I think that most people misunderstand what American Exceptionalism is about. Most people think that it means screaming “Yay! America!” and ignoring anything that our country does wrong.
American Exceptionalism is not a judgment about the goodness or badness of America. No. American Exceptionalism is a plain fact about America. By “exceptional” it means “unique”. And this is quite true. America is unique and exceptional in that it is one of the only countries in the history of the world to be defined by an idea rather than a border or an ethnicity.
This is the simple, factual truth about America. If you ignore this fact or minimize this fact, then, you are simply not teaching the facts.
America may be exceptionally bad or exceptionally good. It may live up to its ideals exceptionally well or exceptionally poorly. The ideals it chooses may be chosen exceptionally superior or exceptionally inferior. But the fact that it has ideals to live up to, that it could in fact cease to be America simple because it is not living up to its ideals, is something that is uniquely and exceptionally American.
Some people also complain that America is held to a different standard than any other nation. However, this is because America must be held to a different standard than any other nation. The standards that one judges another nationality simply do not apply to America. However, when someone denies American Exceptionalism, but then applies a different standard to America, they are in fact conceding the point.
Now, as is the case with most truths, ignoring American Exceptionalism leads to very bad results. In fact, most of our foreign policy blunders in the past two decades are based on our forgetting American exceptionalism. The problem isn’t that we aren’t gung-ho enough about America. The problem is that we forget that we are the exception. When dealing with another country, we aren’t dealing with another country that is like America. We should not expect that. When we deal in Iraq, Iraq is not an America that has simply not lived up to its ideals as well as we think that we have. If we view Iraq as a wayward America, we do injustice to who and what Iraq is. I am not a foreign policy, international relations, or history expert, but I do know enough about human nature to know that what binds Iraqis together as a nation is likely much different than what binds U.S. citizens together as a nation.
This is true even of Britain. While many of the values that America is based on comes from British history, Britain is itself founded on quite a different conception of nationhood – more of a national will and spirit than a national ideal.
Thus, in order to understand others, we must understand in what ways we are different than others. In order to understand how others judge us, or even how we judge ourselves, we must understand why our scales are different.
Therefore, I applaud the efforts of my representatives in Oklahoma for pushing back against the AP US History standards which put American Exceptionalism on a back seat and identity politics in the front seat. Ignoring American Exceptionalism isn’t just problematic, it is straight up incorrect history. I am perfectly fine letting students decide if America is exceptionally bad or good, but its exceptionalism is just a matter of fact.
Personally, I homeschool, so it makes little practical difference to me. Actually, what it means to me is that my children, who will learn the truth about history, will be better equipped to lead the nation in the future. So, unless you want your country run by right-wing religious zealots (also known as “my children”), you should probably insist that your children be taught better history as well.
Postscript – for an amusing take on American Exceptionalism from a British Author in the early 1900s, you should read GK Chesterton’s What I Saw in America (or listen to it from LibriVox). The first two chapters especially give a hilarious account how the U.S. differs from other countries using the follies of its Visa application process to underscore the point.