U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“American Exceptionalism”: A Pedagogical Middle Way

Programming Note: This will be my last regularly scheduled Monday post. Starting next week, I’ll be switching places with Andy Seal. I’ll be blogging on Fridays. Andy will be blogging on Mondays.

I’ve been periodically blogging about the idea of American exceptionalism for a number of years now. I most recently visited the topic last July. Then I argued that the use of term to designate the belief that the United States is inherently superior to other countries has become its dominant usage in American political talk. Just last week, for example, Lily Rothman, at Time.com, argued that “American exceptionalism” lay at the heart of recent Republican attacks on the new AP U.S. History framework. Quoting a 1988 Time magazine piece, Rothman suggests that the “American exceptionalism” refers to “the divine dispensation that the nation thought it enjoyed in the world.” Though Rothman partially backs away from this definition, noting that “exceptional” has many meanings and that the phrase “American exceptionalism” can consequently have many meanings, it is nonetheless telling that her primary definition of the term is American superiority (and, more specifically, divinely ordained American superiority.

Last July, I noted that this recentering of the term has had a negative impact on my teaching:

One of my bread-and-butter courses is a survey of American social thought. And one of the issues I return to over and over again in the semester is American exceptionalism in the older sense: which American intellectuals have understood their country to be fundamentally different from other countries and what did they believe was the basis of this difference? In recent years, however, I’ve noticed the newer sense of “American exceptionalism” creeping into our class discussions and the students’ papers. I’ll try to ask about the changing ways in which people have understood the U.S. to be different from other countries, and my students will answer with a litany of ways in which the U.S. has been awesome (frequently in their own views, occasionally in those of the people we’re reading).

So I resolved to simply drop the phrase “American exceptionalism” from my course, as I felt that it had become confusing rather than clarifying. But by the end of last semester, I felt that the experiment had been a bit of a failure. Throughout the semester, I had mentally translated the phrase “American exceptionalism” and had, instead, said something longer and, I thought, clearer (e.g. ““the belief that America is fundamentally unlike other nations”). But in fact, I felt that I was constantly not quite saying what I meant. When trying to rewrite an exam question on ideas of American exceptionalism in our readings became ungainly, I told myself that next time I taught the course, I’d restore the phrase to my pedagogy.

As I started the course again this spring, I resolved to re-translate my lesson plans, handouts, paper topics, and so forth, restoring the phrase “American exceptionalism” to those places from which I’d plucked it last semester. And I began to do so.

But a funny thing has happened. Though the phrase has returned to my teaching, I find I’m not using it nearly as often as I did before last semester. “American exceptionalism” is a useful concept in talking about the ways certain Americans have understood their country. And I’m glad that my vow against using the phrase has come to an end. But putting it aside for a semester has made me realize that I was using far more than I had to. Perhaps my doing so reflected the current popularity of the phrase in American discourse. Maybe it was just a lazy habit on my part. But for whatever reason, I seem to have found a middle way on “American exceptionalism.” I still, of course, make a point of telling my students that I’m not using the phrase simply to refer to the view that America is superior to other nations, but more generally to views that America is essentially different from other nations. And, for the moment at least, it seems to be working.


One Thought on this Post

  1. The debate about Obama’s patriotism and if patriotism is connected to his love of the country or not–Christie’s ridiculous way of defending his offensive words about the president–would be a wonderful teaching tool for parsing through the contemporary values of exceptionalism, as well as recent polls and how they reflect a decrease of this feeling, specially among the younger generations. Hopefully it will disappear with the youngest ones.

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