“American Exceptionalism,” Teaching Patriotism, and Other Lazy Fallacies

So I’ve been reading a lot of pushback against the new AP US history curriculum lately, much of it from the political right, and almost all of it lamenting the lack of emphasis on “American Exceptionalism” or “what made the country great.” A  good amount of it is the standard hand-wringing along the lines of  “Where are all the famous white people? George Washington was more important than Harriet Tubman, for Crissakes!” and “We’re the good guys [and it is always ‘we’ in these screeds]! Democracy, freedom, and [insert platitude here] are our gift to the world.” Most of this stuff is easy to ignore because it’s so predictable, and it descends into unintentional self-parody quicker than you can disprove the Laffer Curve. 

But on my Twitter feed today, a recent piece by Peter Wood* on the History News Network decried what he sees as Gary Nash’s ultimate victory** manifested in the new AP standards for US history. I’m not linking to it here, because quite frankly, I don’t want to give it the clicks. But you can find it on HNN easily. Wood’s piece repeated two particular tropes that have become all too familiar in the Conservatives’ bashing of the new APUSH stuff, as well as “liberal academia” in general. First, it lamented the de-emphasis of “American Exceptionalism”–which he says directly, echoing the Right’s elevation of this phrase into holy mantra. Second, he argues, the new guidelines will detach students from identification with, and love of, “their country.” Both of these tropes have grown tiresome for oh so many reasons. But my concern here is for History in the disciplinary sense–in particular, how these tropes are not just bad history, but bad for history.

1. “American Exceptionalism” is a patently ideological creation, a myth, and this is obvious to any thinking person who hasn’t willfully neutered their brain. Several folks have done an excellent job deconstructing this pernicious creation, including Stephen Walt, who wrote a trenchant and devastating critique of it shortly after 9/11 in Foreign PolicyBut beyond its obvious flaws, there’s a bigger issue: it’s awful history, and teaching students “American Exceptionalism” makes them dumber. The very idea is an absurdity–in history, every case is unique. The past doesn’t repeat itself. So, yes, technically speaking, America (or the United States which is what the exceptionalism crowd really means) is exceptional. BUT SO IS EVERYONE ELSE. Everyone is exceptional, therefore no one is.

Teaching the Providential, American-values-are-exceptional-and-we-have-a-divine-mission-to-do-good intellectual schema that Wood is promoting is to remove critical thinking from the equation entirely. The argument is reduced to: The US (more specifically, those who held power in the US) did something, they believed it was a good thing, and since they were exceptional people doing exceptional things, said action was actually a good thing. The American Revolution of 1776 or the Chilean coup of 1974. Same logic. QED. This isn’t education, it’s indoctrination. Students do not see alternative viewpoints, aren’t required to reckon with different sources, and aren’t ever put in a position where their assumptions are challenged. Any assumption that cannot withstand challenging is a shitty assumption. That’s why we have science. Exposing students to a comfortably whitebread version of US history is pedagogical malpractice, because it doesn’t let them undertake the type of thoughtful inquiry that is the sine qua non of education.

2. The “new history” threatens students’ identification with, and love of,” their country.” (Wood’s words). So the immigrant student whose parents are being deported because of policies favored by Wood and his ilk–this is “their country” and they should love it? How about Mike Brown’s friends in Ferguson, Missouri? How about Muslim students in New York City whose families and mosques are spied on by the police? What are you doing when you tell students “this is America and it stands for great things, so you should learn its history,” then teach them a history that privileges white males at the expense of all others, and then send them out into a country that is most definitely not theirs? You are at best insulting their intelligence, at worst poisoning the well for them ever appreciating History as a discipline.

The obvious other point here, of course, is that this too is indoctrination–that teaching “our country, right or wrong,” verges on fascism. I agree. But beyond that crucial point, Wood’s lamentation is also intellectually lazy and once again, awful history. Wood wants “American values”–the values of the founders, for example, to occupy pride of place in History curricula. But this is a classic propaganda tool–use a broad phrase (“American”) to describe a much narrower reality. What were American values in the Revolutionary era? Well, it depends upon which Americans you asked. Even the Important White Men that we call The Founders disagreed on fundamental concepts, in many cases (to cite just one example, Thomas Jefferson was no apostle of “freedom of the press” or “freedom of speech”***) But “Americans” is a vast category–what were the values of the enslaved Americans? Or the slaveholding Americans? The female Americans? The Native Americans–who have the best claim on “American-ness” out of the whole lot? Wood and his ilk don’t mean “American values” in the literal sense of the values of all Americans. Rather, they extol the “values” of a certain, narrowly-circumscribed group of elite white men. They don’t make this distinction, because they want to believe that the values of “the founders” were universal. They weren’t. And even the lofty-sounding ones that appeared universal (“All men are created equal”) were honored mostly in the breach by those “Americans” who we’re supposed to let occupy center stage in the Wally-and-the-Beaver version of US history championed by these Conservative Culture Warriors. Wishing something was true does not make it so.

We do best by our students and by our discipline when we teach History as an inquiry, as a rigorous and empathetic process of discernment that embraces multiple perspectives, the lived experiences of all peoples, and a critical examination of received wisdom (which is, after all, just another context-specific piece of source material). 

It’s one thing to be intellectually dishonest. It’s another to be sloppy and lazy with your History. To do both is something special indeed. Congratulations, Peter Wood. You’ve won the Silliness Lottery. Now take all of your white-guy wailing and leave the History to those who honor the discipline enough to be honest with it.

——

*Not the Duke historian but the former provost at King’s College (the same place that had Dinesh D’Souza as its president. Context, people.)

** a reference to the mid-90s kulturkampf led by Lynne Cheney et al. against Nash and the supposed liberalization/bastardization of the national standards for History.

***See Leonard Levy’s famous work on the subject, Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side (Harvard, 1963).

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