If I Should Teach American Exceptionalism…

do I also need to test for it as well?  In other words, do I need to test my students to ensure that they leave my class understanding that the United States is an exceptional nation?  Would I need to fail a student who vehemently disagrees and arrives at her own conclusions? What do I do with students who arrive at opposing ideas of what is exceptional about American history?  Do I need to continue?

The more I listen to members of the Texas Board and other proponents of this nutty view the more disgusted I become.  Do we really think so little of our students to believe that they need to be told what to think?  What exactly is the point of education if we don’t even trust them to think through difficult questions about their own history?  Perhaps I am missing something fundamental, but the thought that as a teacher I should intentionally work to steer my students to believe a set agenda is morally repugnant to me.  This is called indoctrination, not education.

Honestly, I don’t care at all what my students believe about the broad sweep of American history.  I am as indifferent to a student who believes that the United States is the greatest nation in the history of the world as I am with a student who believes the exact opposite.  What I care about is whether they can articulate reasons for their preferred view.  I care about whether they can utilize the tools of a historian that I do my best to teach year after year.

I can’t help but think that this agenda reflects a deep-seated insecurity on the part of those who believe that this is a history teacher’s responsibility.  It stems from an inability to accept that free thinking people can, should, and must arrive at different conclusions about complex historical questions.

That feels better. 😀

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10 comments… add one
  • BubbaD Mar 24, 2010 @ 10:50

    I remember back in HS and Jr High my teachers presented the Good and Bad about the USA, our people , our government ect. While I believe that we are a Nation Blessed by God we can not just sweep our faults under the rug because we are unc0mfortable facing them.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 24, 2010 @ 12:26

      Dear Mike Simons,

      Glad to see that you were able to sneak a few through. The links you provided fail to support your claims that scholars are intentionally covering up the story of “black Confederates.” I gave you the opportunity to support your point and you failed to provide any evidence. I see that you have found a home at RW’s site, which is perfect. He is much more comfortable throwing around accusations without any support or explanation as evidenced by that silly FOX report on textbooks. I suggest that you continue to play there.

      The other comments were deleted.

  • Cash Mar 20, 2010 @ 18:28


    Like Lincoln, I happen to believe the US is an exceptional country. I believe it based on what I've learned about it, its history, and on what I've learned by studying other countries, including traveling and seeing them. “This could only happen in America” isn't just a cliché. We were “conceived in liberty and dedicted to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Our history since our founding has been people and events who moved our imperfect and flawed nation and people toward that ideal. In my opinion, just teach the truth. Reasonable people can agree or disagree about whether or not it reveals an exceptional United States or what is exceptional. If students arrive at opposing ideas, the important thing is that they used facts and reasoning. You don't need to test for eceptionalism, you need to test for the ability to analyze historical facts and come to a conclusion based on those facts. I'm confident the exceptionalism of the US will be plain.

  • Marc Ferguson Mar 18, 2010 @ 21:10

    ” What do I do with students who arrive at opposing ideas of what is exceptional about American history?”

    Admit that you've failed in your duties, and take a long, hard look at yourself as a teacher.


  • Ken Noe Mar 18, 2010 @ 15:18

    After reading about this on the net over the last several days, I've concluded that “indoctrination” is exactly what this is about. Fervent proponents of the Texas board have been quite honest about having no interest in analysis or fairness. As obsessively politicized as they are (and sadly, “obsessive” is the right word in certain cases), they can't believe that fairness is possible. Rather, they've convinced themselves that schools used to inculcate patriotism, that “academic liberal elites” and teachers unions replaced that with an “America-hating” indoctrination, America went to hell as a result (look who's in the White House), and now they want the old indoctrination back to beat back the same “academic liberal elites” and create a generation of loyal party members. Schools and other people's children thus become nothing more than weapons in an ideological war, ironically much as they are in, say, a Stalinist state like North Korea.

    Now to me, the most fascinating part of all has been watching the conservative bloggers I read, who are usually in agreement about most things, dividing strenuously over this issue, with the libertarian wing expressing great discomfort with the Texas board and especially its decision to demote Jefferson as a thinker. They don't want teachers pushing any political agenda in the classroom. Nor do I.

  • Stephen Gosling Mar 18, 2010 @ 12:14


  • margaretdblough Mar 18, 2010 @ 11:22

    I've always felt that, if you have to lie by omission in order to support your position, as these Texas Board people are, then, in your heart of hearts, you don't really believe in what you're saying.

  • Jonathan Dresner Mar 18, 2010 @ 2:46

    If the education system was as good at indoctrination as they think, they'd never have come to their present beliefs. If the education system was as good at education as it should be, they'd never have come to their present beliefs.

  • Becky Goetz Mar 18, 2010 @ 1:48

    Kevin, you took the words right out of my mouth.

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