Books in Review

Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools

By Jonathan Zimmerman, Harvard University Press, 307 pages, $29.95

It shouldn't be surprising that the public schools have long been the biggest battleground in America's culture wars: It's in the schools, after all, where the rubber of our pluralism and deepest social disagreements hits the road of public policy. Those wars have produced great piles of literature, much of it polemical, declaring that some new course, a new set of history books, a new court decision -- school desegregation, bans on school-sponsored prayer -- is the ruination of our once-glorious system. They've led to school-board recalls, teacher dismissals, library purges (and occasional book burnings), and sometimes violence. And while we still have latter-day descendants of the McCarthy-era textbook sniffers pursuing Red influence, people with liberal sympathies are now on official payrolls looking to make certain that texts and pictures are ethnically balanced and positive, and that no one is shown smoking or eating unhealthy foods.

We've been fighting over sex education since at least the late 1950s, over creationism since the Scopes "monkey trial" in 1925, over school prayer and Bible reading for a century and half, and over the content of American history and civics texts since time immemorial. These are ugly fights that have pitted blacks against whites, Christians against Jews, Catholics against Protestants, liberal Protestants against fundamentalists, progressives against traditionalists, neighbor against neighbor. There is nothing as nasty, the historian Henry Steele Commager once said, as a good, local school fight.

But no simple list covers the wide spectrum of issues -- about race, class, religion, patriotism, civil liberties, proper child-rearing practices, the effective teaching of reading and math -- for which public schools have been a principal cockpit. Sometimes the real issue is there in plain sight; sometimes it's buried or attached to some other agenda. Sex education and school integration, for example, were readily exploited as communist plots by such right-wing groups as the John Birch Society's 1960s-era Movement to Restore Decency. Low student test scores became fodder for critics who saw the schools as the cause of American economic weakness, while others have seen testing itself as a device to undermine and destroy public education. And beneath those controversies lurks the deeper national ambivalence between our Puritan and libertarian strains, between meritocratic "standards" and our historic anti-intellectualism, and between traditionalism and progressivism in education and so-called permissiveness in the rearing of children.

In the past year, several thoughtful books have sought to add some perspective to such earlier alarmist works as Chester E. Finn Jr.'s We Must Take Charge, polemics such as Thomas Sowell's Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas, Alfie Kohn's counter-polemic The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards," and a host of others. Among the new books -- and surely the most important and readable of them -- is Jonathan Zimmerman's Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, which focuses on two major sets of issues during the course of the past century: the "History Wars" and "God in the Schools."

Zimmerman, director of the History of Education Program at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education, believes that while Americans have managed to compromise their differences about the teaching of history and civics, the result has been a denatured mush of passive and evasive writing, with every ethnic group getting its heroes and some nice paragraphs in the textbook, all stirred into an overwhelmingly positive, triumphalist -- and dull -- stew. "Diversity and banality went hand in hand," Zimmerman writes, "the twin legacies of America's tortured encounter with race in the twentieth century." Indeed, he says, it was discomfort with the texts that he was forced to use in his years as a high-school history teacher that first set him onto his subject. But banality may not be the most worrisome outcome. By partly supplanting the strong common theme of Western constitutionalism with multiculturalism, a great many teachers, books and courses may also be undermining the political traditions protecting dissent and diversity. We don't yet know to what extent the events of September 11 have reunited the country, but in the two prior decades, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s warnings about the disuniting of America sounded disturbingly accurate. Zimmerman briefly discusses the historical roots of Afrocentrism in the Garvey movement of the 1920s but gives no indication of how influential it is in the schools now.

Not surprisingly, Zimmerman points out, the battles about God -- prayer, Bible reading, creationism -- while changing in terms, haven't been so easily resolved. History lends itself to compromise -- textbooks add Crispus Attucks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month for African Americans, Thaddeus Kosciusko for the Poles, Chief Joseph for the American Indians, Friederich von Steuben for the Germans -- but the same can't be as readily accomplished in religion. Attempts at such things as "nondenominational" (generally meaning Protestant) prayer often ran into resistance from believers and nonbelievers alike. The fear of giving offense to someone or some group makes the range of the permissible very narrow indeed. To this day, we fight about what songs can be sung in the weeks before Christmas and Hanukkah, and about what symbols are acceptable. Weekday religious education, where students were released from public schools for an hour or so a week to attend classes at various churches, peaked in the late 1940s and has now slowed to a trickle.

The terms of the religious battles have changed, Zimmerman says, with demands for creationism and prayers now being voiced as a civil-rights issue -- a demand for equal time that the U.S. Supreme Court, in cases such as the use of vouchers in religious schools, seems increasingly prone to uphold. Zimmerman contends that the backlash against the Supreme Court's prayer bans of the 1960s was a large factor in the politicization of the Christian right -- Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, Pat Robertson's 700 Club -- and the new American conservatism that came with Ronald Reagan's embrace of the prayer issue in 1980. But because those fights were part of a wider backlash against the welfare state, it's a hard case to prove.

Zimmerman traces some of the ironies, the flips and the inconsistencies in this rich story: the professed defenders of liberal democracy who nonetheless argued that curricula should be written by educational experts and professional historians, not driven by the wishes of parents and local voters; the blacks, much of whose case for desegregation rested on religious and moral imperatives, who joined conservatives and segregationists in their criticism of the Supreme Court's decisions banning official prayers and Bible reading; the conservatives, using the privacy doctrine elaborated in Roe v. Wade, to argue that sex education violated the privacy rights of children whose parents believed that teaching about sex was their prerogative, not the state's; the accusations against Mary Calderone, the founder of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States and among the most traditionalist advocates of family values, as a vile seducer of children and corrupter of Christian virtues.

Like sociologist Janice M. Irvine in her recent book Talk About Sex: The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States, Zimmerman traces the changing tactics of conservatives. Once outright opponents of sex education, they now support it in the face of such hazards as AIDS, favoring, however, so-called abstinence-only courses that conceal and distort as much as they teach. Despite his tendency to use such awkward verbs as "gushed," "screamed" and "blared" in quoting extremists, Zimmerman tries to be scrupulously fair to the feelings of those fundamentalist parents. But he never really answers the complaint that parental rights are violated when schools talk about masturbation, abortion and birth control. Nor does Zimmerman (or Irvine, for that matter) provide any numbers about how successful those efforts, now backed by the federal government, have been. American liberals -- and the school establishment generally -- have been much more willing to respond to demands for ethnic multiculturalism than to accept religious pluralism in the schools. Given the political problems likely to accompany such acceptance and First Amendment restrictions on government support of religion, the reluctance is understandable. But it still raises serious equity issues.

Zimmerman favors more robust, open classroom discussions about history and topics such as creationism than most schools now permit. "Our history and social studies classes 'take sides,' too," he writes, "sanctifying the heroes and demonizing the villains. This process represents its own form of quasi-religious indoctrination. It, too, must come to an end." He also notes, "When we wrap American history in myth, we deny students the opportunity to wrestle with its real dilemmas." And he's quite right in deploring the airbrushed portrayal of the nation's ethnic minorities -- the failure to tell how Africans themselves participated in the slave trade or of human sacrifice among some American Indians. But he neglects the difficulty of writing those dilemmas into the textbooks and then turning them into intelligent and politically tolerable classroom discussion. Although he's aware of it, he skims past the uproar generated by Gary Nash and his colleagues at the University of California, Los Angles, whose proposed standards emphasized the dark episodes of U.S. history -- the massacre of American Indians, the exploitation of workers in American industry, McCarthyism, the Ku Klux Klan -- and did much less to celebrate the standard pantheon of American heroes and achievements.

The Nash standards, whose development was commissioned by Lynne Cheney when she ran the National Endowment for the Humanities, were widely attacked, repudiated by Cheney and quickly condemned in a 99-to-1 U.S. Senate vote, which seems to indicate that when there is robust debate, it's more likely to take place outside the classroom than in. When Zimmerman declares that "a healthy democracy requires citizens who have the skills and desire to make up their own minds -- about evolution, history, and everything else," he's bundling and slipping past a lot of things that most American schools have neither the political freedom nor the pedagogical capacity to implement. Where, to name the simplest of them, should the evolution debate take place -- in the science program or in the humanities program? If the latter, some states already encourage it. And what of the stickers that Alabama puts on its biology texts warning readers that evolution is an unproven theory?

American history curricula, reflecting the wider revisionism in the field, have indeed become more suffused with multiculturalism and the separate agendas of various groups. Schlesinger's warning that history teaching is veering toward too much pluribus and too little unum still resonates. But political correctness, of course, was not invented by the left. It's both a tribute and a complaint to wish that Zimmerman's even-handed book had looked at the broader swath of our schoolhouse culture wars. San Francisco's school board recently debated whether to schedule a daylong, district-wide teach-in on war with Iraq: Should it be an even-handed discussion (hardly likely in San Francisco) or a one-sided barrage of questions about such a war? That debate raises all sorts of issues -- about local control, about the rights of parents, about the proper role of the schools, about indoctrination.

Similarly, we have ongoing debates about the privacy and civil liberties of students -- about drug tests and locker searches -- and even more vigorous, century-long disputes between the advocates of phonics-based reading instruction and things such as whole language and, more broadly, between permissive, discovery learning and what's called direct instruction, and between life adjustment and self-esteem (with respect to such things as social promotion) and test-based objective standards. We've had our excursions to the extremes on all sides of those battles, from A.S. Neill's child-dominated Summerhill School to the scattering of quasi-military charter schools recently created around the country. Forty years ago, California elected a right-wing state school superintendent named Max Rafferty who ran on a platform of phonics, fundamentals and patriotism, restoring McGuffey's Readers to the classroom, "indoctrinating" (his word) children against communism, and cleaning up their behavior and cutting their hair. Now there was a real culture warrior.

All these things, and a great many more, fall into a long history going back at least to Rousseau (on the one hand) and Prussian schoolmasters (on the other). And they're all linked, encompassing our national ambivalence about whether, for example, high schools should be high-standards academic and behavioral training grounds or teen-age social-adjustment centers that foster cooperation, driver education, sports and dances; whether kindergarten -- and even nursery school -- should be a time for play and exploration or the beginning of rigorous academic training; and about who has the final say on how children should be taught. Hard-line polemicists such as Sowell forget that often it hasn't been educationists who've stood in the way of tougher academic requirements but parents who want to shield their children from the apostasy of Darwinism or the taint of subversive ideas and local boosters who believe that giving young men the chance to play football on Friday nights is more important than requiring them to have decent grades.

There are significant social, cultural and political links among all the issues that vex American schools -- not least of them the fact that we have assigned the schools such an enormous burden in dealing with virtually every problem that comes along, from assimilating immigrants (or celebrating their separate cultures) and closing social and economic gaps to instruction about the evils of alcohol, drugs and tobacco and the development of proper attitudes (depending, of course, on place and local politics) toward sex and gender roles. Why is it that even in the debate about the teaching of math, the partisans on the respective sides, learned professors many of them, sometimes slash one another with the passion of religious warriors? What are the connections among all these things, what role does class play (it does play a huge role) and what can it all tell about the deeper uncertainties and divisions in the national psyche and culture?

Any book that deals with any of these things separately, no matter how probing, is likely to miss the larger and far more important story. Given the huge social demands made on American schools, moreover, and the democratic, essentially local base of their support and governance, is it even possible to imagine a system that is free of cultural conflict and radically different from what we have? It's unfair to chide an author for not writing a different book. But here's a story that badly needs telling.

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