Sunday, June 14, 2015

American Exceptionalism

Exceptionalism: 1. the condition of being exceptional; uniqueness; 2. the study of the unique and exceptional; 3. a theory that a nation, region, or political system is exceptional and does not conform to the norm (

I dedicate this post to (or blame it on) my friend @BlueCerealEduc. He recently shared an article from The Washington Post: “Historians Blast Advanced Placement U.S. History Framework” (

To summarize the article, a group of academics “Scholars Concerned About Advanced Placement History” (doesn’t really inspire a snappy acronym) have published an open letter (oooooo, scary) decrying the new AP U.S. History framework because it presents a “’grave new risk’ to the study of America’s past, in large part because it ignores American exceptionalism.” They are upset because College Board seeks to introduce a wider interpretation of American history (because isn’t all history an interpretation, usually dictated by those in power), a version that doesn’t shy away from our ugly chapters (you know: slavery, continued systemic oppression and discrimination, imperialism, lying, cheating, murdering, swindling) so students can LEARN from their history and maybe stop repeating it. The SCAAPH group (see, it’s just not catchy) fears the new framework “downplays American citizenship and American world leadership in favor of a more global and transnational perspective.” They want policymakers (those people who actually teach and know about education…oh wait, I meant the opposite) to find alternatives to the monster called “College Board” who has a “current domination” of AP testing—of course they do; it’s their test. Ironically, the letter was published by a group “united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education.” I can’t make this up, folks. The Post includes a copy of the letter. I shan’t bore you, but I must quote a few tidbits:

1. They want a history taught that is “alert to all the ways we have disagreed and fallen short of our ideals, while emphasizing the ways that we remain one nation with common ideals and a shared story.”

2. They seem pissed the new framework doesn’t allow students to simply gain “extensive factual knowledge of American history.”

3. They are also upset teachers may no longer bore students with lengthy forays into “elections, wars, diplomacy, inventions, discoveries—all these formerly central subjects tend to dissolve into the vagaries of identity-group conflict.” The framework “reduces history to an [sic] bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces.”

4.  Holy crap: “Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through…toward the more perfect realization of professed ideals.”

5. They are offended by the decentralization of the American nation identity, claiming the new framework chooses to grant “far more extensive attention to ‘how various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities’ The new framework makes a shift from ‘identity’ to ‘identities.’”

So, let’s blow this apart, point by point.
1. Just a glance at the signers shows us 88 men and 12 women—only 3 are actual HS AP History teachers. No, men are not inherently evil (I’m married to an incredibly wonderful one), but as men currently hold America’s power, they, generally speaking, have the most to lose by a "revised" history.

2. “downplays American citizenship and American world leadership”: America has really only been a world leader since the last century. It took two world wars to put us on the top, mainly because several other leading countries were devastated by the wars.

3. “in favor of a more global and transnational perspective”: Aren’t we made up of a diverse grouping of races, cultures, religions, beliefs? Wouldn’t it make sense to look at how those diverse perspectives have come together (disharmoniously and harmoniously)? Wouldn’t it also make sense to look at how America fits into the world’s scope—you know, since we are all part of Earth? Since other countries are really not viewing us favorably, wouldn’t it also make sense to explore how to work with the world and not against it? Oh, that’s right, we spend more on defense than education. I’m sure we’re fine. But, what happens when we cease creating a military smart enough to defend us…? I’m sure we’ll be fine. Isn’t God on our side—no matter how stupid or misguided we are?

4. SCAAPH wants a curriculum that does discuss the ways we’ve “disagreed” and “fallen short of our ideals.” Is that what slavery was? A disagreement? Silly me. I thought it was a widespread and systemic subjugation of a group of people. Guess the Civil Rights Movement was also a disagreement. How about the Trail of Tears and many other accounts of America’s quest for Manifest Destiny. We just had a disagreement with those Native Americans. Or, maybe they disagreed with our “ideals,” so we murdered and uprooted them—oh, and gave them smallpox. Hey, don’t disagree with our ideals. Those are just historical disagreements; I'm not even listing more recent ones….

5. SCAAPH also wants the curriculum to emphasize how we’ve “remained one nation with common ideals and a shared story.” Whose story and ideals are we using? Are we using a Native American’s ideals and stories? Are we including a slaves ideals and stories? Are we talking to Blacks during Jim Crow? How about recent immigrants who’ve been tarred with a rather large brush? How about Muslims who have been asked to renounce parts of the Qur’an because legislators don’t like it? How about the Black people who’ve recently become famous because they’ve been killed with impunity? I’m not seeing a “shared story” or “common ideals” here. Anyone else? There’s been a recent louder outcry for more diversity in literature—could it be because there is more than one story to tell?

6. "Extensive factual knowledge”: I’m snorting in derision. Do we just want dates, people, and places memorized? That seems to be the only real “facts” we could give students. Just as with literary interpretation, history is as varied as the number of eyewitnesses because people have terrible memories and see what they want to see. So what would it hurt to look at Wounded Knee from a couple different perspectives and then distill the information? That’s called “critical thinking” instead of indoctrination.

7. I don’t even know what to say about quote #3. I’d much rather study the whys and hows than the dates, people, and places. Why did Thomas Paine write the pamphlet Common Sense? What was going on that spurred him to pen this? Why did Malcolm X choose to embrace Islam and later repudiate it? What was driving Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Looky there—I worked in people, places, events, and some depth! Wait, is that what effective teachers do? Why don’t we trust them to do their jobs and EDUCATE children?

8. Did you know it was history’s job to provide us with “compelling stories about exemplary people and events”? What exemplary people are we looking at? Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the beautiful and powerful Declaration of Independence, but was a man who also owned slaves and fathered children by one of them? Benjamin Franklin, who invented so many useful tools, served as a diplomat, wrote numerous amazing works—and had affairs with a LOT of women? (I stuck with the white Founding Fathers since we’ve come to worship them for some reason—like Shakespeare.) Why is it harmful to show the whole person? Wouldn’t I, a flawed person, strive for greater things if I see how other flawed people achieve greatness? Wouldn't a person of color also benefit from seeing how other people of color struggles and persevered? Sorry, now I'm messing with history again.

9. SCAAPH wants stories of “citizens [who] have striven…toward the more perfect realization of professed ideals.” Sounds like we’re putting forth stories of people who’ve maintained status quo like good little citizens. Well, there goes the entire unit on Civil Rights. That word “professed” really bothers me; I’m more familiar with the negative connotation of the word: “alleged; pretended” ( If we use that, then yes, America does have “professed” ideals. I’d prefer we actually work toward a realization of actual ideals: equity for all, freedom for all, liberty for all, justice for all….

10. As to quote #5, isn’t part of what makes this country so “exceptional,” so unique is the coming together of people from all over the world, who want to work together to create something greater—a sum larger than our individual parts? That can only happen if we recognize the contribution (and sufferings) of those individual parts.

No matter how many times parts of America have discriminated against other American parts, those oppressed parts have not given up and moved elsewhere. Those oppressed parts have fought and cried and bled and died to try to push America past its weaknesses and ignorance, to take America out of the cave and into the sunlight, to spur OUR country into something truly exceptional. That coming together of many different perspectives and narratives, that refusal to give up in the face of institutional oppression, that restlessness and search for something higher and better, that is what makes America exceptional.

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