President Trump is advocating for the teaching of “American exceptionalism” is U.S. classrooms, focusing on the accomplishments of American leaders in exploration, business, science and government.
But education officials in states such as Virginia and California are pushing back with curricula in high schools that examine the country’s troubled past with slavery, American Indian conflicts, anti-Semitism and Latin immigration.
The opposing viewpoints set the scene for a battle over what is taught in American history classes, and how — given that education has long been the province of state and local authorities, not the federal government.
Amid protests over police brutality, debates over racial justice and efforts to remove Confederate memorials, Mr. Trump used his presidential nomination acceptance speech last week to cite of roster of American heroes and triumphs — including explorers Lewis and Clark, sharpshooter Annie Oakley and the moon landing.
“We want our sons and daughters to know the truth: America is the greatest and most exceptional nation in the history of the world,” Mr. Trump said, signaling his idea of a history class flush with American success stories and not bogged down by tales of social unrest.
Days earlier, the Trump campaign released an education goal for a potential next term: to teach “American Exceptionalism” in classes.
It’s not the first time American exceptionalism has drawn political traction. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich launched his 2012 presidential campaign with the book “Why American Exceptionalism Matters.” President Reagan spoke of America in biblical terms as a “shining city” in his farewell address. Even French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1800s referred to America’s “exceptionalism,” though as a reference to its geographical uniqueness — being set apart from Europe.
It’s unclear how the White House would implement an “America First” education scheme, or if the administration would attempt to tie federal education funding to curricula, as it attempted in a 2019 executive order on free speech on college campuses.
Education Secretary Betsy Devos believes that U.S. schools should provide an educational future in which “our students are number one in the world,” spokeswoman Angela Morabito told The Washington Times.
“We know that federal mandates don’t improve student achievement, and part of what makes America unique is federalism — including the rights of state and local governments to set curriculum in their schools,” said Ms. Morabito.
And many states are doing just that:
• In Texas, schools last year began offering high school elective course on Mexican American studies.
• In Connecticut, the legislature has formed a committee to create a Black and Latino studies course.
• In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis last year signed a bill requiring teachers to address anti-Semitism and a 1920s massacre by a White mob that killed dozens of Black residents after a Black man had tried to vote.
“One hundred years ago, the bloodiest day in American political history unfolded in Ocoee, Florida on Election Day,” state Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, said at the signing ceremony in June. “Now more than ever it is paramount we educate our citizenry about the origins of racial conflict and its manifestations in policies that are anti-Black, anti-democratic and anti-human.”
Meanwhile, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam last week announced that more than a dozen school districts will pilot an elective in Black American history across the commonwealth.
“Black history is American history,” said Mr. Northam, a Democrat. “But for too long, the story we have told was insufficient and inadequate.”
Virginia’s new history lessons cover the transatlantic slave trade through the Civil War and emancipation, up to the civil rights era. By semester’s end, students will be able to “analyze and understand how the institution of slavery in the U.S. shaped beliefs about race and the supremacy of one race over another and influenced America’s economy and politics,” according to the governor’s office.
What’s more, California’s “ethnic studies” model curriculum would adopt a social justice approach to teaching history. A bill approved Monday in the state Senate would require a semester of “Ethnic Studies” for every public high schooler, including units on African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians and Asian Americans.
“For too long, the experience and contributions of people of color have been left out of the classroom,” said Assemblyman Jose Medina, a Democrat whose bill now heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. “Requiring ethnic studies will help ensure that all students learn a more holistic and representative history of the United States and foster a deeper understanding of our commonalities and differences.”
The curriculum was shelved last year over alleged left-wing bias and spurious allegations against Israel. The course encouraged the use of the word “Hxrstory” rather than “history” to emphasize the untold story of women, and spoke in disparaging terms about Jewish people in discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
After excising its offending materials, the curriculum gained new momentum amid national attention on race following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day.
David Randall, a researcher with the National Association of Scholars, said that the story of immigrants belongs in a course emphasizing “American exceptionalism” and that efforts to suggest otherwise offer a false dichotomy.
“A properly taught American history class would teach that America welcomed immigrants and embraced them as Americans as no other country in the world,” Mr. Randall said in an email. “A properly taught American history class would teach the lives of a catalogue of immigrants grateful to America for the extraordinary success and happiness that America allowed them to achieve, such as Alexander Hamilton, Albert Gallatin, John-James Audubon, Andrew Carnegie, Nikola Tesla, Irving Berlin, Cary Grant, Ayn Rand, Albert Einstein, Vladimir Nabokov, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Madeleine Albright.”
One reality that’s not debatable: students struggle with history. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found that the average score for eighth-graders in U.S. history was 4 points lower in 2018 than in 2014. Only 15% eighth-graders scored as proficient in U.S. history in 2018.