Primer Beef

The controversy over Rugg’s work traces a pattern familiar to followers of today’s school wars. Most disputes about education are not as much about children as about competing visions of American history and society. Because public schools transfer knowledge, customs, and values to future generations, fights about textbooks and curricula serve as proxies for many of society’s disagreements. Almost any quarrel ostensibly about the public schools really involves an argument among adults with divergent views of the world.

Jonathan Zimmerman shines a light on these issues in Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools. While he concludes with a proposal for d?ente, his own account shows that these disputes are likely to be as intractable as they are longstanding. He chronicles epic struggles during the 19th and 20th centuries waged over textbook content by such organizations as the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Education Association, as well as veterans’ groups and racial and ethnic associations, all of whom had differing interpretations of events and individuals in textbooks.

He also examines controversies about prayer and sex education, which have been waged since the earliest days of public schools but which became more partisan during the second half of the 20th century. Ultimately, though, these chapters are less compelling than discussions of the study of history, not because of Zimmerman’s effort but because, as he states, “different moral frameworks simply cannot be mixed into the curriculum like so many spices, enhancing its overall flavor.”

All sides in these battles are guilty of using children to advance their own social agendas, a problem Zimmerman circumspectly discusses. But this is not a point that lends itself to circumspection; it is the central theme of most of the culture wars in education. The nation’s educational establishment is riddled with those who believe that the role of public schools is to create a public that reflects various leftist utopian visions. Conversely, too many on the right are contemptuous of the diversity in today’s America and pay only lip service to the idea of pluralism. Understanding this is key to making sense of not only the culture wars of the last century but also many of the social and political causes currently masquerading as educational policy issues.

Zimmerman’s plan for unilateral disarmament in the culture wars entails focusing on constant questioning and examination of events and individuals in the curriculum, an approach that flows from Zimmerman’s conclusion that a compromise was reached in the textbook wars where more diverse heroes and viewpoints were included in textbooks so long as the underlying story of American greatness and progress remained unquestioned. It’s a somewhat faulty assumption upon which to build a compromise, given that American greatness and progress are far from unquestioned in many influential circles in education.

Zimmerman pointedly notes that his proposal would require radical improvement in how history teachers are trained, which, while true, is not the only drawback. Unquestioning reverence is as dangerous as an expansionist relativism that too easily teaches children nothing. A more immediate obstacle to Zimmerman’s plan is that, as a practical matter, most combatants in today’s school culture wars are not interested in compromise, nor do most see their claims as anything but absolute. In the case of history, only time and scholarship resolve these issues, and as soon as they are resolved, new ones crop up in their place. Especially with sex and religion, as Zimmerman shows, competing moral frameworks cannot be easily reconciled in a finite curriculum for children. It’s especially hard when the disagreements are not really about children but about us.