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Trump wants our schools to 'Teach American Exceptionalism.' And honestly? We should.
Photo by Josh Johnson on Unsplash

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
That's it.
I'm going to gloss over the fact that the first point is literally impossible (if every child in one city chose to attend the city's best school, they couldn't) because I'm more fascinated by the second.

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.

Joy

1991 blooper clip of Robin Williams and Elmo is a wholesome nugget of comedic genius

Robin Williams is still bringing smiles to faces after all these years.

Robin Williams and Elmo (Kevin Clash) bloopers.

The late Robin Williams could make picking out socks funny, so pairing him with the fuzzy red monster Elmo was bound to be pure wholesome gold. Honestly, how the puppeteer, Kevin Clash, didn’t completely break character and bust out laughing is a miracle. In this short outtake clip, you get to see Williams crack a few jokes in his signature style while Elmo tries desperately to keep it together.

Williams has been a household name since what seems like the beginning of time, and before his death in 2014, he would make frequent appearances on "Sesame Street." The late actor played so many roles that if you were ask 10 different people what their favorite was, you’d likely get 10 different answers. But for the kids who spent their childhoods watching PBS, they got to see him being silly with his favorite monsters and a giant yellow canary. At least I think Big Bird is a canary.

When he stopped by "Sesame Street" for the special “Big Bird's Birthday or Let Me Eat Cake” in 1991, he was there to show Elmo all of the wonderful things you could do with a stick. Williams turns the stick into a hockey stick and a baton before losing his composure and walking off camera. The entire time, Elmo looks enthralled … if puppets can look enthralled. He’s definitely paying attention before slumping over at the realization that Williams goofed a line. But the actor comes back to continue the scene before Elmo slinks down inside his box after getting Williams’ name wrong, which causes his human co-star to take his stick and leave.

The little blooper reel is so cute and pure that it makes you feel good for a few minutes. For an additional boost of serotonin, check out this other (perfectly executed) clip about conflict that Williams did with the two-headed monster. He certainly had a way of engaging his audience, so it makes sense that even after all of these years, he's still greatly missed.

Noe Hernandez and Maria Carrillo, the owners of Noel Barber Shop in Anaheim, California.

Jordyn Poulter was the youngest member of the U.S. women’s volleyball team, which took home the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics last year. She was named the best setter at the Tokyo games and has been a member of the team since 2018.

Unfortunately, according to a report from ABC 7 News, her gold medal was stolen from her car in a parking garage in Anaheim, California, on May 25.

It was taken along with her passport, which she kept in her glove compartment. While storing a gold medal in your car probably isn’t the best idea, she did it to keep it by her side while fulfilling the hectic schedule of an Olympian.

"We live this crazy life of living so many different places. So many of us play overseas, then go home, then come out here and train,” Poulter said, according to ABC 7. "So I keep the medal on me (to show) friends and family I haven't seen in a while, or just people in the community who want to see the medal. Everyone feels connected to it when they meet an Olympian, and it's such a cool thing to share with people."

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Education

Teacher of the year explains why he's leaving district in unforgettable 3-minute speech

"I'm leaving in hopes that I can regain the ability to do the job that I love."

Lee Allen

For all of our disagreements in modern American life, there are at least a few things most of us can agree on. One of those is the need for reform in public education. We don't all agree on the solutions but many of the challenges are undeniable: retaining great teachers, reducing classroom size and updating the focus of student curriculums to reflect the ever-changing needs of a globalized workforce.

And while parents, politicians and activists debate those remedies, one voice is all-too-often ignored: that of teachers themselves.

This is why a short video testimony from a teacher in the Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett County went viral recently. After all, it's hard to deny the points made by someone who was just named teacher of the year and used the occasion to announce why he will be leaving the very school district that just honored him with that distinction.

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