U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Boom Year in Culture Wars Historiography

Book coverTwo years ago I wrote a blog post on “An Emerging Historiography of the Culture Wars.” That post included the following passage: “One of the more difficult things about writing a book on the culture wars—as with doing recent history more generally—has been piecing together historiography. No historian has yet written a monograph on the culture wars, at least, on the culture wars as I define them. The historiography of the culture wars is, shall we say, jumbled. And yet, I think it is now safe to say that an historiography of the culture wars is emerging.”

If the historiography was emerging in 2013, this coming year will see a boom in culture wars historiography. In addition to my book there are at least four additional monographs being published this year on topics explicitly related to the culture wars (there may be more that I am unaware of—if so please list them in the comments below).

This is very exciting!

I reviewed The Other School Reformers for HUP, so I can describe it a bit. Laats’s convincingly contends that educational historians and other scholars (such as educational theorist Michael Apple) overstate the progressive trajectory of American education. He maintains to the contrary that what he calls “educational conservatism” has been a major force in shaping American education. He uses four cases studies to support his thesis: 1) the Scopes Trial (which was the topic of Laats’s first book, Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America’s Culture Wars); 2) the controversy over Harold Rugg’s progressive social studies textbooks during the 1930s and 1940s (also well documented in Jonathan Zimmerman’s first book, Whose America? Culture Wars in America’s Public Schools); 3) the red scare in Pasadena in the early 1950s, which resulted in the firing of progressive superintendent Willard Goslin (analyzed in depth in my first book, Education and the Cold War); and the multicultural textbook wars in West Virginia in the 1970s (which I also analyze in my forthcoming book). Although these topics have all been dealt with by other historians, The Other School Reformers is the first book to bring these four episodes together in one accessible narrative. The case-study approach is a good way to demonstrate a consistency in conservative activism that transcended the half-century between Scopes and Kanawha. Laats is correct that we can isolate an educational conservatism that spans the twentieth century—one that rejects child-centered, relativistic curricular approaches.

Prothero, who is a professor of religion at Boston University, the author of many books, including The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation, and guest on The Colbert Report, allowed me to read the final chapter of his book Why Liberals Win. His book spans all of American history, and includes chapters, for example, on the nineteenth century battles over Catholicism and Mormonism. The chapter that I read is about the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Prothero challenges the simplistic view that the culture wars were not real or were a distraction from more important issues. He argues that “the term culture wars refers… to bitter public debates that are simultaneously moral, religious, and cultural and address the meaning of America.” This is consistent with my argument, as is his point—made explicit in the book’s title—that liberals and multiculturalists tend to win the culture wars across American history. I have some disagreements with some of Prothero’s analysis (which I will save those for a later date), but his book figures to be an important contribution.

I have not read Mehlman Petrzela’s book yet, but based on the description I anticipate it being a significant contribution. From the press: “Focusing in on California’s schools during the 1960s and 1970s, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela charts how a state and a citizenry deeply committed to public education as an engine of civic and moral education navigated the massive changes brought about by the 1960s, including the sexual revolution, school desegregation, and a dramatic increase in Latino immigration. In California, where a volatile political culture nurtured both Orange County mega-churches and Berkeley coffeehouses, these changes reverberated especially powerfully. Analyzing two of the era’s most innovative, nationally impactful, and never-before juxtaposed programs–Spanish-bilingual and sex education–Classroom Wars charts how during a time of extraordinary social change, grass-roots citizens politicized the schoolhouse and family. Many came to link such progressive educational programs not only with threats to the family and nation but also with rising taxes, which they feared were being squandered on morally lax educators teaching ethically questionable curricula.

I also have yet to read Zimmerman’s new book, but based on his scholarly record I expect it to be very good. From the press: “Too Hot to Handle is the first truly international history of sex education. As Jonathan Zimmerman shows, the controversial subject began in the West and spread steadily around the world over the past century. As people crossed borders, however, they joined hands to block sex education from most of their classrooms. Examining key players who supported and opposed the sex education movement, Zimmerman takes a close look at one of the most debated and divisive hallmarks of modern schooling.”

I assume (hope?) a lot of virtual ink will be spilled at this blog over the next year in dissecting these five books. So I won’t harbor a guess now about what it means that so much new work is coming out on the history of the culture wars. Given the contingencies of academic publishing the main reason is probably that it’s a happy coincidence. But one observation that will strike many is that there is so much educational history here. As I wrote two years ago in that blog post about culture wars historiography, when mentioning Zimmerman’s Whose America?:

“I can’t imagine a history of the culture wars not focused on education. More broadly, I think educational history needs to be placed at the center of American historiography. There was a time when our most venerable historians agreed, Richard Hofstadter, for instance. When he first delved into educational history, he wrote Merle Curti that he was struck by how much there was to be learned about intellectual life in America by studying its schools.”

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. This seems exciting, also as a promising theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between culture and power. It seems to me that I have heard the term culture wars also used at times in different contexts as well, the only one that comest to mind though is an article about revolutionary Philadelphia I read recently in the William and Mary Quarterly, “Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia” (Oct. 2005), and of course the ‘Kulturkampf’ in 19th century Germany. Do you know if the term is in greater vogue also as a larger category of analysis in other areas, or is it merely a coincidence?

  2. This is all great material. I knew of a few of these works already, but don’t worry, the book review section will do our part to make sure some virtual ink is spilled on our blog about these works. But I’m pretty sure they’ll also spark plenty of discussion beyond reviewing the books.

    Can’t wait to read these down the road!

  3. Andrew,

    You will obviously get a better sense of Natalia’s work after your panel together, but I think its real strength is the degree of contingency that she brings to the grassroots campaigns she studies. Others (Lisa McGirr, Michelle Nickerson, etc.) have examined the role of women and educational activism in California, but theirs are fairly straightforward stories about how a movement came together. My impression is that Natalia fine-tunes the narrative by focusing both on how particular issues were imbued with political meaning (in the case of sex ed.) and also how conservatives settled on what those meanings should be (in the case of immigration and language, on which Republicans held, and still hold, a range of opinions.)

    Anyway, yes, all exciting prospects after what seems like a bit of a drought for this kind of historical work.


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