Column: Why 'American Exceptionalism' mars the U.S. history curriculum

In this Sept. 14, 2015, file photo, Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown discuss the state's wildfire situation at the Governor's Office of Emergency Services news conference in Rancho Cordova, Calif.

American history, as we know it, represents the combination of several necessities and key institutions: a formal constitution, an effective democratic government, an international presence – and, most importantly, a quality editing team. Much of this country’s negative actions and occurrences are omitted before American history is even taught to young American students. This year, however, the nation has seen heightened interest – and a surge in controversy – over what should and should not be included in U.S. history textbooks and curricula.

According to a Los Angeles Times report, California recently has become the latest hotspot in this educational battle. Last week Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that will urge future history textbooks to include the Mexican Repatriation Act of the 1930s. Under this act, over one million Mexicans and suspected Mexicans were asked for papers and deported by train into Mexico. Now California public schools are being encouraged to address this history of racial discrimination as another American injustice.

Other states have taken the opposite viewpoint. According to a report from Time Magazine, when the College Board announced its new framework for the AP U.S. History curriculum for the 2014-2015 school year, states such as Oklahoma and Texas set about creating their own framework in its place. They then denied funding to schools that chose to adopt the College Board’s curriculum. According to the report, the author of the Oklahoma bill, Rep. Dan Fisher, “targeted the U.S. history course because the new curriculum doesn’t give enough weight to American exceptionalism.” Instead, he and other critics argue that the new curriculum overemphasizes the negative aspects of American history.

The worry is that this new curriculum will encourage disobedience and disdain for the law among young people. In fact, presidential candidate Ben Carson commented that “most people” who complete the course would then be “ready to sign up for ISIS,” said an article from the Washington Post.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Oklahoma and Texas have responded with censorship, focusing more on patriotism, respect for authority, the Founding Fathers and American Exceptionalism. The lessened emphasis on crucial American errors, such as slavery and civil rights struggles, has given the curriculum a startlingly Orwellian nature, and both rightist and leftist political groups are accusing the other of turning the framework into a political agenda. This is even more troubling in Texas, since the state has a large influence on the rest of the nation through textbook production.

The heart of the problem, amidst this political battle, lies in two words: “American exceptionalism.” For hundreds of years, Americans have used this contrived idea as justification for expansion, warfare, and economic gain, usually at the expense of minority groups. When historical facts did not support American exceptionalism, they were removed and textbooks altered. Manipulating historical events to create an idea such as this is a misuse of the past. To eliminate the voices of minority groups is to eliminate a portion of history and therefore render it false.

Contrary to popular belief, history is not a narrative. It cannot be told as one fictional story, but only as a series of fact-based truths. California schools are including the Mexican Repatriation Act in their curriculum not because it has a certain effect on the way history is portrayed in the United States, but because it is factual.

In the same way, slavery, Jim Crow laws and Japanese internment camps are all included because they are real historical events and crucial to the study of American history. Only when all of the historical facts are determined and explained can one draw conclusions about a nation.

Omission is not the solution for U.S. history textbooks and curricula. The only way for students to truly understand American history is impartially, not through the eyes of one white Founding Father, or one African American slave, or one Mexican deportee, but through all of their insights. And after the good and the bad are represented in their entirety, if the facts still shed a negative light on the United States, then so be it. After all, a nation can only be improved when we know the extent of its faults.


Alex Oliveira is a contributor to the Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.