The dangers of teaching American exceptionalism

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

I believe that the United States is an exceptional country. Not only are we #1 in several key metrics like the world’s largest economy (for now), the largest military, and countries with manned landings on the Moon (#1 and only!), but we are also historically responsible for modern republican democracy itself. We, along with the subsequent French revolution, changed the course of history by pioneering a new form of government that had only ever been hinted at back during the classical era, and proved its superiority with our resounding success. Anyone who tries to downplay the importance of the United States on modern world history simply isn’t paying attention.

But I’m not here to brag on American exceptionalism, and god do I even hate that phrase. Outside of a historical context, even emphasizing it accomplishes little good. This is why I’m dismayed at a recent law proposed by Rep. Peter King that was passed in Oklahoma that bans Advanced Placement History classes due to quibbles over their curriculum for insufficiently whitewashing American history. It’s terrible for all the smart kids in Oklahoma that will not be able to take excellent classes and then get credit for them in college, but there’s something even worse at play.

You cannot teach a perverted version of history. You will be doomed to repeat past mistakes and atrocities if you do. The United States may be exceptional, but we also have a good share of blemishes as well, including slavery, lack of civil rights for non straight white land-owning men, our conquest and subjugation of the native population, and many others. We’re not worse than a lot of other countries in this regard, but we certainly aren’t better, and rejecting a curriculum because it has an even-tempered approach toward history instead of a rah-rah go-America boosting one is negligently short-sighted.

Everyone knows what happens when you spoil kids and tell them they can do no wrong: they turn into monsters with no ability to self-reflect and no compunction against committing evil. Similarly, and this is an issue very close to me personally, everyone knows what happens when you praise kids for being very smart, and emphasize the importance of innate intelligence over diligent study and hard work. So why should it come as a surprise to anyone that when you drill American exceptionalism into kids’ heads over and over again, they come out of it with the belief that America can do no wrong? It’s easy to minimize any historical wrongdoing when you fervently and uncritically know that your country is number one, because really, how bad can slavery be if we did it, and it was part of getting us to where we are now, on top?

We need a more measured sense of introspection than that. Not everything that we did in the history of our country to get to this point was necessary or justifiable. The point is to learn from those mistakes and make damn sure that they never happen again, an attitude which is impossible to adopt if you never learn about those past abuses at all, or are taught exceptional rationalization skills from a young age to paper them over. The bad parts in American history need to be especially emphasized, not ignored, so that particular importance is placed on avoiding repeats. It’s easy to justify any wrongdoing going forward if you don’t recognize those wrongdoings of the past and thus make no effort to be any better in the future.

It’s no accident that the people most fervently pushing a white-washed version of history are the same ones supporting our most egregious ongoing abuses and inequalities, including unjustifiable wars, torture of prisoners, discrimination against homosexuals, removal of the voting rights of black Americans, uncritical support of the police even in cases of extreme unnecessary force, encroachment by religion on secular matters of the state, support of draconian drug policies that lock up millions of Americans for non-violent drug offenses to no purpose, and an unwillingness to help the members of society that are less well-off even though doing so makes everyone better off in the long run. But if you study history, and see what these kinds of policies led to in the past, it’s much harder to support them in the present. Avoiding this is where the movement to teach (dare I say brainwash) American exceptionalism in schools has its ultimate roots. That is why I can never support it.