Friday, June 10, 2011

Reasons It’s Un-American To Obsess About “Exceptionalism”

Arguments about American exceptionalism go back to the framers.

The notion, ironically first used in the modern context by the American Communist Party in the 1920’s, is now used by political conservatives to “brick-bat” anyone who dares suggest that as Americans we aren’t the beginning and end of all things exceptional as nicely summarized a couple of weeks ago by Michael Medved.

But while reading Ron Chernow’s wonderful biography of Alexander Hamilton, I learned the notion was also used by Thomas Jefferson to endear himself as a populist while stigmatizing Hamilton’s never-ending pursuit of “best practices,” including many adapted for this nation from the British.

Although it was Hamilton who spoke fluent French and as his aide helped General and then President Washington communicate with the French including their close friend Gilbert de Motier, marquis de Lafayette, it was Jefferson who was the obsessive Francophile. Hamilton understood that having won the Revolution we needed to quickly get over any hostility. Jefferson didn’t.

Jefferson hated the British so intensely he couldn’t admit that the framers had drawn on a great deal from that country both as the foundation for Independence and the Constitution. He was blinded by his equal hatred for and envy of Hamilton and other Federalists, apparently including George Washington and John Adams.

If he had still been alive, Jefferson would have been as delighted as his followers were when Alexis de Tocqueville noted the United States as “exceptional” on page 36 of the wonderful two volume travel book he wrote entitled Democracy in America based on his visit here in 1831.

However, a reading of the books reveals that de Tocqueville also cited many ways in which this nation was not so exceptional and prophesied the American Civil War. Had Hamilton not been killed in a duel two decades before Jefferson died, he would have relished that de Tocqueville was in search of “best practices.”

We are an exceptional country but primarily because we have always sought to glean “best practices” from anywhere and everywhere and then adapt or innovate them at the margins into something uniquely American.

For decades American business has focused on “best practices” dating even before Tom Peter’s 1980s ground-breaking book entitled In Search of Excellence, co-authored by Robert H. Waterman Jr. Businesses, especially innovative businesses know that intense pursuit of “best practices” is how to ensure this nation remains exceptional.

Getting caught up as the Republicans and their pundits do so often now in making sure that we appear “exceptional” by making it mandatory that we always trumpet that we are “exceptional” is a recipe for stagnation based on studies of learning by researchers like Carol Dweck as noted both in her new book Mindset and her earlier 2000 book-of-the-year Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development.

Dweck discovered that otherwise equal students would either learn and thrive from failure or give up and waste time appearing to be smart based on the perceptions of intelligence they inherited from their parents and family members or that were superimposed by teachers.

Students who thrived and learned from failure had an infinite view of intelligence, meaning if you worked hard enough, the sky is the limit.

Students who gave up in the face of failure had a finite view of intelligence, either you have it or you don’t. They often then spent more time appearing to be smart than learning from failure.

If as a Nation, we get to caught up in appearing to be exceptional as Republicans and related talk show hosts insist we should, I fear we’ll lose ground rapidly. As a nation we have two choices: put our energies into being smart or waste them appearing to be smart.

America has truly been exceptional. But to continue to warrant that distinction, we need to get busy and study and adapt and innovate “best practices” wherever we can find them and worry a whole lot less about appearances.

Oh, and let’s remember, it takes a truly “exceptional” and secure Nation to admit when and where we’re not so “exceptional.”

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