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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Texas Textbook

James Rosen



Texas Textbooks: Is America ‘Exceptional’?

May 20, 2010 - 2:00 PM | by: James Rosen

Clashes among members of the Texas Board of Education over the content of students’ textbooks have come, in part, to focus on a once obscure intellectual concept — “American exceptionalism” — that has now seen the president of the United States weigh in.

Although definitions in intellectual debates can be tricky, the concept of “American exceptionalism” may be defined as the notion that the United States, by virtue of its origins and ideals, its struggles and accomplishments, stands apart from — and, in some eyes, above — other nations. 

Others have framed it differently.  A reporter for the Financial Times, questioning President Obama at a news conference during a NATO summit in Strasbourg, France in April 2009, asked whether Mr. Obama subscribed to the belief that America is “uniquely qualified to lead the world.”

“I believe in American exceptionalism,” the president replied, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” 

Declaring himself “enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world,” Mr. Obama went on to say that the U.S. is “not always going to be right,” and that he sees no conflict between reverence for his own country and valuing the contributions that other nations have made to world history and current affairs.

Acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates, who teaches at Princeton University, has derided the notion that there is a distinctly American idea, one that is distinguishable from the core concepts that have animated Europeans, Scandinavians, and other cultures.

“[T]ravel to any foreign country,” Oates wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in November 2007, ”and the consensus is: The American idea has become a cruel joke, a blustery and bellicose bodybuilder luridly bulked up on steroids…deranged and myopic, dangerous.”

Oates continued: “American exceptionalism makes our imperialism altruistic, our plundering of the world’s resources a healthy exercise of capitalism and ‘free trade.’

“From childhood, we are indoctrinated with the propaganda that America is superior to other nations; that our way of life, a mass-market ‘democracy’ manipulated by lobbyists, is superior to all other forms of government; that no matter how frivolous and debased, our American culture is the supreme culture, as our language is the supreme language; that our most blatantly imperialistic and cynical political goals are always idealistic, while the goals of other nations are transparently opportunistic.”

Andrew Roberts, a British historian and author of the best-selling Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, has endorsed American exceptionalism in his own writings.  Asked about Oates’s comments, Roberts told Fox News it was evidence of a “psychiatric disorder” among liberal American intellectuals.

“For postmodernists, whereby everything has to be related to something else and nothing is truly exceptional, it’s a disgusting concept that America could stand above and away from the normal ruck of history,” Roberts said.  “And of course, it also feeds in very much to Auropean anti-Americanism, especially at this time of the war against terror.”

America, Roberts said, “is not like any other country.  It wasn’t born like other countries.  It didn’t come to prominence like other countries.  It’s not holding its imperium like other countries….It probably won’t lose its supremacy like other countries.  And so in that sense it is completely exceptional.”

Even liberal historians agreed with conservative scholars that the concept has its origin in America’s own, undeniably unique origins — its unique 18th-century ambition, undermined as it was by the persistence of slavery, to create what Thomas Jefferson called “an empire of liberty.”

Eric Foner of Columbia University, a leading historian of the colonial and Civil War periods — his The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, due out in October, will be his twenty-second book — told Fox News he finds some strains of American exceptionalism “parochial” and “chauvinistic.”

“It causes problems because it has, at various points in our history, led us to interventions abroad…claiming to bring the benefits of American life to people who sometimes aren’t all that anxious to receive it,” Foner told Fox News.  ”So it leads to this kind of imperial frame of mind that we know best for everybody, we know that our system is better — and of course sometimes other people aren’t as convinced of that.

“To think about oursleves as exceptional really is a very narrow vision in a world which is becoming more and more globalized every day,” Foner added.  “Throughout our history, many of the processes which have shaped American history – industrialization, urbanization, things like that — are not purely national phenomena.  And yet we sometimes think that the only way to understand American history is to think about it within the United States…[the pushing Westward of] the frontier, or things that are indigenous to the United States.”

Foner also argued that “exceptionalism” is, in and of itself, hardly exceptional: “Many countries are exceptional.  The history of China,” he said, “is not the same as the history of Japan, or the history of France and Germany.”

In Texas, critics of the conservative-led school board faulted it for embracing the concept.  Mavis Knight, a liberal board member, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying the concept “seems like braggadocio to me, rather than trying to be factual.”

One fact on which both sides could probably agree is that there is a limited number of countries in the world where such a debate, with all its ferocity, could play out so openly and freely — and that China, as presently constituted, is not one of them.

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