The Relationship Between American Exceptionalism in History and Meritology in American Schools (part I)

Most Americans grew up on historical stories of strong individuals rising to challenges, fighting for their freedom, and prospering through their wit, strength, and/or bravery. This exceptionalism of the past is not unique to American history; national histories of other countries also possess a strong positive bias towards themselves. Nor is it abominable for nations to possess ideals of exceptionalism; afterall, national unity benefits from citizens being proud of their country. Exceptionalism is beneficial, and educators must endeavor to ensure that the negative consequences of exceptionalism do not outweigh the good.

There is a notion in modern America, and in the past, that if you work hard enough, then you will be rewarded with stability, social status, and/or revenue. This notion is unevenly applied across socioeconomic contexts.

Exceptionalism can promote ideas of meritology, the belief that if a person works hard enough, then they can rise above all challenges (Nasir et al., 350-356). As an individual, possessing a merit mindset is good and can help one strive to persevere over challenges. Unfortunately, meritology as an education philosophy leaves behind students who come from lesser means. Meritology as a principle has permeated the American education system and American history, both of which can warp social studies educators sense of what is fair and equitable in the treatment of students.

If meritology is dangerous to students, and the learning of history promotes it through themes of exceptionalism, than a logical action would be to train teachers to recognize and remove it. Unfortunately, research of teacher learning and training demonstrates that these meritology ideals are part of a larger sociopolitical landscape. This means that although it is possible for method courses to illuminate the issues of meritology, it also means that it is extremely difficult to change long held convictions of student teachers (Cochran-Smith et al., 469). The most significant impacts on teacher learning is the personal beliefs about curriculum and the views about teaching and learning, which comes from years of going through school; therefore, the cycle of promoting meritology through exceptionalism continues (Cochran-Smith et al., 474).

America’s sociopolitical culture promotes American exceptionalism and meritology through a variety of factors, one of which is the learning of history. First, it’s important to establish that students learn history inside and outside of school. Americans learn history from entertainment (movies, songs), from the public sphere (museums, libraries), and from familial relationships. In addition, student’s socioeconomic position will affect how and what they learn from history. For example, students from a low-income family will be more likely to have lower rates of school completion and poorer academic performance (Nasir et at., 353). This means that more of their historical knowledge will come from spheres outside of schools.

Every child’s challenge is different. Some children are burdened with crippling economic status. Expecting them to rise from their circumstance as being comparable to children from well off situations is not equal nor equable. For our democracy to further improve, history teaching must change to promote more equity.

For the other parts of this article, see Part II and Part III

Nasir, Na’ilah Suad, Janelle Scott, Tina Trujillo, and Laura Hernandez (2016). The Sociopolitical Context of Teaching. In D. Gitomer and C. Bell Handbook of Research on Teaching, Fifth Edition. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Russ, Rosemary S., Bruce L. Sherin, and Miriam Gamoran Sherin (2016). What Constitutes Teacher Learning? In D. Gitomer and C. Bell Handbook of Research on Teaching, Fifth Edition. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Cochran-Smith, Marilyn, Ana Maria Villegas, and et al. (2016). Research on Teacher Preperation: Charting the Landscape of a Sprawling Field. In D. Gitomer and C. Bell Handbook of Research on Teaching, Fifth Edition. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.