Is the United States the world’s greatest country? When asked that question eight years ago, 70 percent of American citizens surveyed said yes. Now, a recent study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that only 54 percent answer affirmatively. Democrats are likelier to see their country as normal and Republicans are likelier to see it as uniquely great, but the decline is bipartisan. It’s also age-based: A similar Pew study found that respondents under 30 were markedly less enamored of their country than those over 50. Across the board, U.S. exceptionalism is faltering.
Maybe that’s okay. Achieving a more perfect union requires confronting dark truths — such as the centrality of slavery to U.S. history, the subject of the New York Times’ 1619 Project. These make flags droop but promise that an unvarnished accounting will aid the cause of progress. Not everyone agrees, though. President Trump tried to counter the 1619 Project with his own 1776 Commission, which would defend the “nobility of the American character,” he explained. (“We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”) Here, too, the ambition is understandable: A proud citizenry will more readily uphold the country’s institutions, respect its laws and do so with a sense of shared purpose.
These are the contours of the battle over patriotism in the curriculum: Should students learn of their country’s virtues or shortcomings? Should they leave class feeling proud or ashamed?
I teach history, and such questions have always struck me as odd, for two reasons. First, we design curriculums around what students will learn rather than how they’ll feel. The aim of a geometry class is not for students to love or hate triangles but to learn the Pythagorean theorem. Similarly, the point of U.S. history isn’t to have students revere or reject the country but to help them understand it.
The second reason is that, by imagining history class as a pep rally or a gripe session, we squeeze the history out of it. The United States becomes a fixed entity with static principles, inviting approval or scorn. And that makes it hard to see how the country has changed with time.
Typically, the debate about American exceptionalism has a left/right split, with progressives seeing the values of the country as aspirational and conservatives seeing them as achieved. The left focuses on deficiencies, asking how an imperfect country might better realize its ideals; this spirit animates progressive movements like those for civil rights and broader access to health care. The right, by contrast, focuses on what works and regards persistent faultfinding as ingratitude that might undermine the national mission; this spirit animates the patriotism behind civil or military service.
But plunge into the past, and the idea that the United States has an enduring mission becomes harder to defend. The 18th-century founders inhabited a world that seems, from our vantage, almost impossibly strange. It was an honor society, where leading politicians responded to slights by fighting fatal duels. It was a hierarchical society, where, according to the Articles of Confederation, “paupers” and “vagabonds” weren’t due the protection of the law. And it was, of course, a slave society, where the national bank issued loans using human captives as collateral.
If you’re inclined, you can feed these facts into an indictment. The country’s distinct lack of greatness, the argument goes, is not a matter of unrealized ideals. It’s rather that the United States, sited on stolen lands and built by enslaved workers, was founded on rotten principles. Its Constitution was not framed for “we the people” but to secure the interests of the “fifty-five privileged white males who wrote it,” the late historian Howard Zinn argued, adding that the government has served “the wealthy and powerful” ever since. In his view, the problem isn’t that the dream was deferred but that it was a nightmare from the start.
Yet reading the country’s character from its origins can lead to a flat interpretation. Such an indictment makes little room for the possibility that things might have changed in the past two and a half centuries.
And things have changed. The most compelling case for national greatness, if you’re playing that game, is that the country is ironically great, in that it started with dubious ideals but, fortunately, failed to realize them. The reason it failed is that people argued against, fought and ultimately defeated dominant 18th-century values, often overcoming serious entrenched interests to do so. They’re the ones we should thank for the fact that, when men and women have sex outside of marriage, the men can no longer be sued by the women’s fathers for “loss of services.”
It’s not just laws that have changed but principles, too. Consider how 21st-century politicians brag about their country. It is the greatest because it has the “greatest employment numbers,” as Trump has said, or because its “cars and movies and technologies” are the “envy of the entire world,” as Mitt Romney has declared. For Barack Obama, it’s the tolerance and opportunity that allowed a man whose father grew up in a “tin-roof shack” in Kenya to achieve any dream he wanted. Today’s politicians take evident pride in the United States’ small businesses, large military and middle class. Such boasts would have baffled the founders, though. They thought little about providing jobs or creating an entertainment empire. For them, the “pursuit of happiness” emphatically did not imply a Black man becoming president. When Thomas Jefferson was pressed to defend the virtues of his country, he pointed to the large size of its quadrupeds. Greatness, in other words, is a moving target.
A good history class helps students see that. It doesn’t treat the United States as an unvarying force for freedom or oppression but as an arena where worldviews compete. Students learn that different people had irreconcilable dreams, clashing understandings of what made their country “great.” They learn that history is messy.
It is this appreciation for change and multiple perspectives that makes the U.S. history classroom a poor place to inculcate or beat back patriotism. “How great are we?” is simply not the question history seeks to answer. “How did we get here?” is closer to the mark.
The point of history is not to list all the good things or bad things that have happened, nor to strike some desired balance between them. It’s to understand origins, persistence and change. We teach it because we hope that knowing how slavery ended or the Second World War began will equip students to think intelligently about the present. History helps them to see why and by whom their world was built. It shows them how visions have had consequences — sometimes far-reaching, sometimes unintended. It gives them the intellectual tools to act on their society: a complex, dynamic place that is theirs to change or conserve.
The aim of history class isn’t to get students to love or loathe their country. It’s to prepare them to live in it.