The Dangers of Teaching American Exceptionalism

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

By Vinay A. Ramesh

Many Americans believe that their country is exceptional. While there is nothing innately wrong with having pride in one’s country, far too often, prominent Republicans reference American exceptionalism to espouse nationalism and call into question their opponents’ patriotism. 

Donald Trump, the soon to be former President and likely a prominent voice in the Republican party for years to come, recently signed an Executive Order establishing the “President’s Advisory 1776 Commission”, claiming that it would be his and the GOP’s goal to “teach American exceptionalism” in classrooms with the hopes of “restoring patriotic education.” So what does American exceptionalism mean to this current iteration of the Republican Party? The GOP describes it as “the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership in the world” and that it requires the U.S. to “retake its natural position as leader of the free world.”

Implementation feasibility aside, Donald Trump’s attitude on the idea has shifted almost violently over the last four years. As a candidate, he was vehemently against the concept of American exceptionalism, saying “I don’t like the term,” further stating during a 2015 event that “Essentially we’re saying, ‘We’re more outstanding than you.’ By the way, you’ve been eating our lunch for the last 20 years, but we’re more exceptional than you. I don’t like the term. I never liked it.”

This article isn’t meant as a deep dive into Trump’s psyche; rather, I’ll break down why blindly learning and promoting American exceptionalism is damaging not only to our citizens, but our democracy as a whole. Unchecked American exceptionalism can be damaging to one’s perception of this country, creating the impression that the United States is a flawless shining beacon meant to lead the world rather than a great but deeply flawed nation in need of repair.

Advocates of American exceptionalism argue that the U.S. is exceptional because it was founded on a set of ideals – that this nation was founded on defeating tyrants, or as Lincoln said “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Some only tout that ideal when it suits their narrative to make soaring campaign speeches riddled with colorful rhetoric and empty promises.

Arguably, America was not founded on equality for all. Rather, the founding fathers took it upon themselves to dole out “selective freedom.” 1776 America took pleasure in dictating a hierarchy on freedom, and that assumption of power and distinction of class, race, and gender remains the root cause of many issues in society today. 

American ideals didn’t include equality for women who fought for suffrage and only attained the right to vote in 1920. It didn’t include equality for Native Americans, whose land this country stole, displacing millions. It didn’t include equality for Black people who are STILL fighting to this day to be recognized as equals. Equal protection may have been granted in name, but this country is still far from universally accepting Black people and people of color as equal in their eyes and hearts. Regardless of the racist and xenophobic rhetoric espoused by the current President, over 71 million Americans still voted for his unsuccessful re-election. America loves to picture itself as the moral compass for the world, but we seldom acknowledge our own shortcomings and failures.

Through touting American exceptionalism, the GOP’s goal is to promote their “America First” brand in classrooms by talking up how we defeated the tyrannical British and abolished slavery. I don’t mean to discount the many incredible things the United States or its citizens have done for this country and the world, but by portraying this country as the “moral beacon for the world” or “exceptional,” the various tragedies of our history are left ignored. Incidents we should never forget and stories that should make us reflect on the meaning of patriotism vs. nationalism are ignored. Bottom line – we cannot cherry pick or airbrush history lessons that are being taught in classrooms to erase our nation’s past or portray ourselves as being better than we have been. 

When CBS News conducted an investigation on social studies curriculum at U.S. schools, they found that “7 states do not directly mention slavery in their state standards and 8 states do not mention the civil rights movement. Only 2 states mention white supremacy, while 16 states list states’ rights as a cause of the Civil War.”

A recent Vox mini documentary investigated a 1950s Georgia textbook, which described a slave’s life as such: “…the master often had a barbecue or a picnic for his slaves. Then they had a great frolic. Even while working in the cotton fields they sang songs.” Presenting the horrors of slavery in this utterly misguided, “it-wasn’t-so-bad-after-all” light is what many American school children were taught to believe slavery was. 

By presenting a sanitized and palatable American history, we instill in our children a type of far-reaching and dangerous propaganda – that our country’s horrifying, structural, deep rooted racism is instead a minor, forgettable blemish. We do them a great disservice on their journey towards becoming responsible, empathetic, and educated citizens of this country. We also risk repeating the cycle of electing right-wing, anti-immigrant populists like Donald Trump.

There are many ongoing issues in our country which need to be solved before we can tout ourselves as exceptional:

  • Voter suppression is an ongoing issue that directly affects minorities and people of color in this country. The state of Georgia has always been ground zero in this case, especially in the 2018 and 2020 state-wide elections. Malfunctioning machines, long lines, polling sites that opened late and insufficient numbers of back up paper ballots, predominantly in African American precincts, are just some of many recent examples of the Republican party actively suppressing the voices of Black voters. 
  • From the protests in Ferguson to the most recent nation-wide demonstrations after the death of George Floyd, militarization of police and their tactics used to quell dissent have been draconian. U.S. military spending over the past twenty years has been upwards of $13 trillion dollars, more than any other country in the world. Though the merits of this gargantuan budget should be contested, what is particularly harmful is the 1033 Program, through which over $8 billion dollars worth of military grade equipment was handed down from the Pentagon to 8,000 local police departments in an effort to “keep the streets safe.” With police having a historic predilection towards using excessive force on Black folks, arming police with armored vehicles and tear gas to suppress peaceful protests across the country has been deeply hurtful and un-democratic. 
  • There is nothing exceptional about the way the United States has led in the handling of the current Coronavirus pandemic. This country represents 4% of the world’s population, yet accounts for 25% of all cases. For months, we experienced a Presidential administration that dismissed the disease as “totally harmless”, telling citizens that masks weren’t necessary, all while 238,000 American lives were cut short. When history books look back to this time, it should be with shame that so many of these deaths could have been prevented. 

Claiming American exceptionalism is not only the process of airbrushing history – it is also the belief that the United States is solely responsible for much of the good happening in the world. From sending foreign aid to struggling countries to acting as mediators between hostile ones, we’ve traditionally been seen as taking on the role of purveyors of peace, international relations, democracy, and justice in the world.

We should be proud of achievements such as The Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Western Europe after WWII, or the many treaties we’ve signed condemning human rights abusers and chemical warfare. However, American school children deserve to learn about the U.S.’s many harmful actions: the post 9/11 Iraq invasion and its consequences for the Iraqi population, how the U.S. was accused of election meddling within Russia in 1996, about the 1954 coup in Guatemala where the CIA helped oust the democratically elected President and install an authoritarian ruler with the help of death squads, about the 1953 coup where the CIA helped overthrow Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, paving the way for diplomatic fallout and international crises that remain to this day, and many more.

America has a tendency to take credit for progress, but accepts little to no blame where there’s been blowback. Much like U.S. achievements have built a better world, U.S. mistakes have shaped the world we live in, and Americans deserve to learn about those fatal flaws as well in order to be better equipped to address them.

Further, I don’t believe we can claim to be an exceptional or progressive country when we are behind most European countries that have paved the way for LGBT rights, are addressing income inequality, and are actively fighting climate change with pragmatic economic policies. The European Union has made monumental strides in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, reducing them by 23% between 1980 and 2018, while the economy still grew by 61% in the same period. We still have a lot more progress to make. For instance, accessible healthcare per capita in America was a staggering $11,072 based on 2019 data, compared to the European average of $3,422. 

Some would argue that criticizing this country openly is unpatriotic. However, I believe there is nothing more patriotic than loving a country so deeply that you’re willing to criticize it for its shortcomings in order to improve on them, even when you know that change may take generations to come to fruition. 

Is America great? Perhaps – but an unquestioning belief in America’s unrelenting greatness without acknowledging the tragedies of the past and misdeeds of the present sets a dangerous precedent. The United States has made great gains thus far due to the nation’s propensity to dream and strive for a better world. But I believe it is no greater than other countries where citizens have had to do the same, often with lesser results. 

Imagine a generation of young adults more educated and cognizant of their country’s successes and failures. Imagine the impact that could have on society, cultural norms, race relations, and overall empathy. This is the America we must endeavor towards and uplift – an imperfect collective of individuals constantly striving to build a more perfect union. Teaching a more accurate and nuanced understanding of U.S. history will lead us there. 

Vinay A. Ramesh is the Co-Founder & COO of Wildfire Technologies. He previously received the Forbes 30 Under 30 for Consumer Technology award and served as a City Commissioner & Advisor to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. Vinay has a B.A. in political science from UC Berkeley.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.