Leave it to professional educators to come up with the next groundbreaking pedagogy that challenges U.S. uniqueness. Thomas Bender, an NYU historian, in his new book A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place In World History embodies this position.
In his words, national histories “are taught in schools and brought into public discourses to forge and sustain national identities, presenting the self contained nation as the natural carrier of history. That way of writing and teaching history has exhausted itself. In its place, I want to elaborate a new framing for U.S. history, one that rejects the terroritorial space of the nation as a sufficient context and argues for the transnational nature of national histories.”
Bender is not alone in this pursuit. Amy Guttman, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Richard Sennett, a distinguished scholar at NYU, among others, share this transnational bias. There is a point to be made, albeit an obvious point: the history of one nation is related to events in other nations.
This obvious point aside, there is a philosophical assumption that underlies this transnational movement. It is a belief in internationalism as a form of cultural relativism. Whether that is the intent of these scholars is immaterial. The net result of this effort is to diminish American exceptionalism and emphasize the United States as having one history among others. Moreover, these scholars do not want what they would describe as an ethnocentric or an “exclusive” notion of citizenship, but rather a “cosmopolitan citizenship,” a citizen of the world.
Yet this view has poignant implications. What does it mean to be a citizen of the globe? How do you instill sentiments of national loyalty if you subordinate exceptional characteristics? And aren’t there exceptional characteristics in American history that should be emphasized?
Clearly the passions that undergird historical events may cross geographic lines, but does the history of Zimbabwe have anything in common with that of the United States?
The idea that one is a citizen of the world is compelling in the sense that people should be aware of and understand others. History, of course, has linkages across time and space. But Islam has not produced a Martin Luther. Iran has not had a George Washington or Alexander Hamilton. And our sense of the free market has been described by French “intellectuals" as “cowboy economics.”
Ultimately it is the differences that count. In fact, transnationalism as an idea is a distinctly American phenomenon. Would the Chinese consider this topic as a basis for study? Or the Saudis?
As I see it, the history of the United States is not but one history among many; it is a unique history that has produced the most free, open and prosperous society the world has known, despite its many flaws. To suggest that the history of exceptionalism is “exhausted” is to suggest the U.S. is exhausted, a point of view that is difficult to sustain even though many have tried to do so.
That transnationalism as an idea has gained ground is undeniable. The subject came up obliquely during the Congressional debate on immigration. Some liberal advocates of immigration reform even suggesting that national borders are meaningless since we are all citizens of the globe. It is instructive that some Mexicans who make this argument ignore the rigid restrictions that government imposes on its own immigrant population.
It is also the case that attempts to restrict membership in the U.N. Human Rights Commission to only those nations that uphold human rights was rejected with the claim all people have a stake in human rights. Alas, all people have a stake, but some nations intentionally deny these rights to their own people and yet have the ability to serve as a jury on violations elsewhere.
Karl Marx argued that the chains which bind men transcend national identification. But communism’s fall from grace occurred precisely because of national beliefs. The power of an ideology rarely dissipates national sentiment.
While transnationalism has traction at the moment, I hope it is a passing pedagogical fad, like the “new math” or “whole language” reading. Then again I always hope for the best.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of "Decade of Denial" (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2001) and maintains a Web site, www.herblondon.org.