italian ethnicity. I saw much the same thing through the 1950s. After the failed anti-Soviet revolution in Hungary, all those danged Hunky Slavs started coming in. Swarthy, high cheek boned people of a different race. They sure weren’t “white”. I favor the idea of civic nationalism, as it relates to my own upbringing. I do agree that our fellow Black Americans don’t yet enjoy all those benefits. But in my mind that’s not a function the philosophy civic or racial nationalism because everything we now reaching I need schools will eventually work against racism. Racism in America now comes from the residual hate we were taught by our parents and grandparents. Takes time yo get that’s out of families. By the way, my youngest son, who is bi-racial married Mexican girl whose grandmother is quite upset see married a “white” perso. My four grandkids defy the racial/ethnicity check boxes on all the government forms that dominate our lives. I really like that!

    • Lets not conflate prejudice and racism… the latter is a form of ideology the former is merely something all human beings engage in because before we have knowledge of things (knowing that they are true/false or not) we have opinions about things and people. Now although we all have prejudices we don’t have to let them govern or actions or our attitudes. Also our opinions and beliefs may change as well–and so will our prejudices.

      • My intent was to report that many decades ago the two were the same in most people’s minds. “Civic Nationalism” is unique to America for the reasons you wrote. It is that which results in a nation that in the end is a mix of assimilated people of all ethnicities and races – or at least trying to work on it. I lived in Germany in the 1960s when Turks began to arrive, “invited” by Germany as sources of cheap, subservient workers. Turks were restrained to ghettos, subject to pogroms by Nationalists (Skinheads). They are still in ghettos and essentially segregated. I believe also some where in Merkel’s make-up, is the desire for low cost Gastarbeiter so serve the maturing, but declining “German” population.” I think it’s beyond being prejudice.

    • If you have the time, you ought to look into Will Herberg’s 50s writing on ethnicity, assimilation, et al of the American immigrant during the ‘tsunamis’. He published a book but there is an essay (Aug 1955) available on line where he gives a fairly succinct summary of that portion of the book, in which he address the “Triple Melting Pot” (his contention that America was not A melting pot but three) – Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. Ethnic groups melted willingly inside of ‘pots’ based on commonality of Religion. Those three had no animus towards a sense of civic nationality. Now of course we are in a time of a ‘Quadruple Melting Pot’ and what the outcome of that will be… ? His thoughts on the immigrant father/son/grandson are thought provoking.
      Then read -if you haven’t- Sam Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.
      Herberg essay:

      • I’m familiar with abstrats of both. I was a “war baby” born and raised in the northeast Rust Belt in a steel mill town with a metroplex population of 400,000. And yes, there were about about 40% Protestants, 40% Roman Catholics, 15% Eastern Catholics and 5% Hebrew. But they were not segregated. My mother was mixed German Lutheran/Roman Catholic (father north German, mother south). My father Church of England and Quaker mix. In the 1940s to our right were Sicilian Roman Catholics, to the left Irish Roman Catholics and cross the street Lesvos Catholics. We were raised in an old order Lutheran synod but there was no Lutheran church in our part of town. So we walked to the end of the street and attended Saint Dominick’s. Pretty much the same service, but in Latin. We all played together, went to school together, dated each other, and many inter-married; even a couple of the Jewish kids as the main synagogue in town was reformed, not orthodox. As progressives have pushed the nation towards secularism, the idea of a melting pot based on religion may well be gone, along with Jude’s/Christian moral beliefs. But in my experience, as a practical matter it did not exist.

      • I want to add those were days of real multiculturalism. We had a benediction every morning in class on the school PA. Every day a student of a different religious background gave the prayer. On major religious holidays, kids would bring to school got display and explanation dioramas depicting how that holiday concept was celebrated in their ethnicity or religious denomination. On and on, a true celebration of diversity; a recognition that our differences are not really differences at all. That’s now almost all gone. I have also lived and worked in many Islamic countries. Everyday Muslims have the same hopes, aspirations, and concerns for their families and their children as non-Muslims “Westerners” do.

      • I think we are approx the same age and we share other similar things beyond the period we were raised. My immigrant fores were (Paternal) Anglican/Anglican > Anglican/Presbyterian > Presb/Lutheran (mother) & (Maternal) Lutheran all. I was churched in Lutheran, Baptist, and Anglican; my adult choice became Anglican simply because all others things being near equal, I loved the liturgy.
        I have 8 siblings, 3 are Korean (my parents adopted them); they married white Americans and have children; family is family, no matter color of skin, eye shape etc.
        I don’t doubt there are common hopes, aspirations, and concerns for family – but a Civic Nationality, which the author treats in this piece, is not something we have in common with the rest of the globe. The differences are not trivial.

  6. I’m not so sure I fully agree. There are Americans – those of us whose national origins are many – and there are immigrants and second and third generation citizens who have no real connection to the American past. It is those of us who are descended from the people who actually made this country who are not happy with the status quo and who are seeing our ancestor’s efforts being ignored by recent arrivals who seek to make the United States into their own image. Remember that Laurence Tribe and others of his ilk have no connection to America other than having immigrated here from other lands. They hold no respect for the Constitution because they have no connection to it other than in a classroom.