Publication Date

September 1, 2006

Perspectives Section


The concept of American exceptionalism is an assumption inherent in much of the history and politics curricula taught in the United States. It is the view that the United States and its people hold a special place in world history, because the country represents hope for the world and for the development of freedom and democracy. The idea has its origins in the early history of the United States, when its Puritan founders, using John Winthrop’s metaphor of the new society as a "City upon a Hill," believed that the New England community would serve as a model for the rest of humanity.

Hence the use of the terms America and Americans to describe the place, the people and the idea. Suffused with both religious and rationalist sentiment and connotation, adherents of this point of view see the exceptionalist history of the United States as an example to the rest of the world. Its history has special meaning, in much the same way as the early history of the Jewish people in the Old Testament is also exceptionalist for Western culture.

The titles of some of the major textbooks used in the United States to teach its history reflect this view:Give Me Liberty!;Inventing America; American Destiny; Created Equal: A Social and Political History of the United States; Unto a Good Land: A History of the American People; andThe American Promise.

A bill introduced in the Senate of the United States (s.1614, introduced on September 6, 2005) had a section on the teaching of history in post-secondary programs. Section 851, entitled "American History for Freedom," gives the secretary of education the authority to award grants to post-secondary programmes that teach "traditional American history; the history, nature, and threats to free institutions; and the history of Western Civilization."

Traditional American history is defined in the bill as "the significant constitutional, economic, and foreign policy trends and issues that have shaped the course of American history; and the key episodes, turning points, and leading figures involved in the constitutional, intellectual, diplomatic and economic history of the United States." Social history is not part of the privileged group; comparing the history of the United States with that of other countries or cultures or the reciprocal interactions of the United States with other parts of the world are not mentioned. A free institution is defined as "an institution that emerged out of Western civilization, such as democracy, constitutional government, individual rights, market economics, religious freedom and religious tolerance, and freedom of thought and inquiry."

Could it be that other geographical areas are taught in the United States through the prism of this exceptionalist view of the past? Most especially, the view of European history, the second most popular area of historical study, seems to be influenced deeply by how the United States views itself.

The teaching of European history, sometimes called Western Civilization, began in World War I, when U.S. soldiers were taught what it was they were fighting for. The war was seen not to be simply about power, but about culture, as a defense of certain ideals and values. Of course, World War I was neither a world war nor, until April 1917, a U.S. war. It was a war between European states, a civil war of sorts in the West. Nonetheless, it was the view of the United States that the values to be defended were those on the side of the British and French, rather than those of Germany.

Since that time, Western Civilization or European history courses have emphasized the following: the importance of Renaissance Italy and the histories of Britain and France; when they look at other powers, it is to contrast the development of democracy in Britain and France with the authoritarian structures of Tsarist Russia, Bismarckian and Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy, among others; the importance and values of the Reformation and Protestantism; the significance of the European imperial conquests on the rest of the world and on Europe; the significance of Lockean and Rousseauean ideas in the development of concepts of rights and sovereignty of the people; the importance of parliamentary history in Britain and elsewhere; a heavy emphasis on the French Revolution and other revolutions leading to popular sovereignty; the significance of big powers and their histories rather than developments in smaller countries; the role of labor movements and quests for voting rights among the middle and lower classes and women; the mercantile and industrial revolutions and the importance of a capitalist economy.

What it does not emphasize (or treats in a minor key) are the following: the Ottoman Empire as a European power from the 15th through the 20th centuries; the role of Scandinavia in European affairs; developments in the Iberian peninsula after Phillip II, with the singular exception of a mention of the Spanish Civil War; other developments in the Mediterranean area, with the exception of Renaissance, Risorgimento and Fascist Italy; most developments in eastern Europe other than the partition of Poland and the cold war; little if anything on the cultures of Orthodox Christianity and Islam in Europe; virtually nothing on the importance of eastern and many southern European cultural matters.

Underlying all the above is an assumption of the idea of progress. History, at least European and Western history, is viewed as the progress of certain ideas—rights, freedoms, constitutionalism—in a manner which is teleological: these ideas are the ones worth studying and the West shows how they might be gained. (And where these things now exist outside Europe and the United States, they are presented as a unique gift of the West. This is a view strongly questioned, for example, by Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, in his book, The Argumentative Indian). Indeed, it is as if there were some path that history takes with western Europe, notably Britain and France (and now the United States) at its height. Even some myths are important—most significantly the notion that Western economic development occurred in the atmosphere and reality of laissez-faire capitalism, as if states and powers had nothing to do with it.

The end of history for Hegel, someone said, was Hegel. The end of European history for the United States is the United States, not as it was or came to be, but as it wants to have been and wants to be seen. European history is studied as a prelude to the leadership of the world by the United States.

How is this to be remedied? First, by making certain that if you say you are teaching European history or Western civilization, it is not simply Britain and France and occasional glances elsewhere. Second, by placing European history in a world context, not in the context of inevitably progressing to the leadership and superiority of the United States. Third, by ending the notion that there is only one proper way for history to develop and that turns out to be us. Fourth, by recognizing that as Europe and the West have influenced the world, so too has the world deeply influenced the West. Fifth, by acknowledging that some facets of the West have not been benign and the issues remain serious—slavery, racism, sexism, among them. Sixth, by changing the perspective. For example, if you are teaching Atlantic history, do it that way. If you are teaching Europe, make certain you know what Europe is and the West is at any given time.

And perhaps it is time to change the perspective on "American History," as those in the United States call it, itself. Why not try to teach a history of the Americas instead, as the great Berkeley historian H. E. Bolton did in the early 20th century? That would provide another view of the world, giving some recognition to the rest of the American continents as something other than extensions of United States power since the Monroe Doctrine.

—Arthur Haberman is university professor emeritus of history and humanities at York University. Adrian Shubert is professor of history and associate vice president (international) at York University. They are the co-authors of The West and the World: Contacts, Conflicts, Connections.

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