American Exceptionalism

There are always changing views of history based on what is happening in the present. One of the jobs of schools in this country is to prepare our students to become fully functioning citizens of the republic.
Given that, how do we approach the concept of “American Exceptionalism” in the classroom today? We are at a point in history where the country is so politically polarized that each side has a very different view of what the term means. A recent NY Times opinion likened the disagreements of today to weather, but asserted that the long-term story of America was climate. Weather can change radically in 24-hours but climate changes only slightly over time, but, as we know, climate can change, and stopping it is difficult.
What then is the long narrative of America? Let’s start by defining exceptional. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the primary definition as different and distinct. A secondary definition refers to excellence and greatness. The first does not require making a subjective judgment. Exceptional things are different from the norm, just the facts. The second is entirely in the eyes of the beholder. Seen in this lens, American Exceptionalism is about what makes this republic different from other nations. If those differences also make it excellent that is fine, but what makes it different is what we must teach.
When I began my tenure as the Head of Grace, a then-parent (and now grandparent) asked me my opinion on teaching the history of the American republic. I told him that I was not a subscriber to the “City on a Hill” vision that many people peddled at the time. Our history is filled with contradictions. The institution of slavery was our original sin. The Trail of Tears was a genocide and, in fact, what happen to all native peoples was a genocide. Yet, despite the treacherous beginning, that our single constitutional democratic republic was established across this continent has proven to be a good thing for the continent and for the world.
It is exactly this seeming contradiction that makes the teaching of the American republic so difficult. Holding two contradictory truths in your mind requires the deepest cognitive and moral development. Both Piaget and Kohlberg taught that most people never reach a developmental level that allows for that, especially those under the age of 30. Because of this, American history has been taught as a morality play, like George Washington’s honesty about chopping down the cherry tree. For more than 100 years the McGuffey Reader was the primary vehicle of peddling these myths, even as the reality of American life was dramatically and visibly different. On the flip side, revisionist historians teach diametrically opposed morality plays that have the same effect of obscuring the reality of most people’s experience. George Washington was a slaveholder, and some would suggest that this single deplorable fact about his life means that he was not a great American figure worthy of adulation. What we must do is find the through lines that connect generations in the context of the American experience.
One way to find what makes the history of the American republic the exception rather than the norm is to speculate on what would have happened in the world had the American experiment foundered at different points of history. I have been reading a fun book by Grace parent John Avalon called, “Washington’s Farewell.” In 1796, the republic was fragile. It had almost collapsed ten years before and was being buffeted by the chaos in Europe. George Washington, by voluntarily giving up power, did something exceptional. A peaceful transition of power by a secular leader as a result of a vote of the people (admittedly all white males) was a radical idea. France was convulsing at that time in the aftermath of the revolution and moving from dictatorship back to monarchy. If the American transition had failed and either Washington stayed on as president for life or the squabbling between Jefferson and Adams led to the dissolution of the union or civil war, would representative democracy have ever moved forward in the world? Unlikely.
The thing that truly distinguishes our republic is the instrument of government: the U.S. Constitution which is the oldest still in use. It is relatively short, includes a Bill of Rights and the ability to be amended. It has stood the test of time precisely because it is adaptable to different times and circumstances. Its rigid flaw at the time of adoption was allowing the existence of slavery in direct contradiction to the Bill of Rights, which almost caused the republic to fail. Had Lee not blundered so badly at Gettysburg the American experiment would have come to an end. It is hard to image what the history of North America would have been with multiple competing countries. We can assume that both Texas and California would have become independent. The level of conflict and competition that caused the destruction of most of Europe in the 20th century would not have been alien to these shores.
The center of the American idea as expressed by Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863 was: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
The Constitution was amended to exclude slavery, so it survived. That did not eliminate racism, and so the messiness of democracy followed. I love this Winston Churchill quote on democracy from 1947: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”
If the story of America is the story of the struggle of a democracy to fulfill its ideals and succeed as an economy and a polity, that means it will have all of the flaws of its human governors. Its exceptionalism is that America seeks to do better. As Martin Luther King famously said, “The Arc of history bends towards Justice,” or Barack Obama, who echoed that through line, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Pauli Murray, a queer black female legal scholar and Episcopal minister and one of the great doers and thinkers of the twentieth century, said, “Every time someone tries to draw a circle around me to keep me out I draw a larger circle around them to bring them in.” Murray was told that should could not attend the University of North Carolina because she was black nor Harvard Law School because she was a woman. She was also the person who developed the legal strategy that led to Brown vs. Board of Education. That a woman could takedown the very discriminatory system that attempted to deny her access is emblematic of how a democratic republic can heal the wounds that it caused.
That brings us back to the task of preparing citizens by telling the story of the exceptional history of the people of this republic who hold the highest ideals, are scarred by the inability to live by those ideals, but nonetheless are inspired by the aspiration to reach them. Doing so requires us to hold apparently contradictory things in our mind at the same time.
Our school is built on several contradictions itself, so it might be easier for us than most. We are an Episcopal school for children of all faith or no faith at all. We ask our teachers to adjust how they teach to how students learn as individual in the context of the group. We believe in flexible consistency, to name just a few. Most importantly, Grace is a school that says we can teach our values and, most importantly, those are the same values at the heart of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The story for young children can no longer be McGuffey’s George Washington and the cherry tree, even though the moral is a good one. If there is no historical basis for the story, we can not peddle myth as fact to kids of any age.
This year, as part of the MLK observances, the Junior Kindergarten and Kindergarten learned about Olympian Wilma Rudolph. Her story is one of discrimination, struggle, disease and triumph. Second graders embark on a study of Lewis and Clark that is about their epic journey, but also about the indigenous communities that they travelled through. Third graders study New York and Ellis Island, not just as the golden door, but also as a door not open to everyone. Seventh graders read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and this year were able to see the Broadway show, where Atticus Finch is a hero, but also product of a racist society where his highest allegiance was to the rule of law.
We also bring an array of voices into students’ lives. This spring, with the other downtown schools, we were able to hear Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Institute speak about how each person can be an agent of positive change in this society. He called for all of us, but the students specifically, to “get proximate” to what needs to be changed and the social justice work of the school. We have been blessed to hear Gabby Giffords speak about her efforts to challenge powerful forces around gun control. These experiences outside the normal routine are a powerful lever to understanding.
Tenth graders take History of the Americas, which places the American republic in the context of its hemispheric role, not as something set apart. We have built an international exchange program that allows students to gain perspective on their own society from a distance and through the eyes of others. If America is an exception because of the Constitution and its aspiration for justice, it is also exceptional in that we need to learn the humility to allow others to help us live up to our ideals. Exchange is a powerful tool allowing us to gain that perspective.
Eleventh and twelfth graders choose from an array of courses from Civics to Native American History and from Civil War and Reconstruction to Gender History. The aim is to build a perspective to help them see the through lines (the climate) in the complexity and the long-term story of the republic despite the noise (stormy weather) of the present.
If we succeed in helping them hold two contradictory ideas in their minds at the same time, we will have succeeded famously in teaching not only what makes the republic exceptional but also how to make it stronger and closer to its ideals and aspirations. High schoolers should not be solely responsible for change; we are all responsible for it. The next generation will not be able to navigate that change unless we help them understand the beauty and complexity of the American narrative.