22 September 2009

Some Thoughts On American Exceptionalism

**Update: Kevin Levin has responded to this post with an attempt to clarify his position. He states in part:

"If I am training young citizens it is not with the goal of convincing them to see American history in a certain way (exceptional, evil, etc.), but to give them the analytical tools so that they can engage in such discussion. I actually have no interest in what they conclude about the moral status of this nation so long as their conclusions are based on careful thinking and consideration of sufficient evidence."

Its been many years since I went to school, but in grade school, we said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning and then sung America the Beautiful. This was meant to instill love of our flag and love of country in students. It was a moral statement--not about government, but about principles. So, most of my teachers did have an interest in what their students concluded about the moral status of this nation. It also came through clearly in their passion for our country's greatness and our founding principles' superiority and uniqueness.

Kevin obviously misses my point in my constant railing "against teachers/academics for imposing their view of the world on their students."
As I stated very clearly in this post and in many other posts. EVERYONE brings their worldview with them when they teach, assuming they are true to their beliefs and passionate about their responsibilities. Just a casual reading of Kevin's blog reveals that his views are liberal/left. (Does he not realize that readers can see that?) Imposing (forcing) views is one thing, but ALL teachers, including Kevin, LEAD their students in a certain direction they want them to go. That is simply human nature. With some it is subtle, others it is more open. My "railing" is against those who lead their students in what I believe is a damaging, self-loathing of America's history and the great men who founded it. I unashamedly applaud those teachers who encourage the concept of American Exceptionalism and encourage a love of our country, as I believe most Americans would.

I think his new comments simply make my point. Judge for yourself.
The subject of American Exceptionalism (AE) had already popped up in comments here in recent weeks. And then, just last week, Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory also commented on this idea in regards to how American textbooks should present our nation's history and how he approaches the subject in his role as a history teacher. Then fellow blogger and history teacher, Chris Wehner expressed his opinion on the subject and his rather spirited disagreement with Mr. Levin. I would tend to agree with Mr. Wehner. One comment that I found a little strange on Mr. Levin's blog was this:

"I don’t mind admitting that I am an enemy of the notion of ‘American Exceptionalism.’ It’s not simply that I fail to see how it applies to American history, but that it has nothing to do with my role as an instructor of history."

I'm not quite sure all what Kevin means by declaring that he is an "enemy" of the notion of AE, other than to assume he believes the concept is somehow inaccurate, sappy romanticism, overboard patriotism, or has no place in the classroom. I find it astounding that anyone thinks it has no role in the instruction of history. I could not disagree more.

While AE can mean different things to different people, when I refer to AE, I would agree with a summation as expressed by Monica Crowley:

"American exceptionalism is grounded in the founding of the United States upon an idea, rather than upon the ambitions of men. Indeed, it was designed to be a nation of laws and specifically not of men, built on the concept of individual liberty and equal justice before the law, with freedoms ranging from speech to worship, and rights from gun ownership to assembly."

"The Founding Fathers institutionalized these freedoms so we would be safe from the overweening burdens and capricious claims of a too-powerful state. These freedoms would allow individuals to do as they pleased within the confines of the law and to achieve, in ways big and small, to the benefit of the country as a whole."

Crowley continues . . .

"Even in extremely difficult times, American exceptionalism survived. Faced with the darkest days of civil and foreign wars; economic depression and recessions; weak leadership at home or aggressive, hostile leadership from abroad; the American people kept faith in the uniqueness of our democratic experiment. Liberty provides opportunity, which is why in our 233 short years, we have produced (even with its flaws and flawed representatives) the greatest democracy in the world, the most productive engine of economic growth, the most influential culture and the most far-reaching effects of innovation." (You may read the rest of Crowley's commentary here.)

I, and I believe most Americans, reject the premise that teaching AE is inaccurate, or "romanticism" or that it has no place in the classroom. Nonetheless, this rejection of "the notion of American Exceptionalsim" is not uncommon among many academics on the left who seem to be obsessed with self-loathing when it comes to American history and America's place in the world. Many on the left in academia view American history as little more than a class struggle of evil European males and monied corporate interests against oppressed minorities. For example, one can view a lecture on "The Myth of American Exceptionalism" by Howard Zinn here. And in a 2006 piece, Zinn makes no bones about how he feels about AE and the providential blessings upon America:

"On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed. Is not nationalism -- that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder -- one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred? These ways of thinking -- cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on -- have been useful to those in power, and deadly for those out of power."

(I wonder if he was foaming at the mouth when he wrote that?) Zinn's
A People's History of the United States is a popular textbook in some high schools and colleges.

Of course, Zinn is an extreme, but valid, example. But other examples would include well known leftist activist and history Professor, Alan Dawley who once proclaimed AE to be "dead and buried." But, much to the chagrin of others in academia (and despite their best efforts), they would have to admit that Dawley was wrong. As recently as 2008, a PEW research poll showed that a healthy majority (61%) believe that "God has uniquely blessed America." I'm sure that makes the elites in academia cringe. I'm smiling.

Another darling of academics who tend to reject a traditional view of American history is nationally acclaimed historian and author, Eric Foner. One book reviewer states that, "He (Foner) is also one of the foremost exponents of what has become known as 'radical history': the euphemism of choice for Marxist and neo-Marxist historians who seek to overturn the old mainstream political history."

In the preface of Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World, Foner writes:

"it is no longer possible to treat American history as an unalloyed saga of national progress toward liberty and equality" (Read: American Exceptionalism). Foner also expresses concern that, in regards to our history, "celebration is widespread." Gee, something wrong with that? Evidently. Can't have all that flag-waving, God bless America stuff going on in front of folks--for heaven's sake, somebody might think America is a great country or something.

(See my previous posts on celebrating our history here, here, and here.)

Dr. Ted Bromund (himself an academic with a doctorate from Yale) explains the mindset of academic elites when it comes to AE:

"This is a difficult fact for most Americans to accept, or to believe, but for these elites, the word ‘exceptionalism’ is criticism, not praise. In the academy, where I spent more than twenty years, ‘American exceptionalism’ is treated, at best, as a myth born of self-righteous national chauvinism. At worst, it is a badly-disguised code word for knuckle-dragging reactionaries and closet fascists. Nothing pinpoints you as a conservative in the American academy faster than referring to American exceptionalism without a sneer, and nothing ingratiates you faster than dismissing anyone who believes in it as a dangerous right-winger and an historical ignoramus."
(Read the rest here.)

Many academics who write and study history from a leftist point of view would like everyone to believe that men act, and history occurs, within a vacuum and, thus, should be taught that way. They would also have you believe they do not bring their particular perspective to the classroom with them. Hogwash. No teacher or professor, no matter how hard they try--nor how loud they proclaim it--leaves their beliefs, ideologies, and philosophies at the door outside of their classroom. Some may be better at hiding it than others, but human nature betrays such a ridiculous notion.

Of course, not all history teachers, whether at the high school or college level, reject the notion of AE. Thankfully, there are other teachers like Chris Wehner who recognize the dangerous trend in placing too much emphasis on the negative aspects of our nation's unparalleled history. High school history teacher and public school board member, Joe Enge is one such teacher:

"Liberal historical myths and misrepresentations are hobbling America to face the dangers of the 21st century. The relationship of the past in framing perspectives of the present to determine the future has never been clearer. At the same time, public schools in our country continue to turn students off to history as a subject, leave them with erroneous and negative views of their rich heritage, and unprepared for the requisite critical thinking skills needed as citizens to defend against clear and present dangers . . . Western civilization, America, Christianity and capitalism are too often portrayed in negative terms by the same history textbooks. Western achievements are ignored or minimized, leaving young minds uninformed and ashamed of their cultural heritage. The liberal penchant for self-loathing is not simply inaccurate, but extremely dangerous when it becomes a running theme for history instruction." (Read the rest here.)

There is no neutrality in teaching history, whether your politics lean left or whether they lean right. Worldviews matter. Ideologies impact our thought processes and what we say and how we say it. What we emphasize, what we minimize. What we believe is important, what we believe is irrelevant. What makes us ashamed, what makes us proud.

I recall an incident in my 12th grade government class. We had a very likable older woman as a teacher. She had a law degree and, I found out later, was a member of the ACLU. One day while discussing different forms of government, Mrs. B. stated: "Actually, communism in its pure form, is the best form of government." You could have heard a pin drop. My best friend and I, though rather liberal ourselves on certain topics at that time, engaged Mrs. B. in a rather heated debate challenging that ridiculous notion. Though anecdotal, it is clear Mrs. B. brought her ACLU background and her ideology into the classroom. That was over 30 years ago. I can only imagine some of the comments being made today in some classes.

Certainly all the facts should be presented; the good, the bad, the ugly. But America's triumphs over our bad and ugly should be cause enough to teach that America is an exceptional nation in the history of mankind. How can anyone possibly deny that? Our laws assume certain rights are inalienable--that they are natural rights, given by God and which cannot be taken away by any government. We were conceived as a nation of laws and not of men. That is unique in history. That should be trumpeted and, yes, celebrated as exceptional. And even though we have not always lived up to those ideals, we have continually struggled to do so. We have been blessed with prosperity, liberty, and freedom more than any nation in history. We still have more opportunity here than any other place on earth. By teaching these truths, we can at least have some hope that the generations to come will want America to continue to be exceptional and that our children and grandchildren will be able to to enjoy the same blessings that we have.

Hopefully, that is something most of us can agree upon.


Chaps said...

I was surprised at the lack of comments on this post. Then I decided that those of us on the Right agree completely and those on the Left haven't a clue what you're talking about. Generally, that doesn't stop the Left from commenting anyway but this time they seem completely bumfuzzled.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


I think the evidence of my point is quite clear. Watch for a follow up later this evening.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

One mistake a lot of folks make when debating those who adhere to a leftist ideology is accepting their premises, most of which are wrong.

They often don't know how to (and can't) respond to someone who rejects the premise from which they argue.

Anonymous said...

Richard, I too saw that comment from Kevin and just simply did not have the intellectual fortitude to go at it again. Thank you for supporting me, I appreciate it. -Chris

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

You're welcome Chris. Keep up the good work.

Corey Meyer said...

I am preparing a post over at The Blood of My Kindred...be a couple of days. Did not want to add a big comment to your post for the sake of reading and responding.

Beleive it or not I agree pretty much with what you have said here...go figure eh? But I do have some things I wish to address and I think I can do that better on my blog than here...no offense.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


I'm glad you're in agreement. As I told a fellow CW blogger in a private email, we can disagree on some of the finer points of American history and some of the thornier issues - the WBTS for example and whether or not Confederates were "traitors." You and I disagree on that point. However, there should be no disagreement on the larger issue of America's greatness, her glorious history, her triumphs, her unique founding on God-given rights and individual freedom, our unmatched liberty, etc. America is indeed exceptional and still the greatest nation on earth.

I look forward to reading your post.

Corey Meyer said...


Don't get too chummy...I doubt you will agree with what I have to say. You will certainly agree to some of it, but I figure not most.

You have some valid points, but I do not see American history in the same light as you do. I do not have a negative view of history...I just don't think it helps me, my country or my students to sugar coat or praise it's history. If they see fit to praise it...so be it...but as a teacher that is not my job.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Ok, I retract my chummy comments. No one is talking about sugar-coating. That's a straw man you and others like to put up. It's extremely silly and juvenile.

Your view of teaching and American history is, as you point out, much different than mine and, according to polls, most Americans. All polling show that parents want their children taught about America's greatness and founding principles. That's what I was taught and that is what my children were taught. I assumed we had some general agreement on trumpeting American Exceptionalism.

Your view, in my opinion, is wrong.

Anonymous said...

Richard, I like the truth that emanates from your comments. If I were you, I would not be "diverted by the ground noise and the static" of other bloggers.

A while back I pressured Levin on determining the foundations of his biased writings. He said that he wanted to help make this country what it was intended to be, which, in his mind and context, was to deny admiration of Confederate memory. As misguided as his attempts at moral persuasion have been, is he not himself a follower of AE philosophy in his own distorted respect?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


Thank you and thanks for the advice. Yes, he is in his misguided ways. But his philosophy is one I reject.