A Few More Thoughts About American Exceptionalism

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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.

13 comments… add one

  • Heather Michon Sep 24, 2009

    You troublemaking Yankee lefty, you.

    It’s hard for me to understand the “American Exceptionalism” group until I put it into the framework of religion. The belief in totems (Plymouth Rock, the Liberty Bell, the Alamo, RE Lee on Traveler, raising the flag at Iwo Jima, etc) and rituals (the Pledge, singing America the Beautiful), the annual cycle of observances (where the 4th of July has equal weight with Xmas), and the firm belief that we are chosen people in a land blessed by God.

    When that’s your starting point, there isn’t much room for debate. Suddenly, you’re not talking about revising a textbook for a bunch of pimply-faced middle schoolers in Texas. You’re arguing holy writ. And we historians are the dusty little theologists arguing how many Benjamin Franklins can dance on the head of a pin.

    (I was recently reading a book called “Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion” in which AEI fellow David Gelernter argues “that America is a biblical republic and Americanism a biblical religion encompassing an American Creed with three political ideals (liberty, equality, and democracy) and a doctrine, American Zionism, incorporating the biblically derived ideas of a chosen people in a promised land. Americanism is global. There’s no need to be American, or to believe in God, to subscribe to it.” I find the thesis to be fundamentally sound, although his argument — and his writing — were so poor I gave up halfway through.)

    I just wish we could get beyond all the conservative/liberal, you’re-too-negative/no-you’re-too-romantic, you started it/no YOU started it back-and-forth that makes us all sound like the Bickersons. Even when we’re all trying really hard not to get emotional, we get stuck in the same old ruts.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 24, 2009

    Heather,

    I couldn’t agree more. The problem isn’t simply that we get stuck in the same ruts, the problem is that it tells us next to nothing about the past. All I learn is how you feel about this country and its past. Well, I’m not really interested in that. I should add that I have no problem if people are interested in describing America as the greatest thing since sliced bread or that it is the embodiment of all things evil.

    Everyone,

    Sorry about the site being down again. This is a continuing problem with my webhosting provider.

  • Matt Sep 24, 2009

    Call me naïve, but I wonder if there’s not actually some common ground here.

    When my classes discuss Winthrop’s “city upon a hill,” I do teach the idea of American exceptionalism. In fact, it is a major recurring theme in my American history courses. That said, I teach it as an IDEA to be discussed and debated, not as a simple fact. We look at later uses of Winthrop’s phrase (by Kennedy, Reagan, Giuliani, Palin, etc.) as well as variations on the theme (O’Sullivan’s “manifest destiny,” Lincoln’s “last best hope of earth,” Obama’s “Yes, We Can”) and discuss how it has evolved over time. As I see it, this is an exercise in intellectual history.

    I also point out to students that “American exceptionalism” really has at least two meanings. One is simply the idea of America as unique in some way or ways (i.e., an “exception to the rule”). This, I believe, is what the Frenchman Alexis deTocqueville referred to in the early nineteenth century when he coined the phrase. Then we have the idea of America as superior (i.e., an “example for other nations to follow”). This typically has religious connotations (i.e., America as a “city upon a hill” and Americans as “God’s chosen people”). This is often implicit—but there’s a reason that politicians love Winthrop.

    I think there’s something to the former. America is (or at least, was) in many ways unique or exceptional. To deny this, I think, is ahistorical. However, to say that a nation is “superior” to others is a drastic oversimplification—superior in what way(s)? Politically? Culturally? Economically? All of the above?

    I personally think there’s plenty to be “proud of” as an American, and perhaps the United States is in some ways “superior” (based on our own norms and standards, of course). That said, even high school students realize that in other ways, we—as a nation—still have much room for improvement. These are the conversations that we have in my classes, and I think it’s important to point out that history is not a zero-sum game.

    Just because the United States has served as a source of inspiration for some other nations does not mean that it is actually the “last best hope of earth.” Similarly, to admit our nation’s failings does not make us “inferior.” To understand this is to understand that history is not a set of names and dates and facts, but a way of understanding the past, and—by extension—the present.

    In short, I think there’s room for both pride and embarassment in American history. America is an “exceptional” nation in some ways, but in others, it is as flawed as the individuals who have shaped its history. And all nations, because they are made up of imperfect human beings, have this in common.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 24, 2009

      Hi Matt,

      Nice to hear from you. I actually pointed out in the other post that I do explore notions of American Exceptionalism throughout the year and I suspect we cover much of the same ground. We also spend a great deal of time exploring the various (often contradictory) ways in which Americans have defined freedom. Thanks again for chiming in on this one.

  • Corey Meyer Sep 24, 2009

    I believe that we all do teach AE in the classroom by default. By teaching about the founding of this nation we do tell the story that is unique/exceptional. I think that this is a point that Howard Zinn makes in his MIT video on the Myth of American Exceptionalism…but he then goes on to explain that the unique/exceptional thing that the Puritans did by est. the Plymouth colony had a cost…that cost was what happened to the Native Americans in the area….and eventually throughout this land.

    I think that if we only teach the puritan side/AE (Jamestown story for all the southern readers out there) of that story we are doing a disservice to history. Teaching the full story, as best we can in a survey class, is not anti-American nor pro-American…it is jut plain history.

  • matt mckeon Sep 25, 2009

    Is there such a thing as “just plain history?”

    • Kevin Levin Sep 25, 2009

      Apparently not. :)

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 25, 2009

    “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.”

    Richard Williams has no problems with having teachers impose upon students view with which Richard Williams agrees.

    I did chuckle at his highlighting the textbook used in a Texas school. I’ve never heard of the text, or the publisher. That said, Richard may want to investigate how texts are chosen, and who exactly elects school boards.

    The irony in this situation is that it’s common knowledge that some people water down their survey texts to increase the chance of an adoption in Texas, given the size of the market. The Texas market’s not particularly known as a PC one.

  • matt mckeon Sep 26, 2009

    I agree with Brooks. It’s all part of the persecution narrative.

  • Greg Rowe Sep 26, 2009

    Mr. Simpson:

    While textbooks used in the survey classes of Texas are generally adopted by textbook committees at both the state and local levels, teachers in Texas may supplement with a variety of resources of their own choosing so long as they are generally supported as fact-based resources within the educational community. (So, I guess I won’t be using H. W. Crocker, III’s “resource,” darn it!) What neither Mr. Williams nor the original story make clear is whether this was the adopted text or a supplemental text.
    – — -
    As I approached base texts for one of my two electives this year (American Constitution & Civil War Studies), I was free to choose what I wanted to use in the classroom. I am using We the People…The Citizen and the Constitution published by the Center for Civic Education and Joy Hakim’s A History of US — Book 6: War, Terrible War published by Oxford University Press. For the other one (The Bible in History & Literature), I was given a text that administration and the local board felt would pass muster from the legal sense in much the same way I use an approved text for my US History survey classes.

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 26, 2009

    Greg–As I mentioned, practices vary, and thanks for the observation from the teaching end. From the writing end, I can assure you that some people think long and hard about what they are doing given the issue of adoption practices.

    I’ve never heard of the text assailed by Mr. Williams. I have heard of the ones you mention.

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 26, 2009

    I have often taught about how Americans’ concept of their own exceptionalism (superiority) has shaped how Americans approach each other and approach the world, and of course I also teach how the different circumstances of the United States (largely in geopolitical terms) shaped the course of American history for centuries.

    But do I teach that Americans are better? Nope. That would tend to promote some of the very problems I highlight when I explore how Americans’ concepts of their exceptionalism have shaped the course of American (and world) history.

    Query: If Americans are so exceptional, then why did those pesky white southern secessionists want to leave? :)

  • Bob Pollock Sep 26, 2009

    Brooks,

    Grant said in his Second Inaugural Address that it was his “firm conviction that the civilized world is tending toward republicanism, or government by the people through their elected representatives, and that our own great Republic is destined to be the guiding star to all others.” In my readings of Grant, I think he would have argued for American Exceptionalism.
    Would you agree or no? Is Grant an example of “how Americans’ concept of their own exceptionalism (superiority) has shaped how Americans approach each other and approach the world”?

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