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I truly believe Ron DeSantis is on a one-man mission to put The Onion out of business. Each week it seems like there is a new stranger than fiction headline about the Florida governor's policies.
Most recently, I learned from EducationWeek that Gov. DeSantis revamped Florida's civics education program to emphasize American exceptionalism and patriotism. It's kind of funny that the right is always complaining about indoctrination from the left. What's that called? Projecting? American exceptionalism and patriotism may seem innocuous themes to many. But it's clear to anyone following Trump-wannabe DeSantis that his interpretation of these ideas will be dangerous.
As EducationWeek reported, "some educators say [the new curriculum] is imbued with Christian and conservative tenets" and downplays hands-on, practical understanding of democracy in the United States. The new curriculum, combined with several new laws erasing LGBTQ+ identities and Black history from Florida classrooms, will undoubtedly stifle healthy political debate and dissent in Florida for years to come. Even more chilling is the suggestion that Florida's approach will set the trend nationwide.
What's Wrong With American Exceptionalism?
Why should we be concerned about a curriculum built around American exceptionalism and patriotism? Because the MAGA brand of these ideas is a toxic mythology. In the MAGA worldview, America can do no wrong. It never has, and it never will. This is not just fantasy. This is an ideology that will limit students' ability to understand the world around them.
It's simply not realistic for any country or person to be infallible. If we teach students that they can only celebrate and never criticize the United States of America and its White, land-owning, enslaving founding fathers, what kind of civic participation are we setting them up for? Will they speak up when the United States bombs another country? When the United States tear gasses its citizens at a peaceful protest? Or acts in other ways that threaten their freedom and liberties? When we do not understand history, we lose our perspective on the present. If we lose our ability to look at our country critically, we risk losing our rights.
Ultimately, DeSantis' brand of American exceptionalism and patriotism is about controlling what future Americans can demand from their country. In this version of MAGA civics, citizens should be grateful for living in the greatest country in the world and shut up.
But the truth is, we all deserve so much more.
An Honest Approach to American Exceptionalism
Here's just a sample of some ways we could teach American exceptionalism and patriotism differently. These honest conversations wouldn't dampen democracy. Instead, they would embolden students to demand the changes this country desperately needs.
Examples of American Exceptionalism
The truth is, the United States is truly an exceptional country in many ways. But not usually in the way Ron DeSantis and MAGA folks mean.
High school students in the United States deserve to know about these exceptional traits.
- The United States is a world leader in firearm deaths, particularly when compared to high-income countries.
- The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country. The United States holds about 5% of the world's population but almost 25% of the world's prisoners.
- Of countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks fourth in the childhood poverty rate. Roughly 1 in 5 children in the United States lives in poverty.
- The United States is part of a small number of countries without universal healthcare. Despite spending more on healthcare than any other country, we have a lower life expectancy than our peer countries.
- As climate change worsens, the United States ranks 10th in CO2 emissions per capita. The U.S. emits almost twice as many tons of CO2 as China, despite having one-fifth the population.
- The United States is the only country in the OECD, and one of six in the world, without a paid parental leave policy. This has become increasingly relevant since the Supreme Court ended abortion access in 11 states (and counting).
The MAGA rebuttal highlights the fact that the United States has the largest economy in the world. They are not wrong (for now). And this is a fact worth discussing with students because it also raises some questions. Where is all that money going? And why is it not leading to more safety and wellness for everyone who lives here?
Generally, each of these statistics has the potential to spark robust conversations with some simple questions. For example, why do you think this is true of the United States? How do you feel about this? What would you do to change this, if anything?"Florida's new civic education plan isn't an education plan. It's a propaganda campaign." Florida's MAGA Approach to Civics is Dangerous to Democracy Click To Tweet
Which Patriots Should We Celebrate?
What makes someone a patriot? Someone who believes in their country and fights zealously for its well-being.
Thomas Jefferson and George Washington undoubtedly believed in the country they helped found. But they did not believe in a vision of the United States that included women, people of color, or even non-land owning Whites for that matter. Should students learn about these men and their beliefs? Yes. Should they be considered patriots by 21st-century standards? No.
Here are some figures just as worthy of study, if not more so. Each of them fought to expand freedom for all and to bring this country closer to its idealized version of a home for "liberty and justice for all."
Harriet Tubman escaped enslavement and freed hundreds of enslaved people. During the Civil War, she worked as a spy for the Union and became the first woman to lead men in battle.
Chief Joseph fought against great odds to protect his people and their ancestral land. While he ultimately surrendered rather than force the Nez people to suffer further, his story was heroic.
Ida B. Wells lost her job and put her life at risk over and over again to shed light on racial injustice in the United States. She famously said, "The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them."
Fannie Lou Hamer is another Black woman who risked her life for freedom and justice for all. And like the others on this list, she also spoke truth to power. She helped lead the protest at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 because they wanted to seat the segregationist White delegates from Mississippi instead of an integrated and democratically elected delegation.
This is a limited and incomplete list, but hopefully illustrative. There are countless other examples students deserve to learn about. When we define patriotism as actions taken by White men in accordance with the country's founding, we severely limit students' understanding of history, the present, and their future. Expanding patriotism also helps students debunk the myth that enslavers or war criminals were just "products of their time." Students deserve to understand that slavery and other forms of injustice were not universally accepted.
Patriotism is exemplified by those who fight for a country's best ideals, not only its original intentions. Ron DeSantis and others want patriotism to celebrate men like Andrew Jackson. They want history to focus on men who expanded the territory and prestige of the United States. Theirs is a patriotism that prioritizes power and disregards the people exploited by and excluded from the founding vision of the United States. This type of civics education would inhibit students from seeing a more expansive and inclusive of this country. Without true examples of historical patriots, students will lack role models to guide their fight for justice today.
Civics Education Shapes the Future
Florida's new civic education plan isn't an education plan. It's a propaganda campaign. DeSantis wants to teach students a "love it or leave it" version of civics. This is because DeSantis and the MAGA Right do not want students prepared to participate authentically in democracy. Their version of civics holds no space for debate, criticism, or protest. They designed it to ensure there will be no threat to their vision of a country where the wealthy elite flourish while the rest of us struggle. We cannot allow this vision of American exceptionalism and patriotism to take hold in Florida or anywhere in the United States.
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