Members Only | November 17, 2021 | Reading Time: 7 minutes
We shouldn’t teach American exceptionalism in schools. It’s dangerous, stupid and bad
Only by understanding the truth can we navigate a world left to us.
The United States is as flawed as any other nation. These are collective statements of some historical and contemporary fact, and are not simply the citationless opinions of one person. And yet, to many, this is not only an opinion, but a nasty, hateful and unpatriotic one.
What those figures are calling “hate” for the United States is, in fact, nothing of the sort. These people are reacting adversely to the unadulterated history of our country, in all of the ways in which it has all played out, and continues to actively play out. This history, to be sure, is not always as brilliant and beautiful as they would like, but is dreadful and nasty, despicable and oftentimes hypocritical.
While conservative “intellectuals” still believe educating Americans as though they are intrinsically or uniquely special relative to others might bind and keep the society bound more tightly together, they are woefully incorrect.
It does, however, all remain worth learning, considering and appraising. Only through understanding the truth of what has occurred, to the best of our abilities, can we navigate the world of which has been left to us by previous generations.
During the recent national, reactionary outcry regarding, among other things, their own perceived understanding of the legal concept of critical race theory, political and intellectual figures of modern conservatism have done and said all they can to censor history and the effective education of it. State officials across the country have mounted a relentless campaign to denounce, not only legal and historical theories of which they are woefully ignorant regarding, but educators and institutions of education for teaching children to analyze their own nation as critically as any other, or in the particular words of some, to “hate their country.”
This is among the most ludicrous of accusations that reactionaries in America have made in recent memory. If anything, it could very well be argued that, far from creating a disdain for the United States, public and private school history classes alike are massive manufactories of unquestioning and unthinking fervor and assent for the United States, its history and its historical and contemporary policies. Meanwhile, attacks on the “liberal” and “leftist” schools and universities of the nation are laughable, if for no other reason than that these alleged pits of Socialism and Communism, that are, in the case of the latter, understood to be generally more liberal or leftist, continue to team up to pump out relatively moderate liberal politicians on one hand, alongside rabidly reactionary, nearly illiberal politicians on the other.
That these reactionary figures and hyper-conservative politicians are attacking this system of education demonstrates just how unhinged they are and how far from reasonable so many of them have grown to become. They cannot even tolerate the smallest levels of cognitive dissonance, impinging or intruding upon their exceptional world view of America.
That these reactionary figures and hyper-conservative politicians are attacking this system of education, essentially blaming it for its own losses and lack of electoral popularity, demonstrates just how unhinged they are, and how far from reasonable so many of them have grown to become. They cannot tolerate even the smallest levels of cognitive dissonance, impinging or intruding on their exceptional world view of America, both historically and, sometimes, presently.
To these individuals, only undying, unyielding fealty to the faults of this country’s past constitutes a proper and patriotic individual or education. A person who brings up the most grotesque moments of this country’s history is likely to be castigated, and in line to face an almost infinite amount of cynical, ill-informed and perfidious questions not only from the public, various media outlets and publications, but from friends, and family members, too.
In this vein, it seems, sadly, to be common sense, perhaps even common knowledge for many, that the United States is a “good” country, with relatively “good” allies, while other nations and powers of the world are considered, in juxtaposition, “bad” nations, who consistently get in the way of the wonderful, global innovations America is churning out. Somehow, apparently, the Trotskyite grade schools of the United States have failed to stifle this verbose nationalism, despite their alleged best attempts.
No, when one hears a reactionary politician, public figure, or think tank state that they believe American exceptionalism should be taught in all schools, one cannot help but cringe. Far from needing to double down on narcissistic, self-aggrandizing nationalistic pseudo-history, America must further unshackle itself from this false, historically inaccurate and intellectually confining understanding and instead embrace the historical and practical reality of our national existence.
The United States, while full of positives, both historically, as well as contemporarily speaking, is, to use an analogy, but another house in the international community of nations, of which 194 other houses feature as well. In a community, a real community, everyone knows everyone. Everyone knows the wealthiest and the poorest, the pleasant and the unpleasant, the vain and humble as well as the good and bad that each house has produced over the years.
All of the houses in this particular community, on this particular planet, have made some dreadful mistakes at some time or another. While the mistakes themselves are often abhorrent, such as enslaving millions of human beings, genocidal ambitions in America, Ireland, Palestine, China, Ukraine, or much of Europe for that matter, the weaponization of starvation across the world or divvying entire continents up between distant family members, the common thread between them all is that in some manner all are guilty.
America in this way is actually as unexceptional as any other nation. It is a great and brilliant polity, with incredible material and political innovations across so many sectors of life across its own existence. Meanwhile, it is also plagued by historical travesties and modern blights for which it sometimes apologizes for or acknowledges, as a government or nation, while at other times, it simply doubles down on its own barbarism and indignance in the face of agony and anguish.
The size and scope of these national mistakes, on the other hand, might be seriously considered the most exceptional part of this “exceptional nation.” Ethnic cleansing and resettlement, slavery, segregation, forced sterilization campaigns, internment camps, racial prejudice, xenophobia and more, are all part of our short yet strangely accelerated history that has yet to even reach its 300th birthday. Again, while America is not the only nation to have committed acts of these types, it has certainly accomplished many of them, and in less time than it has taken many of its neighbors to as well.
To these individuals, only undying, unyielding fealty to the faults of this country’s past constitutes a proper, patriotic education. A person who brings up the most grotesque moments of this country’s history is likely to be castigated, and in line to face an almost infinite amount of cynical, ill-informed and perfidious questions from the public, various media outlets and publications, but from friends, and family members, too.
America, therefore, must be taught about itself in an honest manner. The people and the greater society would benefit tremendously on the institutional level by teaching a history that is not so strictly divided into “US History” and “Global History,” as though there is only us, a singular nation, and them, an amalgamation of any number of unknown peoples or nations, states or territories, speaking any number of unknown languages, while practicing unknown or unfamiliar customs. America must learn about the journey that this great project has gone through, and hear about the immense contributions of others so that it can collectively grow to understand not only how we shaped the world, but how the world and its people have shaped us.
The contributions of nations throughout the world to the American story makes telling that story without them tantamount to skipping everyone’s dialogue in a novel with the exception of one character. Teaching America as exceptional, as with teaching any nation as more important than the rest, works to tear America and its people from the rest of humanity, invariably creating, as with the history that is taught to children, an “America” and an “everyone else.”
Moreover, teaching the children of the United States biased history has some real domestic risks and dangers inherent to it as well. While the majority of the public continues to support the United States as something like “A global force for good”, more and more Americans, with the access to news and information from across the globe, are coming to different conclusions, not because of the extreme leftist ideological bases of power that are allegedly driving schools, but because of, and thanks to, the intellectual bounty of which the internet can provide for wary, diligent researchers.
At the same time, too, the internet can send people of any age who are convinced of the reality that they’ve read in their textbooks toward hyper-reactionary behavior and beliefs, in which America and “real” Americans themselves are fighting internal enemies of even more ferocity than any nation in Europe or Asia: the illegal immigrants who lurk behind every corner, the terrorists who hide behind each tree or light pole, the Black or brown people of the country, of whom are allegedly “replacing” white people, the strange and insidious LGBTQ community, and of course, the communistic American far-left that wishes to consistently enable all of this.
When one hears a reactionary politician, public figure, or think tank state that they believe American exceptionalism should be taught in all schools, one cannot help but cringe. Far from needing to double down on narcissistic, self-aggrandizing nationalistic pseudo-history, America must further unshackle itself from this false, historically inaccurate and intellectually confining understanding and instead embrace the historical and practical reality of our national existence.
While those views are disgustingly and abjectly false, they demonstrate the danger, on the one hand, presented by teaching even a partially exceptional American history to children. They eventually grow up to be adults, where those perceptions of the United States can do real harm to the nation and to the greater international community itself.
On the other hand, however, when someone finds out that something they’ve been told over the course of their entire lives is not true, and worse still, that most everyone else has known it, the secondary reaction after frustration or anger usually ends up being the development of further questions, and therefore further research or education on those matters as well.
The masses of counter-reactionaries, many of them younger Millennials and members of Generation Z, grew up in the post-9/11 era of forever wars, wars on terror, wars on crime, and even wars on domestic civil liberties. These views have been molded, not exclusively by their schooling, but by their perceptions, their experiences and how all of it reconciles itself in their own minds and existences.
While conservative “intellectuals” still believe educating Americans as though they are intrinsically or uniquely special relative to others might bind and keep the society bound more tightly together, they are woefully incorrect. Instead, it seems to create greater division within the already splintered American electorate, and sets many on their way towards extreme right-wing sentiments and conclusions, while making many others resent the propaganda that they feel has been unjustly taught to them under the label of US History.
Therefore, when we appraise our nation, we must do so without this personal and intimate indignancy, and instead take into consideration not only the good and the negative of which we as a nation have contributed to the greater international community of nations, but also the positives and the negatives of which the rest of the polities, young and old, alive and long dead, have contributed to us as well.
As the famous Mary Parker Follett said many, many years ago, “We are not wholly patriotic when we are working with all our heart for America merely; we are truly patriotic only when we are working also that America may take her place worthily and helpfully in the world of nations. … Interdependence is the keynote of the relations of nations as it is the keynote of the relations of individuals within nations.”
Trent R. Nelson is a historian and political and foreign policy analyst. He is a contributor to Liberal Currents. Follow him @TRichard_Nelson.