Schooling Generations in American Exceptionalism

Schooling Generations in American Exceptionalism

“One of the most important aspects of citizenship is to acquire the concept of American Exceptionalism, or the idea that the ‘United States’ and its people differ from other nations …”(1) It was with these words and this concept: American exceptionalism, that objective five (citizenship requirements) of Texas’ social studies curriculum was revised. And if the ultraconservative Texas State Board of Education Review Committee has their way, which consists mostly of wealthy politicians and prominent business leaders, teaching American exceptionalism to millions of students might just accomplish George Orwell’s 1946 axiom: “From the totalitarian point of view, history is something to be created rather than learned.”

While much has been written about Texas’ new social studies curriculum that will be taught to future generations, little has been written about internalizing the values of and the ideas surrounding, American exceptionalism. Since exceptionalism refers to showing outstanding achievements or displaying superior intelligence, character, strength and extraordinary talent, then the new curriculum teeters on a perilous doctrine of ultranationalism. It also embraces a kind of global social Darwinism and eugenics program, namely Ameri-centrism – a view emphasizing that the United States is more superior than other nations and peoples, along with its values, culture, government, language, politics and lifestyle.

In fact, the second part of the new social studies curriculum states, “The student will describe how ‘United States’ citizens have different states of mind, different surroundings and different political cultures than other nations …”(2) It will also highlight the “American Dream” and the sense of “destiny,” so that “‘these dead shall not have died in vain,'” and that the United States is a “‘nation under God.'”(3) In other words, future generations will be taught that the accumulation of wealth and living a better lifestyle – which usually entails conspicuous and overconsumption at the expense of natural resources – are the main goals to citizenship. The students will also learn that wars and military interventions around the world have been designed by God and, therefore, one’s highest calling is military duty.

In “Empires of the Word, a Language History of the World,” Nicholas Ostler wrote that our language places us in a cultural continuum, linking us to the past and showing our meanings also to future fellow speakers. He believes that far more than princes, states or economies, it is language – communities which are the real players in world history, especially since words are powerful tools which convey symbols and imagery that provide one with a sense of communal and national identity. By their nature, words and their meanings, like American exceptionalism, define individuals, the community, the state and a nation. They promote and produce narratives, or worldviews and frames of reference, that are acted upon and ultimately lived.

One hundred years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt, who wanted to civilize the world according to American standards, instituted the Roosevelt Corollary. It fused Puritanism and its city on a hill with the Monroe Doctrine, westward expansion, manifest destiny and industrial imperialism. The Roosevelt Corollary stated: “in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence,” which would be defined by the United States, of course, the United States would be forced to “exercise international police powers.”(4) Woodrow Wilson reinvented this notion during World War I, so as to “making the world safe for democracy,” as did President George W. Bush who fought pre-emptive wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of people and left millions of refugees. In like manner, will schooling generations in American exceptionalism mean another century of perpetual warfare and military interventions around the globe?

A final vote in May will approve the new social studies curriculum for the state of Texas. With ten Republicans and only five Democrats on the board, it appears the new standards, including American exceptionalism, will be approved. However, there is still time to write and contact the Texas State Board of Education.

Does teaching American exceptionalism mean other nations are not and, if so, should the United States attempt to militarily change them as it has in the past? Also, what about some teachers who demythologize American exceptionalism and teach how the United States committed genocide and crimes against peace, humanity and even natural and civil rights?

Still, what is the meaning of learning and the purpose of education? Do schools exist to develop critical thinkers and productive and active global citizens, or do they exist for the purpose of preprogramming unquestioning civilians and obedient and passive consumers, including packaged wars? Historian Howard Zinn believed knowing history was less about understanding the past than changing the future. In regards to the forced Indian removal policies and genocides, the Sand Creek and Wounded Knee massacres, the Luzons, the Dresdens, the Hiroshimas, the No Gun Ris, the My Lais, the IR655’s, the Maryknoll nuns’ and Jesuit priests’ murders, the Guatemalan mass graves, the Sinuas, the Basras, the Abu Graibs, the Bagrams, the Hadithas, the Al-Mahmudiyahs, the Fallujahs and the Gardezs – can the United States afford to school more generations in American exceptionalism?

(Note: The new social studies curriculum will also stress the pre-eminence of American capitalism – as it always has – and will put a more ultraconservative stamp on history. It will eliminate many contributions by Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians, progressives and socialists, while positively portraying Reaganism and Reaganomics, the moral majority and the National Rifle Association. The New Deal, affirmative action and Great Society programs will be taught from a more critical and negative view, as will multiculturalism. A future article, entitled “Schooling Generations in American De-Exceptionalism,” will argue for teaching a more balanced view of American history.)

(1) Draft proposed revisions, “Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, United States History Since 1877.” Prepared by the State Board of Education TEKS Review Committees, October 17, 2009, p. 12.
(2) Ibid., p. 12.
(3) Ibid., p. 12.
(4) Syrett, Harold C., “American Historical Documents,” New York, New York: Barnes and Nobles Publishers, 1962, p. 319.