America is complex. In studying world history, we expect complexity. When different cultures interact the differences are easily noted, and expected. I used to think that teaching and learning US history was simpler – one country and a few hundred years.
I am rethinking that now. People in other parts of the country have very different perspectives today; two hundred years ago sectional interests tore the country apart. At the heart of the construction of the United States is an individualism that does not get set aside for the communal good often enough. At the same time, it is the promise of those individual rights and the dream of individual success that has drawn people from all over the world to immigrate here.
Despite the fact that we do not have an aristocracy, we do not live in a society where anyone can get ahead. There are all sorts of barriers to success, and they are not distributed equally. We call ourselves a democracy because of the political liberties we enjoy, but communist countries argued that they were the more democratic because they provided greater equality of outcome. I would not trade the political rights we have, but I worry about inequality of opportunity in practice.
I am still trying to wrestle with the fact that the immigrants/colonists from Europe devastated the native population and culture. A nation founded on freeing itself from tyranny, allowed slavery to exist for nearly a century. Looking back at those early episodes, realizing that the founding fathers really did not intend their words to apply to all equally, I think we have come a long way. Rather than assign a failing grade to the US, I would like to assert that we are not there yet.