As a former teacher, I am always eager to see what presidential candidates have to say about education. Considering his wife Jill is an educator, it's unsurprising that Joe Biden has a 2600-word education plan-in-the-works laid out on his campaign website. With specifics such as improving teacher compensation, adding more mental health resources for students, providing universal preschool, increasing vocational training in high schools, eliminating the racial funding gap in schools, and more, there's a lot to look at and consider.
On the flip side, Trump's second-term plan for education is 11 words long:
- Provide School Choice to Every Child in America
- Teach American Exceptionalism
It's not hard to guess what the president means by "Teaching American Exceptionalism." We need to teach kids that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. Full stop. End of story.
Most Americans already grow up with the idea of American exceptionalism underpinning our educations, tacitly if not overtly. The United States is unique among nations, a shining beacon of democracy others look to as an example. Most of us emerge from high school with this basic understanding—that even with some occasional detours here and there (maybe we weren't always so nice to Native Americans, and the whole slavery thing) our country has had the distinct honor of leading the world down the righteous, moral path of freedom and liberty since its beginnings.
And that's not wrong in and of itself. There are wonderfully exceptional things about the American experiment. Our Declaration of Independence was groundbreaking, and our Constitution and system of government were like nothing the world had ever seen. It can be argued that we are a land of opportunity. We are the only country to have all five climate zones. We're the only country whose citizens have walked on the moon. Our music, our movies, our inventions are enjoyed by people all over the world. We've had some inspiring, world-changing leaders.
But if that's the main takeaway from our education system, we're selling our children short—by a lot. That brand of American exceptionalism that says "We're so great!" is a far too simplistic view of an interesting and complex country. It's a story designed to make comfortable and proud, but not in a whole or honest way.
A full, robust, and well-rounded education acknowledges and explores the ways in which the U.S. is exceptional in both great and not-so-great ways—and not just as an aside, but as a feature of who and what we have been. Exceptional doesn't mean great; it means out of the ordinary. It means we stand out in some way, good or bad.
It wasn't until well into adulthood that I fully realized how exceptional it was for the U.S. to have been founded during the heyday of the transatlantic slave trade. Even though I learned the dates in school and was taught (not enough) about slavery, it never occurred to me how intertwined our most precious and beloved history was with our most dreadful and shameful history. It wasn't really taught that way, and it took really diving into the fullness of slavery to understand how much that matters.
We teach American exceptionalism by focusing on the bravery of the founding fathers and their "live free or die" commitment to the cause of liberty. "Give me liberty or give me death" rings through the American mind as easily as a children's nursery rhyme. And yet when that statement was uttered by Patrick Henry, one in five people living in the colonies was enslaved.
One in five.
And chattel, race-based slavery wasn't a blip or an anomaly; it was a long-standing feature of our history. It would be nearly a century before it ended in the U.S., our economy being built on the backs of Black people the whole time. And it only ended after Americans fought each other in the deadliest war the U.S. has ever fought. Our exceptional nation nearly tore itself in half over slavery—not just "slavery" as a general idea, but over the specific question of whether white people had the God-given right to enslave Black people. That "right" was the basis of the Confederate secession stance, under no uncertain terms, in their own words.
I don't remember learning that. I remember feeling like the Civil War was more of a difference of opinion about the role of government, maybe a more extreme version of partisan politics today. I also remember learning to be proud of how Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves, as if he were righting a wrong done to our country instead of a wrong done by our country.
The truth is the U.S. was not exceptional because we abolished slavery. We were exceptional because we were one of the later countries to do so, and only after we fought an entire bloody war over it. That's how we stand out when it comes to this major part of our history. But the "teach American exceptionalism" standard would have us downplaying that reality because it doesn't match the simplistic fairy tale of American greatness.
I could go into countless examples of how American exceptionalism, the way the president would like to see it taught, serves only to erase or distort the full picture of our history. That doesn't mean we should focus solely on our warts, of course, but rather that we should give them the full measure of attention and honest assessment that they deserve. We are great in lots of ways. We're also not great in lots of ways. That has always been the case, and it's silly to teach anything different.
And contrary to what some might think, this is not me hating on our country. I love the U.S. I think we are a "young, scrappy, and hungry" people with high ideals who constantly fall short but keep trying. I think we have as much capacity for good and evil as any other nation and that we must take the responsibility for choosing which way we're going to go seriously.
I do think that teaching American exceptionalism in the form of "RAH! RAH! USA!" muddies that choice. If we think we are always right, we won't seriously consider the possibility that we could be choosing wrong. If we don't have the humility to examine our country and its history fully and honestly, if we can't see our positives while also looking our mistakes and missteps and outright wrongs directly in the face, then we are no better than immature teenagers who inevitably make stupid decisions.
So yes, let's teach American exceptionalism, but let's do it honestly. Let's explore at all the ways the U.S. stands out, good and bad, right and wrong, throughout our history. Let's acknowledge the contributions we've made but also the pain we've caused, and look for ways to make amends and learn from it. Kids can handle that, I promise.
Some might worry that raw honesty will lead kids to hate their country; in fact, I'd argue that it can invoke a truer form of patriotism. Deep love comes from knowing and understanding someone fully, in all their dimensions. Rather than, "I love you no matter what you do," I'd rather see a commitment that says, "I love you in all your glory and see you in all your faults, and I want to help you be the best version of you you can be."
Students don't need to be told a preschool fairy tale of American greatness in order to love their country. They simply need to be taught the truth.
Full stop. End of story.
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