Jonathan Zimmerman: What I’m ReadingHistorians/History
tags: Jonathan Zimmerman, interview
You just had a new book published: Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education. That is a catchy title. What’s it about?
It's a history of how nation-states have addressed--or avoided!--sex education in their public schools. It's also a story about "globalization," which has become something of a buzz-word--if not a fetish--in the Western academy. I think many people on the Left like to imagine globalization—the rapid circulation of people and ideas around the world—as a force for liberal-ization. But in the story that I tell, globalization actually inhibits the spread of sex education by allowing critics to share ideas and strategies. Sex education has been a global movement, to be sure. But the same goes for its opposition. And in many ways, the opposition has been more successful.
It's also a story about the limits of formal educational institutions, which is a tale that educators don't like to hear; like everyone else, we want to matter! The 20th century witnessed an enormous boom in formal schooling around the world, as well as new norms of sexual expression and behavior. Sex education brought these two trends together, but the marriage never really worked out. Kids get their messages and values about sex from other institutions, especially in the mass media. Schools just don’t factor into the equation very often, or very well.
Why did you write the book?
The biggest influence on my ideas about this subject was my mother, who spent her career in international family planning and sex education. So she imbued me with the standard liberal American view of the subject: the United States was “behind” other Western democracies, which provide much more extensive, honest, and effective sex education than we do. And that’s why their teen pregnancy and STD rates are so much lower, or so the story goes.
But Mom was wrong. First of all, it turns out that the USA was the global pioneer of sex education rather than a laggard. Eventually, countries like Sweden and the Netherlands did develop more detailed sex education than the USA, especially on the subject of contraception. But sex education is limited in those countries by citizen and teacher resistance, just as it is here. And, more interestingly, it has a different set of goals.
In Scandinavia and Continental Europe, the stated goal of sex education is not to limit negative social consequences, but rather to help each individual determine and develop her or his own sexuality. I didn’t understand the difference until I found an exchange in the Swedish archives between an educator in Ireland (where sex education was much more like the American version) and the leader of the RFSU, Sweden’s national sex education organization. The Irish educator wanted to know how Swedish sex educators kept teen pregnancy and STD rates so low. The RFSU guy replies with a kind note that says he doesn’t know whether sex education actually influences those outcomes, because there are so many other factors that affect young people’s behavior. And then he says, that’s not the point anyway! It’s to help them lead healthy and pleasurable sexual lives.
Why did you choose history as your career?
After graduating from college, I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to a village in rural Nepal. Most Peace Corps volunteers who become academicians become scholars of the countries where they serve. But the experience had the opposite effect on me: it made me reflect on my own country, in new and unexpected ways. And I wanted to know more.
What was your favorite historic site trip? Why?
My favorite historic sites are the Elmina and Cape Coast slave castles in Ghana, where my family and I lived for a half-year in 2008. Since then, I've returned each summer with a group of NYU students. And we always visit the castles. Approximately half of the people of African descent in the New World can trace at least one ancestor who passed through these castles. So for Americans--especially, but not only, for Americans of color--it's a hugely moving experience.
If you could have dinner with any three historians (dead or alive), who would you choose and why?
Frederick Jackson Turner: His essay on the "Significance of the Frontier in American Life" proves that you can say something hugely significant (there's that word again) in a very short number of pages.
Richard Hofstadter: He managed to write books that were both scholarly and popular, which has always been an (unachieved) ambition of mine.
John Hope Franklin: He did more than anyone else to bring "Negro history" (as it was called back then) into the main narrative of American history, which is precisely where it belongs.
What books are you reading now?
Martha Hodes, "Mourning Lincoln"
Kevin Carey, "The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere"
Mitchell Stevens, ed., "Remaking College: The Changing Ecology of Higher Education"
What is your favorite history book?
Carl Kaestle, "Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860." In a condensed and often lyrical narrative, Kaestle shows how our public schools were created to create citizens rather than "workers." His book calls us to revive this civic purpose, which has been drowned out by the insistent vocationalism of our own times.
What is your favorite library and bookstore when looking for history books?
The Strand, around the corner from my office in New York City! Eight miles of books, plus a staff that really knows its way around them.
Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?
No . . except for family artifacts. I have a set of love letters written to my mother in the 1950s, which formed the core of an article that I wrote ("The Flight from Cool") many moons ago about American men and romantic love. I also own a lot of memorabilia collected by my grandmother, who died in 2011 at the astonishing age of 104. She once described to me at great length the celebrations of the World War One Armistice at her school. . . .when she was already eleven years old!
Which history museums are your favorites? Why?
The Museum of Natural History in New York City. Most historians probably regard this museum as a "scientific" institution rather than a historical one. But I see it as both. Its collections contain not just a record of the natural world but a story about the way that human beings have conceived of it, over space and time.
Which historical time period is your favorite?
The Progressive Era, by far. Any project to revise or restructure our politics has to begin in the early 20th century, when the modern American state was born.
What would be your advice for history majors looking to make history as a career?
Cast a very, very wide net. There are many ways to make history into a "career," and not all of them require you to become a professional historian.
Who was you favorite history teacher?
Ronald Walters, my graduate-school advisor. He was the kind of mentor that I struggle to become.
Why is it essential to save history and libraries?
So we know where we have been! I'm deeply worried about future historians' ability to chronicle our own times, when so much correspondence and other material is vaporized in the ether of the Internet. Our kids and grand-kids will have a hard time understanding their own difficulties and dilemmas, if they can't look backwards on our own.
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