J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Making an Exception for Exceptionalism

When I first wrote about criticisms of the new Advanced Placement U.S. History guidelines last month, Boston 1775 reader and teacher Jimmy Dick sensed that a lot of the criticism grew from “a deep seated belief in American Exceptionalism.”

The comments from Colorado education officials I’ve quoted this week confirm that, and fill out what those folks think “American Exceptionalism” mean, such as a “positive” view of the country.

I happened to notice that the 2006-07 guidelines for the U.S. History course (P.D.F. download) spell out “Themes in AP U.S. History” to study, including:
American Identity
Views of the American national character and ideas about American exceptionalism. Recognizing regional differences within the context of what it means to be an American.
Note how that theme, like most of the guideline section in that older version of the course, didn’t come expressed in complete sentences. Instead, we got plural noun forms: “ideas about American exceptionalism.” That left open the possibility of teaching American exceptionalism as a God-given superiority to all other human beings, or as an outdated nationalistic chauvinism. Perhaps that vagueness kept everybody happy.

Another criticism of the new A.P. history guidelines came from, among others, Stanley Kurtz at National Review Online:
The traditional emphasis on America’s founders and the principles of constitutional government will soon be jettisoned in favor of a left-leaning emphasis on race, gender, class, ethnicity, etc.
As I noted before, the 2006-07 guidelines actually made no mention of “the Founding Fathers,” “founders,” “Continental Congress,” or “Constitutional Convention.” That version’s Topic Outline didn’t discuss “the principles of constitutional government,” opting instead to simply list “The federal Constitution.”

However, those guidelines did include this theme:
American Diversity
The diversity of the American people and the relationships among different groups. The roles of race, class, ethnicity, and gender in the history of the United States.
Once again, a right-wing complaint about this new version of the A.P. guidelines being so different from the previous version turns out to be an easily revealed lie. But at least Kurtz was honest in expressing his resentment of teachers treating ”race, gender, class, ethnicity, etc.” as important issues in U.S. history.


Chris said...

I do feel lucky to have been born and to live in the United States, but I think it is important to put "American Exceptionalism" into perspective. If you look throughout history many countries had empires and definitely felt they were exceptional...often calling other countries or regions "barbarians". Look at the ancient Greeks and Romans. Spanish & Portugues in the new world. Napoleonic France. British empire. These are just a few examples. Historically you can almost make a case for every country having some period in their history where they were a dominant force and major player in the world. The U.S. is a special county and I wouldn't to live anywhere else, but we shouldn't use terms like American Exceptionalism to mean that other countries haven't made significant contributions to world history.

J. L. Bell said...

I like Lincoln's formulation that America is a "proposition," a continuous challenge to live up to our national ideals, rather than a proof.

Mark said...

There are plenty of Pam Mazanecs in the U.S., and many who have rightfully ridiculed her approach. In 1831 a Nova Scotia author gives this fictional account of a meeting between "Sam Slick" and a Bluenoser as they discuss America's place in the world:

“The British can whip all the world, and we can whip the British. It’s near about the prettiest sight I know of, is one of our first-class frigates, manned with our free and enlightened citizens, all ready
for sea ; it is like the great American Eagle on its perch, balancing itself for a start on the broad expanse of blue sky, afeard of nothin’ of its kind, and president of all it surveys. It was a good emblem that we chose, warn’t it?”

There was no evading so direct and at the same time so con-
ceited an appeal as this….”

The U.S. is an awesome country. Let the facts come out.