L57 RelPol 3081

City on a Hill: The Concept and Culture of American Exceptionalism

Spring 2016, M/W 1:00–2:30PM

This course examines the concept, history, and culture of American exceptionalism.

line drawing of three people teaching superimposed on each other

This course examines the concept, history, and culture of American exceptionalism-the idea that America has been specially chosen, or has a special mission to the world. First, we examine the Puritan sermon that politicians quote when they describe America as a “city on a hill.” This sermon has been called the “ur-text” of American literature, the foundational document of American culture; learning and drawing from multiple literary methodologies, we will re-investigate what that sermon means and how it came to tell a story about the Puritan origins of American culture – a thesis our class will reassess with the help of modern critics. In the second part of this class, we will broaden our discussion to consider the wider (and newer) meanings of American exceptionalism, theorizing the concept while looking at the way it has been revitalized, redefined and redeployed in recent years. Finally, the course ends with a careful study of American exceptionalism in modern political rhetoric, starting with JFK and proceeding through Reagan to the current day. In the end, students will gain a firm grasp of the long history and continuing significance – the pervasive impact – of this concept in American culture.

Course history:

  • Fall 2014: taught by Prof. Abram Van Engen