I didn’t have much more to say about this issue until I read John Stoudt’s response to my last post. [By the way, I love the fact that I can now link to your profile page if I want to single you out.] Stoudt asks if the Biblical justifications of slavery by Thornton Stringfellow, James Henley Thornwell, Robert Dabney, Benjamin Palmer, and others should not count as examples of American Exceptionalism. Well, that depends. If our goal in teaching this concept is to impose our own assumptions about the significance of American history than perhaps not, but if the focus is on how Americans at different times understood their nation than it seems to fit in with the “City Upon a Hill”, “Manifest Destiny”, and the “White Man’s Burden” and Cold War ideology.
I had one of those moments today in my Civil War course where a student said something that helped me understand a document from a completely different perspective. We are in the middle of a week-long discussion of the coming of emancipation in the summer of 1862. We are following the ebb and flow of battle in Virginia and along the Mississippi and tracking the changes taking place throughout the United States surrounding the push toward emancipation. One of the more interesting documents we read this week was a Congressional address by Ohio Democratic Congressman Samuel S. Cox. On June 3, 1862 Cox delivered a blistering condemnation of emancipation and outlined a horrific picture of what would happen to the good people of Ohio in the event of a general emancipation. It was difficult to read, though it is crucial for my students to understand the strong racist views that white Northerners held at this time.
Today we read Lincoln’s famous response to Republican newspaper editor, Horace Greeley, who urged Lincoln to move more quickly against slavery. We all know Lincoln’s response to Greeley in which he carefully explains how slavery relates to the overriding goal of preserving the Union. I asked my students to think about who Lincoln was addressing in this response and what he was trying to accomplish. A number of interesting points were raised in terms of Lincoln trying to find a middle ground by satisfying the Democrats focus on Union and a growing Republican interest in emancipation. We also discussed the extent to which Lincoln was trying to force those on the extremes to acknowledge that they may have to give up something in return for the preservation of the Union. At one point one of my students asked if Lincoln was trying to set the terms of what it means to be committed to the cause and the nation. In other words, that Lincoln may have been trying to define the language of patriotism and loyalty. With Cox in mind she suggested that Lincoln was forcing him to defend a position that may end up satisfying his own personal/local priorities even if that meant losing the war. I assume we could apply the same line of reasoning in reference to those on the opposite side who were so focused on ending slavery without considering the possibility that this may not bring about the preservation of the Union. To be completely honest, I never thought of this.
I always have to remember to control my facial response when a student says something that I find truly insightful. The last thing I want to do is stifle further discussion. With all of the talk about mischievous teachers steering their students in ways that reflect our own political values it’s nice to be able to point to an example where it’s the student who steers the teacher. As far as I am concerned, it’s not about us anyway.
I do my best to try to be a clear as possible on this site. Of course, I do not always succeed, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why fellow blogger and APUS History teacher Chris Wehner is having so much difficulty understanding my position on American Exceptionalism [and here]. It’s one thing to disagree with me, which is something I have no problem with whatsoever and even encourage, but why does he continue to attribute positions to me that I’ve never expressed? In his most recent post, and after hurling insult after insult in my direction, Wehner has this to say about what might be behind my comments:
However, I will offer a guess. (Note, this is my own personal opinion!) Levin has issues with the Republican Party going back to Reconstruction and what they failed to accomplish. He is also disappointed in what the American Revolution failed to accomplish. He is very much like Howard Zinn. But that is the problem, America was exceptional for what it was attempting. It initially failed to live up to our modern and presentists views. I wish our Founders were able to give equality to all, though nowhere else on such a scale was there anything close to early America in terms of political participation.
Thanks Chris, that was truly enlightening. I sure could have used you the other day in class to help me with a lesson that pushed my students to understand the various factors that prevented most Southern slave owners from emancipating their slaves after the Revolution. The goal of the lesson was to move beyond our own expectations to better understand the challenges that these men faced on a political/cultural/social and economic level. Yep…sounds a lot like presentism to me. I find it hard to believe how anyone who has followed my blog over the past few years could possibly arrive at such a characterization of my approach to history and/or the teaching of history.
Well, at least he remembered to provide a link this time around.
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.
Update #2: As a point of clarification, I have no issue whatsoever with the fact that Chris Wehner referred to me by my first name. What I take issue with is that he did not provide a link to my post. Unfortunately, he has still not provided a link, though one of his readers did include it in a comment. This is the same individual who deleted my site from his blogroll after I moved mine to a page on the navigation menu.
Update: You can read Chris Wehner’s comment below and his response on his own blog here. He says he never received my comment (it is possible), though according to my computer it is still cued up and awaiting moderation. The comment below as well as the response are incredibly confusing. I fail to see what it has to do with my comments about American Exceptionalism and the steps being taken by the Texas Board of Education to revise the curriculum. Still no link to the post in question.
I welcome responses to my posts from other bloggers and, for the most part, I usually learn a great deal. There is something strange, however, about Chris Wehner’s response to my recent post on American Exceptionalism. Strangely, he refers to me by using my first name, but fails to provide a link to the post in question. I left a comment on his post early this morning, but as of 7pm it has yet to be approved. Worse yet, Wehner completely misses the point of my post.
To many educators teaching something that is positive about American history is considered to be intellectually dishonest. Today Kevin suggest that to teach our history in any way that is “positive” is to teach in a vacuum free of “critical thinking.” Whatever. His idea of “critical thinking” is hard to imagine, but I can guess. To teach the American Revolution intellectually and to challenge students students to “think critically” Kevin probably thinks that the emphasis would be on Women, Blacks, and Indians. Are they to be left out? Of course not, but the spirit and heart of the Revolution was unique and dare I say… um, “Exceptional.” No few women, blacks or Indians participated (voting, taking part), true, but the fact that so many white males were at a time when Monarchies and Aristocracies dominated the globe, it was radical, revolutionary and “Exceptional.” I contend that Kevin and others simply cannot crawl out of that “Presentism: box they exist in.
I think this is a wonderful example of reading what you will into the text. The point I made was a simple one. I am not interested in presenting American history as divinely inspired/exceptional or as a cause of all that is wrong with the world. In short, my job as a teacher is not to impose my own moral/intellectual view on my students. I want my students to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. To be honest, I have no idea how to respond to this since it has almost nothing to do with the point I was trying to make. I can only imagine how Chris ended up with this specific interpretation.
Most importantly, it seems dishonest, not to mention cowardly, to respond to and criticize another blogger and not provide a link so as the reader can judge for herself.