Over the past 20 years or so, conservative politicians have added criticizing the way U.S. history is taught to their laundry list of complaints about the liberal takeover of America. You know the criticisms by now, most likely, as they have probably been voiced in your own state: students are taught that American exceptionalism is a lie; that American history is a long, unbroken string of racist crimes and hate; that big government is good; and that the Civil War was fought over slavery (for our take on the last one, see What made the north and south different before the Civil War and Amazing Fact! the Civil War was fought over slavery). In Oklahoma, a state House committee has bowed to state Republican complaints that the new AP exam is “unpatriotic and negative” and approved a bill to remove AP funding and create a new U.S. history exam to replace it. “[State Rep. Dan] Fisher said Monday that the AP U.S. History course emphasizes “what is bad about America” and complained that the framework eliminated the concept of “American exceptionalism,”according to the Tulsa World.”
Where to start.
First, let’s laugh at the complaint about American Exceptionalism. We all take it to mean that because of its founding principles, America has a special mission of democracy and justice to carry out in the world, and that mission, which we have always carried out successfully, has ennobled our nation. But that’s not what the term “American Exceptionalism” really means. it was coined by that tireless chronicler of American ways and means, Alexis de Tocqueville, who said:
So what American Exceptionalism originally meant was that we Americans don’t care about anything but money. That, to de Tocqueville, made Americans unique—they created the only white nation that did not care about civilization. We would hope that any U.S. history course today would say that this definition of American Exceptionalism is indeed a lie.
But of course the critics mean the other, invented definition that America is unique and perfect. We would agree that our nation’s founding principles were and still are rare; few nations have adopted the mandate to uphold liberty and justice for all that we have adopted. That does not mean, however, that just having those principles is a magic wand to make our every action good. We have not always upheld our founding principles. But as we say in our own little About page,
It’s not [that] American history is the story of happy, happy times and total integrity. The killing and enslavement and oppression are all still there. The difference is that while I, like many other Americans, had previously seen those failings as cynical proof that America was indeed a lie, I now saw them as just that: failings. Failures to live up to the real ideals that this country was really, actually founded on. Ideals that we can and must be proud of.
All the good things in our history have come from Americans who said, You know, this may happen all over the world, but it’s not supposed to happen here. America is supposed to be different, and by God, I’m going to see that America is different. I’m not going to live with slavery. I won’t accept school segregation. I won’t keep women from voting. I am not going to allow the president to be above the law. In America, the press is free. In America, there is habeas corpus. Americans don’t torture. Americans don’t build giant fences to keep out immigrants.
Hey, we’re Americans! We are Americans. All of us. Everyone living in this country. And that means we all have a responsibility to live up to the ideals this nation was founded on. No matter our race, gender, sexuality, nation of origin, native language, economic class, political affiliation, age, religion, or anything else, we are bound and obliged and privileged to make sure the ideals America was founded on are alive and well.
America was founded not by a few wig-wearing white men, but by every American who signed on to the principles of the new nation that was born during the Revolutionary War. All Americans are Founders. Those wig-wearing white men duking it out at Independence Hall took a chance on the average American out there in New Jersey or Georgia or Massachusetts being in sympathy with some very radical ideals of liberty, equality, and justice. Those famous men founded their hopes in the average American, and her devotion to justice and freedom.
You have to teach the failures to uphold our founding principles to make those founding principles meaningful. We’ll admit that some history teachers—and some historians—take a negative approach to the shameful portions of our history by saying they represent the “real” America and are the only true thing about this nation. But most teachers and historians are smarter than that, and present a balanced view that helps students understand what they have to live up to and the challenges that await them when they do that work.
Admitting we have failed is not really negative. It’s objectively true, first of all, and it can be a catalyst for positive action to prevent future failures to live up to our principles. If we teach American students that America has never done wrong, they will see that this is not true because we do things wrong right now, today. If we teach American students that America, like every nation, has done wrong, but that we have a unique national conscience that dogs us to right those wrongs in a unique way, we’re teaching U.S. history. That’s what history is for, after all—to change the future.