America doesn’t need to be great; it was already the greatest

Naomi Hancock, Opinion Editor

In his address to Congress in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln made his final attempt for a compromise between the North and South to abolish slavery. In his closing statement, he said: “We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.”

It was not the first and certainly won’t be the last time somebody refers to America as the saving grace of humanity or the greatest nation the world has ever seen. This concept–known as “American exceptionalism”–is the belief that America’s founding, development, and social, economic, and political characteristics are superior to all countries. 

To say that America is exceptional is stating that not only is America inherently different from other countries, but it is also better. Essentially, American exceptionalism tells us that America did not need to be made great again because it was already the greatest. 

But the concept of national exceptionalism is not new. At one point in history, the British had conquered 25% of the world. They considered themselves to be the best, just as the Romans did, and the Greeks before them. So, this notion of uniqueness in our believed superiority is not only incorrect, it’s untrue. 

The latest data shows that America is ranked 20th in economic equality; 11th in health care compared to other high-income countries despite spending the highest portion of its gross domestic product (GDP) on health care; 27th in education; and it finished in the bottom ten for racial equality out of 78 countries. 

So, why is it that so many people believe America is the greatest country on earth?

It begins with cultural chauvinism, the belief that one’s culture is essentially superior to others. In other words, cultural chauvinism is responsible for such overly patriotic behavior in Americans. We consider our movies to be superior, our capitalistic ideals to be revered, and our language to be the global lingua franca. Immigrants who dare to speak anything other than English are often met with hostility and the familiar “go back to your country.”

Despite this, America is the land of immigrants. It’s established that the white majority is shrinking due to large numbers of immigrants attracted to the American Dream. But our system has failed to welcome and integrate these immigrants into their new homes. The results are fractured, disconnected communities with minimal interactions and little shared experience or beliefs, save for that one “American” idea that America is best. 

Nonetheless, we should not discount some of America’s positive qualities advertised in the American Dream. Our higher education system remains one of the best in the world, and economic opportunity still exists for the majority willing to do the work. 

While democracy and individual freedom so essential to this country have been preserved, we must acknowledge that not all voices are heard equally. If American exceptionalism is to mean anything in the present day, if we truly value our democracy and freedoms, then empowering and uplifting minority voices is crucial. 

We live in America. At the end of the day, American exceptionalism affects us. We all grew up hearing the phrase, “America is best.” It seems harmless at first glance, but national exceptionalism alienates other cultures and races. 

What follows is “Othering,” the phenomenon where those not fitting in with social norms are treated differently. In today’s society, race, gender, religion, and social class are the most prevalent and concerning forms of Othering. 

In an uneducated country filled with trigger-happy police officers, Othering can turn deadly very quickly. It’s why it is imperative that America begins to make that change. 

Real change does not happen overnight, but talking about what we can do is a good start.

For one, American schools should do more interpreting of the material they provide, rather than just reading one-sided narratives of American history. Our school curriculums typically teach history from the Eurocentric perspective, white-washing the truth of what really happened. 

In kindergarten, we learn of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America, yet historians have come to know that his Genoese boots were not the first feet on North American soil. Columbus even has a holiday named after him on October 11 to celebrate the anniversary of his arrival. 

As of this month, ten states, as well as Washington D.C., have officially renamed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day to finally recognize the Natives murdered and displaced after European explorers began flocking to the Americas.

But altering school curriculums to be more inclusive and accurate will take time, and likely another generation of children to go through the school system to fundamentally understand America’s complex and dirty history.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” 

It’s the reason teachers carry as much of a burden as they do. Teachers are the backbone of a country. They’re responsible for educating our future leaders, doctors; the journalists so essential to individual freedom, and the next generation of teachers that allow our country to function as well as it does. 

That responsibility gives them more power than most adults in a child’s life. Children will spend most of their youth in the classroom, and with impressionable minds that absorb any and all information thrown at them, what teachers do and say has an enormous impact. 

It’s why it’s so important for schools to provide a comprehensive curriculum that empowers non-white voices and teaches from a global viewpoint. 

America is a melting pot, but the continuous ignorance and disregard towards foreign life invalidate the cultures, histories, and experiences of immigrants and the non-white residents of our country.