Restore the Teaching of American Exceptionalism in the Classroom

Image: Back to school – Public Domain

If this summer’s riots and civil unrest have demonstrated anything, it is that a substantial number of young Americans have been taught to believe their country is systemically racist and thus its very system needs overhauling.

Given that, President Donald Trump is calling for a return to teaching American exceptionalism.

The push to teach the concept came in the administration’s agenda released Aug. 24 and was reiterated during his speech Thursday night on the final day of the Republican National Convention.

It was, in fact, one of two educational items in his “Fighting for You” plan, the other being school choice for every child.

Support for the idea that America is an exceptional country is strongest among older Americans (75.2% of Americans 60 or over agree) and weakest among the young (45.1% of Americans 18 to 29 believe America is exceptional), according to a Eurasia Group poll taken last year.

This should come as no surprise. Our best indicators of K-12 student performance in U.S. history, geography, and civics indicate that our students cannot explain the ideas behind representative government that set the U.S. apart.

national comparison found that test scores in those subjects had declined in recent years and that fewer than 1 in 4 students posted scores at what is reasonably considered appropriate for their grade level.

Meanwhile, progressive media outlets are pushing the narrative that American history should be reframed around the idea that slavery be made central to U.S. history instruction.

While a recent survey by The Heritage Foundation found that half of parents in this nationally representative poll and 70% of school board members in a separate sample disapprove of the reframing, the idea has gained traction and persuaded some young Americans to listen to those who say that America is thoroughly and uniquely racist.

From there to the riots, looting, and other mayhem in our major cities is but a small step.

So, it’s important that America’s students be taught again that their country is exceptional. The country’s approximately 13,500 school districts, where educational policy is made (as it should be), should heed the call for a return to teaching American exceptionalism, and we hope that our leaders and those seeking elective office will use their bully pulpits loudly and often on this.

It’s also important that students be taught why their country is exceptional. The expression is often misunderstood.

Trump himself was not fond of the term “American exceptionalism” in 2015, and his predecessor, too, disdained it.

During his maiden visit to Europe as president in 2009, which critics dubbed an “apology tour,” President Barack Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

But American exceptionalism is rooted elsewhere, a mixture of the liberal traditions of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment and the Colonial experience.

The social scientist Louis Hartz, whose groundbreaking 1955 book “The Liberal Tradition in America” has influenced generations of future thinkers, posited the idea that because America lacked a feudal past it made unfertile soil for either socialism or the European conservatism that unites church with big government.

“It is not accidental that America, which has uniquely lacked a feudal tradition, has uniquely lacked also a socialist tradition. The hidden origin of socialist thought everywhere in the West is to be found in the feudal ethos,” wrote Hartz, for whom America possessed a “fixed, dogmatic liberalism of a liberal way of life.” In his book, Hartz observed repeatedly that America was “unique.”

America thus is exceptional because it is the only country in the world that derives its legitimacy from its start not from a common ethnicity or monarch, but from natural rights—the idea that rights, such as the right to free speech, property, and self-preservation can be observed in nature and precede politics or government.

This liberal tradition was mixed with a Colonial experience that also made America unique in terms of the people who were attracted here.

In a speech in the House of Commons in 1775—just as across the ocean the colonists were becoming restless—Edmund Burke warned the other members of the body that the Americans were:

Protestants, and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion … . All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies [Burke meant New England] is a refinement of the principle of resistance: it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion … . The colonists left England when this spirit was high, and in the emigrants highest of all.

Immigrants to America, too, had this spirit, Burke said:

Even that stream of foreigners which has been constantly flowing into these colonies has, for the greatest part, been composed of dissenters from the establishments of their several countries, and have brought with them a temper and character far from alien to that of the people with whom they mixed.

It’s this exceptionalism that we are happy to see return to the classrooms, especially in a moment when a dedicated minority seems intent on destroying what makes us unique—exceptional, even.


Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is a widely experienced international correspondent, commentator, and editor who has reported from Asia, Europe, and Latin America. He served in the George W. Bush administration, first at the Securities and Exchange Commission and then at the State Department, and is the author of the forthcoming book “The Plot to Change America: How Identity Politics is Dividing the Land of the Free.” Read his research.

Jonathan Butche is a senior policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy and a senior fellow for the Goldwater Institute and the Beacon Center of Tennessee.