After reading Chris Wehner’s erratic response to my thoughts about American Exceptionalism as well as Richard Williams’s predictable response I thought I might follow up with a few words to clarify my position. As usual, rather than try to explore what I’ve said about this subject Williams pulls out the same tired references to the “liberal elite” who supposedly hate America and all that is good. [blah, blah, blah...Howard Zinn, blah, blah, Eric Foner, blah, blah] What is truly astounding about Williams’s response is that this is the same guy who constantly rails against teachers/academics for imposing their view of the world on their students. I stated very clearly that one of my overarching goals in the classroom is not to impose my views on my students one way or the other. Here is what I stated:
I’ve said before that I do not consider it my responsibility to influence students in how they judge the collective moral status of the United States through its history and current policies. In addition to the concept of exceptionalism I also steer clear of any notion of America as “God’s Chosen People” or the notion of an inherent “Evil Imperial Empire” that is espoused by some on the extreme Left.
In other words, as difficult as it is I am trying my best to maintain a neutral stance when it comes to teaching history. You would think that Williams would acknowledge this in his post. Either way there is no winning with this guy. I guess we see what we want to see.
There are two points that need explanation. First, I see my teaching as an opportunity to train students in the art of critical thinking about themselves and their connection with the American past and present. This involves trusting them to think through very difficult primary and secondary sources and arrive at their own conclusions. If I am training young citizens it is not with the goal of convincing them to see American history in a certain way (exceptional, evil, etc.), but to give them the analytical tools so that they can engage in thoughtful and meaningful discussions. I actually have no interest in what they conclude about the moral status of this nation so long as their conclusions are based on careful thinking and consideration of sufficient evidence. As much as my history course is about content it is much more about serious debate and an understanding that history is incredibly complex and not so easily reducible to simple categories.
As to my own view? Well, it is an extension of the previous point that the study of history is difficult and complex. Because of this I have very little interest in reducing the rich history of this country down to overly simplistic slogans that usually involve interpretations that are either false or meaningless. Case in point:
Such approaches fail to help me understand better. I am not studying history in order to feel better or worse about my country. Rather, and without going into detail, I am trying to understand the richness and complexity of what is the human experience. It has nothing at all to do with whether I love or hate America. To be completely honest, I am not sure what that even means. I will leave overly simplistic categories to overly simplistic minds.