We’re Exceptional!

Here’s a thing we don’t need to worry about.

Multiple news sources reported last week that the College Board (the people who design standardized tests for advanced college credit and admissions) has changed their guidelines for the AP history exam. This means high school teachers across the country will change the content of their lessons to better prepare their students to take the test.

The changes (as described in the liberal media) paint a rosier and nobler picture of American history, and are said to result from pressure from conservative groups. The liberal writers fret about the new, or renewed, stronger emphasis on “American Exceptionalism.”

 

 

I have three thoughts. First, every country in the world boosts itself, and there is no reason America shouldn’t too.

Beautiful Kyrgyzstan!
Beautiful Kyrgyzstan!

I spent a day driving up and down the Naryn Valley (a particularly bleak part of the barren, frigid, Soviet backwater of Kyrgyzstan) with a young man named Bakit. After the usual conversations had been exhausted, he began singing songs about the towns we passed through. These were same-ish and formulaic paeans to brave people, fertile soil, and beautiful snow-capped mountains. They smacked of a Soviet mandate to whip up patriotism, and Bakit acknowledged that he learned the songs at Pioneer meetings (the youth wing of Soviet propaganda organization Komsomol). I eventually said I thought the songs were stupid and asking him to sing something else.

Green be her fame!
Green be her fame!

Liberia lies at another extreme of nations. Kyrgyzstan owes its misery to an oppressive and inept government that ruled from a distance and was driven by ideology, Liberia owes its misery to an oppressive and inept government that ruled locally and was driven by avarice. Liberia’s national anthem, which I stood up for and sang with gusto many times during my Peace Corps years, describes “The home of glorious liberty, by God’s command: Though new her name, Green be her fame, and mighty be her Power!”

I’ve heard overt national pride from Dutch, Swiss, Lebanese, Venezuelans, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Greek, English and Welsh people. I’ve never gotten the “better than you” vibe from Australian, Indian, Irish and French people though admittedly, my experience with French people occurred in the Sahara Desert. Wait, strike that: I met a feh dinkim arrogant Aussie, too, though most of ‘em are wonderful people. And let us never forget: Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, Über alles in der Welt (Germany, Germany above all, Above everything in the world). That is just chilling.

Anyway, people in every country in the world believe there is something special – something “exceptional” – about their country. (The Kyrgyz all know with an unshakable certainty that their Issyk Kol is the premier vacation spot on the planet. Greeks really do think Greeks invented everything.) America would be truly exceptional if it didn’t think it was.

 

The second point about the changes to the AP history exam is that historians embrace the changes. Here’s a story that looks very different depending on where you get your news.

Inside Higher Education describes the changes as a fix to changes made a year earlier which “offered “little or no discussion of the Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the religious influences on our nation’s history and many other critical topics that have always been part of the APUSH course.” I’d say the principles of the Declaration of Independence ought to be mentioned in a college-prep American history course, wouldn’t you?

The liberal new source ThinkProgress viewed the changes as bad without much consideration of what the changes were, just because conservatives had a hand in it. The very liberal Salon set the stage back in February, describing the dispute this way: “[Y]ou have a small but dedicated bloc of reactionary populists who are fighting desperately to protect the truth from the advances of a radical, elitist cabal. And in both cases, you see those supporters of the new standards, who tend to be more educated and self-consciously cosmopolitan, react to the anti-reformers’ cries with a mix of bemusement and contempt.”

I think Salon is off target, but I don’t know how much of the article is written is Screwtapese. Anyway, I think the changes were just some serious educators fine-tuning their standards with the best of wills. Here’s what a panel of historians and history teachers said in a letter published a month ago in the Washington Post.

We wish to express our opposition to these [2014] modifications. The College Board’s 2014 Advanced Placement Examination shortchanges students by imposing on them an arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history. We favor instead a robust, vivid, and content-rich account of our unfolding national drama, warts and all, a history that is alert to all the ways we have disagreed and fallen short of our ideals, while emphasizing the ways that we remain one nation with common ideals and a shared story.

I think “robust, vivid and content-rich” is the right way to go.

 

My third point is a little more difficult to follow. Begin by considering Todd Snider’s This Land is Our Land:

 

Freeway through a reservation
Make way for a brand new nation
Big ideas, we got brand new plans
Heaven knows we need this land

We’re gonna build big, high and wide
City streets through countrysides
Chemicals, and pesticides
This land is our land

Hey, redman don’t waste our time
We’re young and strong, we got hills to climb
There’s a lot of room but we need it all
For slave trade and shopping malls

Gonna build big factories
With paper plates and plastic trees
Styrofoam and antifreeze
This land is our land

This land is our land
This land is our land
This land is our land
This land is our land

Well, we came out of a ragin’ sea
To claim someplace where we’d be free
We got hopeful hearts, workin’ hands and
Heaven knows we need this land

‘Cause the world needs land fills
Diet pills and papermills
We need country clubs and oil spills
This land is our land

This land is our land
This land is our land
This land is our land
This land is our land

Freeway through a reservation
Make way for a brand new nation
Big ideas, we got brand new plans
Heaven knows we need this land for Super Bowls

Subway rides, remote controls
And pesticides
Gang related homicides
This land is our land
Read more at http://www.songlyrics.com/todd-snider/this-land-is-our-land-lyrics/#7KZC1LmCyZg1xclJ.99

 

Snider seems to present a snide picture of a country and people bent on cruel and stupid objectives. And in the performance video he says the country was built on “bad karma.” But still, he admits in the first half of each stanza that the country was built on good intentions:

 

Well, we came out of a ragin’ sea
To claim someplace where we’d be free
We got hopeful hearts, workin’ hands and
Heaven knows we need this land

 

And then in the second part of each stanza Snider gives us the disappointing results: paper mills and oil spills. But the fact that so much energy and hopefulness culminated in sour results doesn’t mean the energy and hope were wrong.

Immanuel Kant said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

Henry David Thoreau said, “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.”

To me, one of the great and reassuring ideas about the contemporary American life is that each morning close to 150-million people get up and go to their jobs. And for eight or so hours, they do those jobs with conviction and zeal. It is unfortunate that many of those jobs are stupid: advertising, fashion design, “paper plates and plastic trees.” But it not the fault of the people doing the work.

If we were to stop what we’re doing, announce an Old Testament jubilee, and then construct a plan for a better system, I’m certain we’d dump the Styrofoam. If it were up to me, we’d drop the Super Bowls. But we’d keep the hopeful hearts and workin’ hands. So let’s not be ashamed of them. And let’s keep them in the history books.

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3 thoughts on “We’re Exceptional!”

  1. Hey Andy,

    I agree we need to keep greatness in our history books, but I’m a bit confused by your third point. What were you trying to argue there?

    Paul

    1. The debate about what should be taught in history class hinges on how various chapters (westward expansion, the Civil War, industrialization, etc.) are interpreted. The 2014 revision had moved in the direction of describing those things as national disgraces. The reason for doing that, I imagine, was either Marxist dialectic or else a pretty unimaginative judgment based on outcomes. The think would go like this: Are the Indians free to roam the continent? No? Then westward expansion was harmful and America is terrible. Is everybody rich? No? Then industrialization was a failure and America is terrible. Is America perfectly colorblind? No? Then the civil war and the civil rights movement were failures and America is terrible.

      There is a branch of history that ignores intentions and individual motivations and interprets history only in terms of broad sweeping cultural themes. A lot of British history books take this approach, and they explain everything that happened between 1750 and 1914 with two words: Industrial Revolution. But we don’t want that. Todd Snider in his way and Kant and Thoreau in their ways are all saying that such simple interpretation of events isn’t fair. If the result isn’t perfect, that doesn’t retroactively debase the actors’ intentions.

      My next to last paragraph is meant to note that America is a vigorous, working population. We’ve been a nation that got stuff done. Not all of it was good, but much of it was very good.

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