Is there such a Thing as American Exceptionalism?


textbook-thumb-200x282-80797I was struck by the discussion of American exceptionalism that became a running sub-theme of the recent American Historical Association annual meeting in Atlanta. It seems there is no way to square the perspections of exceptionalism presented everywhere with the reality of the American past. It may be that we are living at a time when Americans are seeking to reassert a national and cultural identity that seemed in jeopardy in the aftermath of the Cold War. Throughout most of American history, many Americans’ conceptions of their past has been informed by views of nationalism, exceptionalism, and triumphalism.

During the earliest years of struggle with the Soviet Union historians increasingly emphasized an exceptionalistic interpretation of the American past. Richard Hofstadter, the foremost historian of the consensus school, noted that as many people rethought America’s past after World War II, Nazi extermination camps, and totalitarianism of all stripes, they came to “a revival of the old feeling that the United States is better and different.” In such a context, he asserted, emphasis on conflict in American history seemed quite out of touch with the issues of concern to those seeking to understand the past as an entrée to dealing with present situations.

That consensus interpretation celebrated the long tradition of shared American ideals and values while de-emphasizing conflict, and that made the United States and its people somehow more socially advanced. Its advocates questioned the ideas and people who challenged those cherished principles, seeing in many of them strains of authoritarianism, anarchy, and narrow- and simple-mindedness of all varieties. Much of this approach, advocated a pragmatic liberalism that many believed was in constant jeopardy from forces of fear, anti-intellectualism, and authoritarianism.

But that master narrative of American history began to break down with the rise of the new social history of the 1960s. As Peter Charles Hoffer commented in Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin (2004):

Outraged by the Viet Nam War and inspired by the civil rights movement, this new generation of professional historians set themselves the task of dismantling consensus history. Some of them were political radicals, and they gave renewed life to the progressive critique of consensus. Others were more concerned with black history and women’s history and were determined to move the story of these groups to center stage.

By the 1980s the consensus, exceptionalistic perspective on the American past had crumbled throughout academia, but it had not done so among the broader public and in the cultural institutions that sought to speak to the public. Those sectors represented a collective memory of the American past that was largely comforting and emphasized the idea of one people, one nation.

This shift of academic history from an emphasis on broad social unity to a multicultural, in some cases divisive, perspective on the past deeply troubled some elements of society. These traditionally minded groups viewed history as largely a civics lesson and a means of instilling in the nation’s citizenry a sense of awe and reverence for the nation-state and its system of governance. They questioned the necessity of alternate views of seeing the past, the reexamination of traditional interpretations, and the more multicultural, relativistic, and conflict-oriented approach to historical inquiry.

It was during this era that “revisionist history” first entered the lexicon as a term of derision, as if understanding of the past could never be altered in any way. Numerous castings of aspersions on the academic approach to history, the fruits of professors’ historical research, and professional historians as a group emerged from the 1980s on and accelerated as the century came to a close.

This debate represented a battle for control of the national memory. Would that vision be one that is unified—one people, one nation—or one that is fragmented and personal? Having lost this battle in higher education, or perhaps not even fully joining it, the forces of consensus and continuity struggled to control the far more significant and broader reach of history outside the colleges and universities. Critics believed that they had to prevail in those settings for the good of the nation as a whole.

The effort became something of a crusade, but not one orchestrated from the top down via some master plan. Instead, as individual issues arose the cultural right joined the fray to defeat what they viewed as a damaging, unusable version of the American past.

Attacks on the “new social history” abounded in the 1990s, such as the conflict over the National History Standards. Lynne Cheney, who had actually overseen the beginning of the effort as director of the National Endowment of the Humanities in 1992, led an attack on the National History Standards being created for K-12 educators beginning in 1994, and it did not abate for over a year. She, as well as many other conservatives, took aim at the National History Standards as representative of the perspective of academic historians and one that failed to buttress the nation-state. It presented, in her estimation, a “grim and gloomy” perspective on the American past that was far too representative of political correctness.

As columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote at the time of the debate, “The whole document strains to promote the achievements and highlight the victimization of the country’s preferred minorities, while straining equally to degrade the achievements and highlight the flaws of the white males who ran the country for its first two centuries.” In the end the conservative assault succeeded in forcing a major revision of the standards and the wholesale jettisoning of the teaching examples that had engendered the most serious criticism.

These efforts to control the telling of the past in the public sphere reached a broad audience through many avenues such as television, museums, and the elementary and secondary schools. Some of those efforts were subtle, but others have been heavy-handed. For example, as recently as June 2006 Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed the “A++” law aimed at reforming K-12 education in his state. A small but significant part of this legislation dealt with the teaching of history. Among other things, it mandated that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” It also directed a “character-development curriculum [that] shall stress the qualities of patriotism, responsibility, citizenship, kindness, respect for authority, life, liberty, and personal property, honesty, charity, self-control, racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance, and cooperation.” Finally, it directed an emphasis on “the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.”

While much of this language would place a “civics” spin on the teaching of American history—and could be largely innocuous—should such efforts find rigorous enforcement it offers room for only a narrow presentation of historical facts and little latitude for interpretation. Interpretation, of course, is the “stuff” of historical investigation and imagination; this approach represents a blatant pursuit of a “one nation-one people” approach to history and strives for consensus and continuity.

Is there a reason to be concerned about such activities?

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