James Baldwin once critiqued American Exceptionalism, saying, “it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality.” In the Trump era, this is as clear as ever. Many Americans, mostly white liberals, thought that the United States was exceptional that we had defeated our racist, sexist, xenophobic demons in the 20th century and no one as brazen a bully as Trump would ever get elected to be the “leader of the free world.” Of course, as Nov. 8, 2016 came to show, America was not better than Trump: America is Trump. America is a callous bully. America is a xenophobic empire. America is deeply racist and thrives on patriarchy. All of this was obscured by the Clintonite narrative, “America is Already Great.” American Exceptionalism blinded us.
The only quote on BC’s homepage is in large, gold lettering, and says, “’Our call is to live lives of conviction, service, and faith, to stand out like Gasson Hall’s tower at night—a light to the world,” attributed to University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. Leahy’s quote directly echoes the first famous utterance of American Exceptionalism by John Winthrop when he said in 1630 “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” This concept of America as a “city on hill” continues to hold a special place in the American political imagination, most famously by Ronald Reagan, who said, “I have quoted John Winthrop’s words more than once on the campaign trail this year—for I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining ‘city on a hill,’ as were those long ago settlers,” but it’s also been repeated by presidents from JFK to George Bush to Barack Obama to, ironically enough, Mitt Romney in a rebuke of Trump.
It is curious, then, that BC chooses to use language similar to American Exceptionalism in its marketing, especially given that John Winthrop and his followers were devout Puritans who sneered at the heretical Catholic ‘papists’ of their day. Then again, John Winthrop’s ‘city on a hill’ speech was entitled “A Model of Christian Charity,” and he gave it on a ship heading for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Sound familiar? BC is perhaps the most prestigious religious university in New England, and, even though our Jesuit values differ in degrees from the Puritan values of John Winthrop, I believe BC has internalized the Protestant Work Ethic that lies at the heart of American capitalism and preaches as much Winthrop as it does Ignatius.
For the next week or so, pay attention to the rhetoric BC uses. Or better yet, look at your old admissions pamphlets. Phrases like, “Boston College endeavors to educate a new generation of leaders” or “Set the World Aflame” are commonplace here, constantly pushing the narrative that we are a special elect meant to spread forth from Gasson’s light out into the world. What is more Exceptionalist than this?
An important caveat: When I point out and critique BC Exceptionalism, I don’t mean to demean the good work that many students and faculty do here just like when I critique American exceptionalism—I don’t demean the beautiful lives of most of our citizens. I am critiquing a system, not individuals.
If American Exceptionalism blinds us to the sins of empire, economic inequality, white supremacy, and patriarchy, what does BC exceptionalism blind us to?
For starters, we have more students from the top 1 percent of society than we do from the bottom 60 percent. How can BC be a ‘light to the world’ when we prioritize wealthy students over the nation’s middle and working classes? Holy Cross, Northeastern, BU, Harvard, and MIT all have a higher proportion of students from the bottom 20 percent than we do. There is obviously no excuse for our horrendously classist admission standards when many of our closest peers are doing better at combating economic inequality. This isn’t to mention the classic laundry list of grievances like the lack of an LGBTQ resource center, the lack of sexual health resources, the lack of a student center, our immoral investments in fossil fuels, and the utter lack of free speech rights.
More nefarious, however, (and more controversial) are the ways in which our BC Exceptionalism blindly trains the next generation of American exceptionalists. We are training hordes of CEOs who will go off and lead the very companies that are fueling increasingly alarming income inequality. We are training leagues of bureaucrats who will occupy the halls of the CIA and State Department who continue to engage in undemocratic regime change and immoral actions all across the globe. Yes, BC alumni might have a chance to ‘change things from the inside,’ as the saying goes, but since they learned as much Winthrop as Ignatius at the Heights, BC grads will be perfectly suited to “protect their moral high-mindedness,” while, as James Baldwin would have said, being blind to the terrible reality at hand .
So what’s the true meaning of our time at the Heights? Are we Men and Women for Others or Men and Women Above Others? Are we a ‘light for the world’ or are we feeding the darkness?
Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor