History is not about exceptionalism. It is about confronting the past to help inform the present. Individuals who only wish to espouse an exceptionalism narrative are ignoring a fundamental truth that must be shared: There are always victims as well as victors, and decisions have consequences.
History also is not simple or straightforward. To argue otherwise is not to fully understand it. The recent call by the Trump administration to counter what he called “the crusade against American history” by pushing “patriotic education” is an example of the oversimplification of our understanding of the past. As the late historian J.M. Roberts famously argued, “History is the story of mankind, of what it has done, suffered, and enjoyed.”
I have spent my career teaching introductory courses to university students in the history of the United States, Europe, Africa, and the world. Students often come to the classroom with a variety of notions about the past: entrenched ideas, misinterpretations, even outright falsehoods. Our primary purpose as educators is to guide and assist in highlighting the basic truth that history is not in fact simple, easy, or straightforward. Yet many want history to be that way. They want to feel good about our past. But as E.H. Carr argued in “What is History?: (1961), “the facts of history never come to us ‘pure,’ since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form.”
Despite the claims by President Trump that “America’s founding set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that… built the most fair, equal and prosperous nation in human history,” the history of this country cannot be told solely through the triumphs and victories of its people, principally because such achievements were rarely without cost. We cannot have an honest conversation about our past if we do not