A letter to the editor in my local paper makes a point that we encounter regularly, and one that I believe holds us back.
To paraphrase, the writer recommends a recent book, about the history of racist violence in New York State, be added to school curriculum. I fully agree with the letter writer on this point [and full disclosure, I am personally acquainted with the book’s author] but I take issue when the author suggests children be taught “this country was never great.”
The question, of American “greatness,” has become an obstacle in more ways than just MAGA sloganeering. Too often it comes up in debates about how we teach history, school curriculum, public monuments, holidays, and such. The idea is that looking back and recognizing shameful aspects of our history diminishes our nation, or that it is meant to shame us and make Americans feel guilty.
Is the premise, then, that a “great” nation must be one that has nothing shameful in its history? Or one that lives in denial, pretending the shameful things never happened?
To my mind, a great nation recognizes all aspects of its history and seeks always to improve. It is a nation that pays its debts, moving toward equity, not one that ignores or denies them.
An example I often reference is the treatment Germany gave to World War II, placing markers and even leaving tanks in the middle of major cities to remind people of the worst parts of their history. I vividly recall having a fun night out at biergartens in Frankfurt, only to stumble over a bronze plaque set in the brick at my feet that commemorated the site of a Nazi book burning. And yet I had a conversation recently with a young German man who felt his country did not do enough to remind Germans about the Nazis.
The United States has much in its history that is shameful, as do many nations. But evolution and improvement have been baked into our national identity from the beginning. This is why our Constitution established a process for amendment, so it could evolve along with our society and values. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
I fear, however, that our ability to embrace change has stagnated. De Tocqueville’s America was very different from the post-Civil War nation that standardized its history curriculum for Cold War classrooms. In an effort to breed young patriots, the history we learned was whitewashed propaganda, eliding all the ugly parts to present the United States as The Greatest Country in the World™.
Among the many side effects of the nationalist fervence that resulted is that Americans seem collectively obligated to our status quo. Merely acknowledging that things aren’t perfect triggers is seen as anti-American, which stifles any opportunity at improvement.
Our Constitution was amended 12 times in its first 50 years, three times in its second 50 years, six times in its third 50 years, five times in its fourth 50 years, and not once since 1971 (the one amendment that was ratified in the 1990s was, in fact, introduced at the same time as the Bill of Rights). Our dedication to a faulty definition of national greatness has us stagnating, failing to evolve with the times and failing our people by prioritizing comforting mythology over truth.
I want to live in a great nation. But that greatness is rooted in a commitment to progress and evolution, not in denial.