The current state of American History in public schools reminds me of this old Monty Python sketch:
“Hello, good evening, and welcome to another edition of Blood, Devastation, Death, War, and Horror,” a host begins. “And later on we’ll be talking to a man who does gardening” (Season 3, Episode 4, aired Nov. 9, 1972). Students in American History classes, much like Monty Python’s audience, expect one thing (blood and horror, American history), and get something else entirely.
Last year, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson accused AP U.S History standards of painting America in such a negative light that students “would be ready to join ISIS” upon completing the course. Mr. Carson’s statement may have been a bit exaggerated; despite the fact that students who completed AP U.S. History courses did not rise from their chairs, move to Iraq, and become serial rapists who behead children, the standards for teaching an Advanced Placement U.S. History course changed to paint a less brutal portrait this nation’s history, and by extension emphasize American Exceptionalism.
Historians and history nerds, myself included, lamented these changes, but not because they revise history. Historiography is in a constant state of revision as new evidence and perspectives surface, and as our contemporary understanding of ourselves changes the way we see the past. But most historical revisionism is inclusive, while the College Board’s revisions are painfully exclusive.
History is the process of unburying the dead and interrogating the bodies about how they lived. The deeper we dig, the more we compress time and space, and the closer we find history’s ghosts among ourselves. Perhaps we start to see these ghosts wandering among us. Perhaps we even start to notice that the dead are clawing out of their graves demanding that we listen. The changes made to the AP U.S. History standards are an attempt to rebury and silence the dead, ultimately a vain but nonetheless disheartening act.
For those unfamiliar with the term, American Exceptionalism is the current ruling monarch in a long succession of myths intended to make the U.S. look better than it actually is, and thereby justify any of its actions at home and abroad. Its predecessor myths include Manifest Destiny, the notion that white American pioneers had the exclusive right, as sanctioned either by God or superiority of heritage, to claim and tame all land in the American West, despite the indigenous populations already living there. Another popular myth is America’s Predestination, which asserts that the United States was not only an inevitability, but a holy fate of history, a part of God’s plan, even.
All historians worth their salt know that nothing in history is inevitable. Such an explanation removes human agency, and therefore human responsibility, from our lives. American Exceptionalism feeds upon its predecessor myths; if America is supposed to be, so too are the consequences of its actions, and by that logic, the U.S. can do no harm.
But the truth is that America has done, and continues to do, harm. If America is part of God’s plan, then chattel slavery and Native American genocide are also part of God’s plan. If America really is exceptional, does that mean Arizona only became exceptional in 1912? Did the Southwest miraculously become unique only after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848? Were Japanese Americans suddenly not exceptional between the years of 1942 and 1945? Did the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 limit the potential exceptionalism of Chinese immigrants? Was U.S. involvement in the ousting of democratically elected leaders in Guatemala, Iran, and Chile an exceptional act? What about the House Un-American Activities Committee? What about the fact that the Southern Colonies went into the American Revolution fully aware that British judges were already passing sentences threatening the institution of slavery, and that a declaration of independence was the only way to preserve their plantations? Is the prison-industrial complex a truly exceptional institution worth upholding because it is a by-product of the United States?
American Exceptionalism is a downright lie. No textbook would dare claim Germany is exceptional because of its history, nor that Russia or Great Britain or India are exceptional, predestined countries. I do not intend to suggest that America is an intrinsic evil, either. The United States is guilty of a plethora of injustices, just like Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and India. Like those countries, who gave us Bach, Tolstoy, Monty Python, and Bollywood cinema, the United States has let bloom flowers of its own: our greatest export remains our jazz, blues, hip-hop, rock ‘n roll, rap, and bluegrass. But nothing makes us exempt from our crimes.
Just like Germany, which must confront the Holocaust; Russia, which must confront the gulags; Great Britain, which confront colonialism; and India, which must confront the one million people who died in its partition with Pakistan, the United States does not have the right to run away from its past, because no matter how far we run, the past will always catch up.
Unburying and interrogating the dead does not allow for discrimination. We must listen to every ghost of our past. As a historian, I believe the dead always have something to tell us, forever on the tips of their tongues. Shutting our ears will only make them shout louder at us.