Teaching America’s Exceptionalism

Diversity, Education, School Libraries

By: Jamie Gregory

Recent events and efforts to ensure racial justice in America made me curious to read through South Carolina’s new 2019 Social Studies College- and Career-Ready Standards. There were some surprises and some expected shortcomings. 

Unsurprisingly, the United States History and Constitution standards focus on American exceptionalism. (I think the creators (a team of SC educators) meant that to carry a positive connotation.) This is not unlike the controversy the College Board faced several years ago when they tried to revise their own Advanced Placement United States History standards and bowed to political pressure. 

Initially, I was disappointed with much of the wording used to condense such a nuanced, vibrant, and troubled history into six overarching learning standards:

  • “Initiatives undertaken in order to secure the rights and the blessings of liberty to disenfranchised groups will also be explored.”
  • From the Enduring Understanding of the key concept Foundations of American Republicanism: “The North American colonies united politically through the 18th century and this ultimately resulted in a proud American Republic” 
  • USHC.1.CX “Encourage inquiry into how republican ideals helped some citizens, though marginalized groups still sought better opportunities and treatment.” 
  • USHC.1.CC “In addition, this indicator supports inquiry into the relationship of the United States with Europe and Native Americans in the west.” 
  • Enduring Understanding of standard 2: “The antebellum period is comprised of technological and social developments which contributed to dissolution during the Civil War and reunion of the United States during Reconstruction. The expansion of the United States served as a catalyst for sectionalism in the early 19th century as well as the reconciliation between federalism and preserving natural rights with compromises before, during, and after the Civil War.”
  • USHC.2.CO “This indicator was developed to encourage inquiry into sectionalism through an analysis of the emergence of a national market, changes in the two-party system, and effects on marginalized groups. Inquiry into the regional interdependence exemplified by the relationship between the cotton industry in the South and the factory system of the North is also supported by the indicator.”
  • USHC.2.CE “This indicator was developed to encourage inquiry into the causes of American expansion, such as a growing and diversifying population and the expansion of the plantation economy. This indicator promotes inquiry into the relationship between sectionalism and political compromise, culminating in the Civil War.” 
  • USHC.2.CX “Contextualize the perspectives on the role of the federal government in securing natural rights during the period 1830–1877. This indicator was developed to encourage inquiry into how events such as the Indian Removal Act, the Civil War, and Reconstruction prompted examination of the federal government’s role in protecting natural rights. In addition, this indicator supports inquiry into instances where disputes arose over the power of the federal government over state governments.”
  • USHC.3.P “This indicator also promotes inquiry into Native American efforts to protect tribal rights and culture as the United States admitted new territories and states in the west.”
  • USHC.5.CC “Evaluate continuities and changes during the Civil Rights Movement and other subsequent movements for equal rights. This indicator was developed to encourage inquiry into thematic continuities and changes into how marginalized groups sought and won legal rights.”

As you might have noticed, the word slavery is not used in these standards. “Marginalized” hardly paints an accurate picture of groups of people who were murdered in the interests of expanding America. Native Americans are only mentioned a few times and in such euphemistic terms that the United States expanding seems natural, neutrally admitting new territories and states. I suppose you could say the United States and Native Americans had a “relationship” although that word doesn’t connote the truth. The “disputes” that arose over the power of the federal government over state governments included legalized lynching and economic discrimination both of which continue today. Those currently in “marginalized” groups may not agree that they have won legal rights, as if it’s a done deal and not ongoing topics in American society. 

There is much better content in the Support Documents and Resources for United States History and Constitution. For example, this statement proclaims a historical truth: “Thirty years later, secession resulted from the South’s dedication to preserving the institution of slavery.” The writers also included this note: “Lost Cause mythology should be taught within its proper context as an effort by former Confederates to justify the protection of slavery and secession. It is the writers’ intent that the Lost Cause mythology should not be used as the basis of a historical argument because primary source documents and modern historiography refute such claims.” But just why the word “slavery” doesn’t appear in the standards themselves is anyone’s guess.

The support document also gives more credible detail into the Native American experience: “Government policies supported westward expansion at the expense of Native Americans and the growth of big businesses at the expense of the laborers;” “Policies to remove or assimilate Native Americans were enacted by the government to support the economic goals of corporations. Just as in previous periods, Native Americans were pushed off of their lands by white settlers. The federal government often broke treaties with Native American groups in favor of the white settlers.” 

The inclusion of this note seemed interesting as well: “Holocaust denial is not considered a legitimate, academic historical perspective or interpretation.” Is this reminder aimed at the educators or the students?

In the supporting document for inquiry instructional units, the links mostly lead to Khan Academy and John Green’s Crash Course videos and websites such as http://gorhistory.com/hist110/unit3/political.html and ushistory.org. There is nothing wrong with these resources; however, when utilized solely on their own, and passed on from the teacher to the student, inquiry is not inspired. Students still do not learn how to seek and evaluate information on their own. They do not learn about how the nation’s archives are preserved and accessed, and how that makes our nation democratic. One of the six historical thinking skills in the document requires students to “Identify, source, and utilize different forms of evidence, including primary and secondary sources, used in an inquiry-based study of history.” That is not going to be the result of using these plans.

I propose that the South Carolina State Legislature work with the South Carolina Association of School Librarians to compile lists of suggested readings to include narrative nonfiction as well as fiction in order to prevent an overreliance on general websites, Youtube videos, and textbooks for learning resources. We can also provide suggested lesson plans for the school librarian to teach students how to access and use local, regional, state, and national archives for authentic learning opportunities. If we should have learned anything at this point in the year 2020, it’s that we are obligated to provide a richer education for our children to ensure a safer, healthier, and more democratic society.

Is America the exception because of the entrenched hypocritical nature of American history? Or because how we will choose to rise above it is exceptional in guaranteeing the natural rights we profess to believe belong to every person? 

Jamie Gregory

Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC.   

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