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.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I'll never forget the exhilaration I felt as I headed into the city on July 3, 2018. My pink hair was styled. I wore it up in a high ponytail, though I left two tendrils down. Two tendrils which framed my face. My makeup was done. I wore shadow on my eyes and blush on my cheeks, blush which gave me color. Which brought my pale complexion to life. And my confidence grew each time my heels clacked against the concrete.

My confidence grew with each and every step.

Why? Because I was a strong woman. A city woman. A woman headed to interview for her dream job.

I nailed the interview. Before I boarded the bus back home, I had an offer letter in my inbox. I was a news writer, with a salary and benefits, but a strange thing happened 13 months later. I quit said job in an instant. On a whim. I walked down Fifth Avenue and never looked back. And while there were a few reasons why I quit that warm, summer day: I was a new(ish) mom. A second-time mom, and I missed my children. Spending an hour with them each day just wasn't enough. My daughter was struggling in school. She needed oversight. Guidance. She needed my help. And my commute was rough. I couldn't cover the exorbitant cost of childcare. The real reason I quit was because my mental health was failing.


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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I'll never forget the exhilaration I felt as I headed into the city on July 3, 2018. My pink hair was styled. I wore it up in a high ponytail, though I left two tendrils down. Two tendrils which framed my face. My makeup was done. I wore shadow on my eyes and blush on my cheeks, blush which gave me color. Which brought my pale complexion to life. And my confidence grew each time my heels clacked against the concrete.

My confidence grew with each and every step.

Why? Because I was a strong woman. A city woman. A woman headed to interview for her dream job.

I nailed the interview. Before I boarded the bus back home, I had an offer letter in my inbox. I was a news writer, with a salary and benefits, but a strange thing happened 13 months later. I quit said job in an instant. On a whim. I walked down Fifth Avenue and never looked back. And while there were a few reasons why I quit that warm, summer day: I was a new(ish) mom. A second-time mom, and I missed my children. Spending an hour with them each day just wasn't enough. My daughter was struggling in school. She needed oversight. Guidance. She needed my help. And my commute was rough. I couldn't cover the exorbitant cost of childcare. The real reason I quit was because my mental health was failing.


Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."