That American Exceptionalism is only possible by our example.
It almost sounds like a dirty word; a politically-charged, cringe-worthy term guaranteed to spark a debate over its etymology, its implications, and its merit. From the right, you’ll likely hear boasts of rugged individualism and entrepreneurial conquests. Bootstraps will most certainly be pulled up and we’ll all be regaled with tales of forlorn souls that beat the odds to move from rags to riches.
From the left will come protestations of stolen land, slavery, and the denial of rights to millions. Foreign interventions and military failures will justify the lessening of our influence and damage to America’s reputation. The scourge of Capitalism and its tycoon barons will make their presence known.
For every ounce of reality in these arguments, much of it is steeped in our cultural mythology. Narratives passed down for generations that were relative to the individual telling the story. Neither version is wholly true or wholly false. Like every other country in the world we have a complicated history that is subject to constant reexamination aligned with changing times.
The purpose here is not to relitigate the past, but to look forward. To view American Exceptionalism as something to strive for, not something achieved. It’s time to drop the argument over whether or not America and its citizens are exceptional, and instead decide what needs to be done to make America exceptional. Or to keep America exceptional if you prefer.
How to do that will inevitably change over time, but right now, American Exceptionalism is being obstructed by two pressing issues: education and income inequality.
There is broad agreement that income inequality is rising to levels not seen since the 1920s. Starting in the 1970s, incomes for those at the top started to separate from middle-class and lower income families. Since then, incomes for wealthy Americans have grown by 200%, while incomes for the rest of America grew by far less. Disproportionately affected are those at the bottom that saw a less than modest income rise of 40%.
Though correlation doesn’t always point to causation, it’s difficult to ignore statistics that point to blatant trends. Over the past three decades, The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations found that America fell from first to twelfth place in high school and college graduation rates compared to the rest of the world.
In 2012, the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development discovered that the United States ranked 27th among its 34 participating countries in Mathematics, 17th in Reading, and 20th in Science. That same study examined the effects of socio-economic status and concluded that, “disadvantaged students show less engagement, drive, motivation and self-beliefs.”
More recently, a 2015 study of Millennials aged 16-34 determined that students in America fell behind the developed world overall, but the gaps in education between the wealthy and those in poverty were wider and more distinct.
American Exceptionalism depends on our ability to educate our citizens effectively, and coupling education with wealth is important in a Capitalistic society. The goal is to improve one’s quality of life by raising their standard of living; by allowing our citizens to improve their lives through their own volition. Education can be the great leveler in that equation if it leads to real world results, but lately that promise isn’t being fulfilled.
To compete globally and secure the potential of American Exceptionalism, we need to educate better and more effectively to every student from every background. More importantly, we need to prove to our young people that taking their education seriously and learning is worth the effort. If 18 years of education simply leads to debt and stagnation in the best case scenario, and poverty and dependence in the worst case, what’s the point?
How we solve these problems will take the effort of everyone. Federal and state governments will need to work together to improve education through more effective methods than regulatory and punitive funding. Businesses and corporations will need to reexamine profits and paychecks to tackle the problems they created in the distribution of wealth.
At the individual level, parents will need to take a more active role in their children’s education, and teachers will need to constantly test their methods and analyze their results. Finally, students will need to prioritize learning over everything else, because American Exceptionalism is only possible by our example.
We can lead the world by expanding the single, most important founding value of America: opportunity. For all their faults, our founders unified the country on a promise. A promise simply stating that anyone could improve their lives through education, that your position in life is dependent not on your status at birth, but your capacity to learn. American exceptionalism then, is not limited by its history, but defined by the people’s potential. That concept is what made America unique in the 18th Century, and it’s what will make America exceptional in the new millennium.