The Culture War Over Schools Is Worse Than EverRoundup
tags: education, schools, culture war
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, which will be re-released in a 20th anniversary edition next year by University of Chicago Press.
In 1996, Christian Right leader Ralph Reed issued a statement that would become political scripture for religious conservatives. “I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members,” Reed declared. By winning school elections, the theory went, conservatives would also win America’s battles over evolution instruction, sex education and school prayer.
Last May, former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon made a similar comment on his podcast. “The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards,” Bannon predicted. But Bannon pointed to a very different set of issues: critical race theory and the 1619 Project. He didn’t mention religion at all.
As angry parents converged on school boards in recent months to decry anti-racist curricula, headlines blared about the culture wars’ return to schools. In fact, these conflicts never left. They instead changed their focus, alternating between religion and history (and lately epidemiology). Our most contentious battles used to concern God and his role in the universe. Now they’re about the nation, and what we want it to be.
That would be fine — indeed, it would be fantastic — if we shared a common language and vocabulary for deliberating these differences. We could explore them in our classrooms, asking students how they imagine America: past, present and future. But we are splitting into mutually hostile tribes, which makes real conversation almost impossible. What should be a teachable moment for our children has become another dividing line between their parents. Even the question of masks in schools is now a take-no-prisoners struggle, pitting different versions of America against each other.
To be sure, we have always fought over who we are. In the 1920s, most notably, the Scopes trial triggered a campaign by fundamentalist and evangelical Christians to block the teaching of evolution. Yet fierce history wars also flared during these same years, as ethnic and racial minorities joined hands with white patriotic societies to blast textbooks that allegedly undermined the Founding Fathers. By emphasizing the economic motivations for the American Revolution and the Constitution, the argument went, history books diminished the grandeur of the nation itself.
Most of all, such interpretations had the potential to demean the multiethnic heroes who contributed to the new republic’s creation. Polish-Americans lionized Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who came over from Europe to assist the Revolution. German-Americans praised Molly Pitcher, born “Maria Ludwig” (they said), who allegedly took up her husband’s position behind a cannon when he fell. African Americans celebrated Boston Massacre victim Crispus Attucks, the first American to die in the Revolutionary cause. And Jews were proud of Haym Salomon, a Philadelphia merchant who helped finance it.
All of these groups wanted to burnish their role in the nation’s founding, so they blocked any effort to question its broader themes of freedom and progress. Making the Revolution less heroic would devalue the diverse heroes who fought in it, or so their advocates feared.
A similar pattern unfolded during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, when African Americans won the removal of racist textbook material — including passages praising slavery — and the inclusion of a wider array of Black luminaries. Hispanic and Asian and Native peoples followed suit, demanding that their children have a chance to “see themselves,” or at least their heroes, in history books.
As before, however, these new figures were mostly folded into the old story. Even as the textbooks embraced diversity, their titles remained the same: Quest for Liberty, Rise of the American Nation, and so on. That was the modus vivendi of the History Wars: “each ‘race’ could have its heroes sung,” as the New York Times observed in 1927, so long as no group questioned the underlying melody that united them all.
Religious conflict in schools was different, because it could not be tempered in this additive, come-one-come-all fashion. Either human beings evolved from other mammals, or they did not; either Christ was the Messiah, or he wasn’t. So the Religion Wars were more vehement — and more enduring — than the History Wars of the past.