American exceptionalism is a deeply held, politically charged and often misunderstood belief.
Backed by fervent supporters, the term — the belief that the U.S. system of government is special among nations — can be traced to the very origins of America. Yet it recently provided ample fodder for the presidential election.
Because of the hefty political baggage attached to the term, writing it into state standards poses challenges for the Nebraska Board of Education, which will consider adoption Dec. 7.
At a statewide public hearing last week, adoption of the concept drew supporters and detractors.
If the board wishes to include it, the question may boil down to finding the precise wording and context that would give teachers clear direction on how to present it to students. As it stands, the proposed draft contains no reference to American exceptionalism. Board member John Sieler wants to add it.
Other states have wrestled with how to deal with it. Minnesota avoided an explicit reference to American exceptionalism in standards written last year, but state officials there made sure students get a good grounding in the principles of liberty and individual rights that propel the American experiment.
Texas explicitly mentions American exceptionalism in its 2010 standards, directing students to study the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political scientist and social critic whose analysis of the American system in the early 19th century endures as a classic. The Texas standards, however, have been criticized by liberals as too Pollyannaish.
Although Sieler, a former Republican Party official, said the meaning of American exceptionalism is clear to him, the term has been used with different connotations through the centuries.
Bellevue University professor Rod Hewlett, who is Grewcock Chair of the Center for American Vision and Values, said the notion of a special America stretches back to John Winthrop's 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.”
Aboard a ship to the new world, Winthrop, who would become governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, instructed fellow pilgrims on his hopes for their destination. It would be, he said, “a city on a hill” with the world's eyes upon it, a society based on faith, with a new government “civil and ecclesiastical.”
De Tocqueville, who Hewlett said raised the notion multiple times, often gets credit for coining the term. Later, the term arose in a different context when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin scoffed at the notion that America's economic system was so exceptional it bucked the socialist model.
President Ronald Reagan described America as a beacon of hope and shining city on the hill. In a 1985 speech, he referenced Winthrop's courageous pilgrims and “that tiny ship, the Arabella, off the Massachusetts coast some three centuries ago.”
Recently, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney sparred over whose commitment to American exceptionalism ran deeper.
At a press conference in Strasbourg, France, 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.”
Noting America's military and economic might, Obama went on to say the country has a “core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”
Romney, seeing relativism in the president's comments, countered: “Our president doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do. ...”
Hewlett said American exceptionalism is used inarticulately at times.
Some groups don't like it because if Americans say they're exceptional, that implies the world's remaining 6.7 billion people are not, he said.
Yet others say America has done some amazing things with its experiment in self-government, he said.
Hewlett said the perspective that America is exceptional because it is blessed by God is too narrow a view. The country is responsible for more than a fifth of the world's gross domestic product, it is at the forefront of popular and political culture, it has the strongest military the world has seen in modern history, and it puts a large economic, energy and political footprint on the world, he said.
Personally, Hewlett doesn't use the term American exceptionalism. But he believes there are exceptional things about America.
“Do I think it's unique enough to study, in the span of the last 200 years, the experiment in self-governance and how we continue to sustain that? I absolutely think so,” he said. “And I think those who argue otherwise are making a huge mistake. But at the same time, to say that's the only thing that matters, I think is equally wrong.”
Excerpts on american government from other state standards
Citizenship. The student understands the concept of American exceptionalism. The student is expected to:
(a) Discuss Alexis de Tocqueville's five values crucial to America's success as a constitutional republic: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire.
(b) Describe how the American values identified by Alexis de Tocqueville are different and unique from those of other nations.
(c) Describe U.S. citizens as people from numerous places throughout the world who hold a common bond in standing for certain self-evident truths.
Describe and evaluate ideas of how society should be organized and political power should be exercised, including the ideas of monarchism, anarchism, socialism, fascism and communism; compare these ideas to those of representative democracy; and assess how such ideas have worked in practice.
Trace how legal interpretations of liberty, equality, justice and power, as identified in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments, have changed and evolved over time.
The United States is based on democratic values and principles that include liberty, individual rights, justice, equality, the rule of law, limited government, common good, popular sovereignty, majority rule and minority rights.
Analyze how constitutionalism preserves fundamental societal values, protects individual freedoms and rights, promotes the general welfare, and responds to changing circumstances and beliefs by defining and limiting the powers of government.
Identify the sources of governmental authority. Explain popular sovereignty (consent of the governed) as the source of legitimate governmental authority in a representative democracy or republic.
Understand the fundamental principles of American constitutional democracy, including how the government derives its power from the people and the primacy of individual liberty.
Understand how the Constitution is designed to secure our liberty by both empowering and limiting central government, and compare the powers granted to citizens, Congress, the president and the Supreme Court with those reserved to the states.
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