Taking for granted “American exceptionalism” undermines education


(Erin Kirkland | The New York Times)

An American flag blows in the breeze outside the General Motors Flint Assembly Plant in Flint, Mich., on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. “In terms of our well-being at home and competitiveness abroad, the blunt truth is that America is lagging. In some respects, we are sliding toward mediocrity,” writes The New York Times opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof.

The Utah Core Standards dictate what public schools teach. Standard 4.4 for secondary social studies reads: “Students will use evidence to explain how the Constitution is a transformative document that contributed to American exceptionalism.”

This standard takes for granted America’s status as exceptional — politically, economically, morally — in the global community. It offers white American students a false sense of superiority, while dismissing the history, cultures and experiences of immigrants, refugees and American-born students of color.

The Utah Standards have other drawbacks, thanks to changes in recent years. History teachers don’t have to teach about Jim Crow laws. They don’t have to teach about the civil rights movement.

Standard 5.3 says students will “use case studies to document the expansion of democratic principles and rights over time.” The experiences of many students refute this “expansion,” as do current threats to Americans’ ability to vote, to a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body, to a Haitian migrant’s right to humane treatment at the Texas-Mexico border.

I thought about the state standards recently when the Salt Lake City Public Library announced an essay contest seeking teens’ perspectives on the global community. The prompt asks: Have they lived or travelled abroad? Do they speak languages other than English? What have they learned from family or friends from other cultures?

I like these prompts. They reflect values like appreciation of cultural and linguistic diversity, and a readiness to learn from those who are different.

I also like that this contest centers the knowledge and experience of Utah’s immigrant and refugee teens. America needs their insights.

I wonder, though, what kind of responses we can expect from students whose teachers have covered standard 4.4 on American exceptionalism.

I hope students will indeed look to their “friends and family of other cultures” for any valid understanding of the global community and our place in it. There is no guarantee they will get it at school.

Mimi Marstaller, Salt Lake City

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