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America Is Not Exceptional (How Civic Education Can Fix That)
What is American exceptionalism? It is defined as a “belief in America’s unique and single-minded commitment to freedom”. As American citizens, we may believe that our relatively short history- refined, sugarcoated, and hidden by textbooks and politicians alike-, along with an allegedly welcoming immigration policy, qualify us as an exception among nations. Our national motto- “e pluribus unum”: out of many one- defines the tenets of American exceptionalism. Up to the global restructuring following World War I and to modern, politicos like Donald Rumsfeld scorn the Eastern Hemisphere as rotting with Old World values (Hopes and Prospects). To this day, our relationship with the Middle East is shaped by narrowing, uninformed opinions of “the other people”- what late Columbia professor Edward Said called the fatal sense of “Orientalism”. And third-world countries (or any nation below the equator) never fail to attract the sympathy of American media. Those accursed peoples require our generous humanitarian arm.
There is no doubt that manifestations of the notion of American exceptionalism- through social media, national holidays, and political rhetoric- have united we the people, in a celebration of nationalism perhaps only last seen under the Third Reich in Germany.
In its current state, American exceptionalism exists simply as propaganda, fed regularly to a people who infrequently question it. It is a cover of morality used to cover the unethical maneuvers of our leaders, on their quest to establish the United States’ global supremacy.
We are not exceptional.
But, American exceptionalism- based on the definition above- can be achieved by a reformation of civic education within the United States, and the cultivation of a global perspective within the public and educational square.
The big issue is that as citizens of a powerful nation, we are made to believe that this nation is unlike any other in the history of mankind- a certain kind of morality, success, and vision underlies everything we do, from trade to foreign policy to freedom of speech. But republics, democracies, and peoples’ representation have existed throughout modern history, along with nationalist propaganda.
So what would the triumph of this exceptionalism look like? There are lofty goals: the United States finds alternative, more ethical methods to establish its global supremacy, and abandon its history of micromanaging foreign politics, seating and unseating leaders to suits its purposes, and acting, per the tired cliché, as global policeman.
But on a more realistic level, American exceptionalism can be 1) the acknowledgement of American power (economically, militarily, politically, etc.) and 2) acknowledgement of the impact of that power on other nations, down to an individual’s level. As students of American history, we are woefully uneducated. A June 2011 National Report Card “found that high school seniors tested worse in U.S. history than in any other field, including math and science. Only 12% were judged ‘proficient.’” (New York Times) The textbook tradition gives us a single, Anglo-Saxon, white male perspective on the past two hundred years. Only because of political correctness do we give any acknowledgement to minority groups. You and I are taught to believe in the unity of the Founding Fathers; the originality of ideas in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence; the stark contrast between Old World and New; the glorious struggle of the American Revolution waged on the backs of ragged soldiers (did somebody say France?); and the list goes on. But how many of us have heard about the invasion of Nicaragua under President Reagan in 1985? Or President Kennedy’s avid support of the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo? Or the public humiliation of Turkey by Washington, when its government refused to enter the Iraq invasion? (Hopes and Prospects) The tenets of American exceptionalism have caused serious holes and dark spaces in our civic knowledge. And it breeds, as MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky points out in Hopes and Prospects, an “element of genuine fear, which is deeply rooted in American culture”. The failure to educate children about the structures of our government, politics, and democratic systems does not need review.
In short, students are lectured with American mythology while being grossly uninformed about the real consequences of American actions on the global stage. The problem is not only a lacking civic education, but a much bigger problem of a deficient humanities education. The typical student in the United States receives basic knowledge- dates, facts, numbers- about American history. Unlike math and science courses, history and other humanities subjects are not required for as many years. Princeton Day School’s Upper School only requires two years of history, plus one of philosophy or religion. So when those students finally enter the public squares, voting, holding offices and jobs, they are simply not prepared to handle global challenges- challenges that involve individuals, history, politics, human relations, and so forth. Educators at the middle and high school stages can only hope that their students might study these subjects more in college.
Anybody can memorize what day we broke with Great Britain, or what Neil Armstrong quipped on the moon. It takes a real dedication to the humanities- a dedication to understand societies and people- to make a difference.
Going back to the idea of Orientalism, and our misguided view of the Middle East, why is European history not a required subject in most schools? The failure of our “exceptionalism” is closely tied with a vague sense that the United States of America emerged out of the blue in 1776. It was luck, it was a coincidental meeting of great minds. How fortunate we are to live in this country.
We are not told that the United States was born of Old World conflicts, dating centuries before Hancock penned his signature. We are not told that our founding principles are derived from ancient societies, or that they were born across the ocean on an intellectual movement called the Enlightenment.
If trade with the nations of the Middle East is critical to our foreign policy, why do we not study the culture, the ideas, the people of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan? The convenience of living in the American bubble is that we can call them the “other people”, and then complain when oil prices skyrocket.
In high schools and middle schools across the country, we need to integrate a global perspective into curriculums. It is not enough to graduate with a few months of American history. The boundaries of ignorance that fuel the propaganda of classic American exceptionalism can be dissolved through education. Let us study Europe, the Middle East, the Southern Hemisphere, the diverse tribes and peoples of Africa, the farthest corners of the Earth. Let school administrators develop programs to send high school students to these countries.
Because it is a national fallacy- it is our collective failure- that we as a people have separated ourselves by a notion of excellence and uniqueness from the rest of humanity. That is not to stay the United States has no exceptional qualities- the administration of justice, the flow of unchecked speech, the liberties of the press may be unparalleled. But it is wrong to exploit these good qualities- particularly by our leaders- in attempt to create a cover of morality when we stomp across cultures to achieve policy goals. It creates fear and it creates a false sense of security. This blight can be cured. American exceptionalism will be achieved once perceptions of our own history; our relations with other groups of people; and our place as a relatively new society in the great span of mankind, are corrected through a rigorous, all-encompassing humanities education. Only then, when we can create global relationships informed by global perspectives can we be an exceptional people.