U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Soul of America Goes to School

Culture Wars BooksI was recently on a panel at the annual meeting of the History of Education Society on the topic of “The Culture Wars in History and Historiography.’ Chaired by James Fraser, this panel included me and three other scholars who all have books out this year related to the history of education and the history of the culture wars. Jonathan Zimmerman talked about his new book, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education (Princeton University Press). Natalia Mehlman Petrzela discussed her book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford University Press). Adam Laats talked about The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education (Harvard University Press).  And of course I discussed A War for the Soul of America. It was a fantastic discussion! Below are my remarks, about how I think about my interpretation of the culture wars as educational history.

Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, director of the Crusade for Justice, a 1960s-era, Denver-based Chicano activist group, often complained that Mexican-Americans needed to be more aware of “their cultural attributes, their historical contributions, their self-identity and most importantly their self-worth.” In this vein Gonzales’s epic 1967 poem I Am Joaquín recalled venerable rebel leaders of the Mexican past—Benito Juarez, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata—in order to symbolically resist “a country that has wiped out all my history, stifled all my pride.” “I am the masses of my people, and I refuse to be absorbed,” declared Joaquín. In Gonzales’s words the poem represented “a journey back through history, a painful self-evaluation, a wandering search for my peoples, and, most of all, for my own identity.” The constraints and prejudices of normative American identity pushed Chicano activists like Gonzales to theorize alternative identities.

Education was where a new Chicano identity could be forged. In 1969 Gonzales led a huge student walkout at Denver West High School (where I happened to be a student teacher prior to graduate school, I am proud to say) to pressure the school board to “enforce the inclusion in all schools of this city the history of our people, our culture, language, and our contributions to this country.” Gonzales praised Chicano activists as “the forerunners in the battle for positive and relevant education for Chicanos.” Theories about Chicano identity were crucial to the formation of Chicano Studies, which took off on college campuses in the 1970s. The same was true of Black Studies, Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, Ethnic Studies, and more. Activism transformed education. The way many people approached knowledge was revolutionized by the sixties liberation movements.

In this the culture wars were born.

A War for the Soul of America, the first comprehensive history of the culture wars from the 1960s to the present, argues that the culture wars were the very public face of America’s struggle over the unprecedented social changes of the period following the sixties, as the cluster of social norms that had long governed American life began to give way to a new openness to different ideas, identities, and articulations of what it meant to be an American.

My book includes a specific chapter on public schools and another on higher education. But more than merely considering the schools as one sphere in which the culture wars were fought, my book interweaves educational history throughout its exploration of the larger political culture. In this I am one of many scholars, including many people at this table and in this room, who seek to place educational history at the center of American historiography. There was a time when our most venerable historians did just this, Richard Hofstadter for instance. When Hofstadter first delved into the American history of education he wrote Merle Curti that he was struck by how much there was to be learned about American intellectual life by studying its schools. My work is in that spirit. The history of the culture wars, broadly defined, is a history of American modernity. The schools are a crucible for American modernity and are thus front and center in this history.

In order to demonstrate let me return to the sixties liberation movements. Many historians have recently argued that the sixties were not nearly as transformative as previously assumed. For instance, they show that the demise of intellectual authority and traditions, an upheaval in American life that helped spark the culture wars, was not new to the sixties. The so-called “postmodern” condition, the realization that “all that is solid melts into air”—liberating to some, frightening to others—had long ago shaken the foundations of American thought. The French philosopher Michel Foucault, the most widely read theorist in the American humanities since the sixties, was thought to have revolutionized American intellectual life with relativistic statements of the sort that “knowledge is not made for understanding, it is made for cutting.” In fact, Lynne Cheney, who chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1993, argued that Foucault’s “ideas were nothing less than an assault on Western civilization.”

But by the time Cheney had written those words, it had been nearly a century since the American philosopher William James made the claim that “‘the truth’ is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving.” Germane to this point, in the 1940s university students across the country, particularly at elite schools like Harvard University, were assigned to read the American anthropologist Margaret Mead, who, according to historian David Hollinger, “explicitly and relentlessly questioned the certainties of the home culture by juxtaposing them with often romanticized images of distant communities of humans.” That many Americans gained familiarity with Mead’s cultural relativism—which promoted the idea that much of what was called “natural” was, rather, “cultural”—was an indication that perhaps American political culture had fractured well before the sixties.

But the sixties universalized fracture. Many Americans prior to the sixties, particularly white, middle-class Americans, were largely sheltered from the “acids of modernity,” those modern ways of thinking that subjected seemingly timeless truths, including truths about America, to the lens of suspicion. Put another way, prior to the sixties, many Americans did not yet realize their sacred cows were being butchered. Many Americans only felt their worlds coming apart once they experienced such chaos as a political force, as a movement of peoples previously excluded from the American mainstream. Civil rights, Black and Chicano Power, feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement, the legal push for secularization—these are what destabilized the America that millions knew. It was only after the sixties that many Americans recognized the threat to their once great nation.

And this threat was often felt in schools or on college campuses. Allan Bloom’s 1988 jeremiad The Closing of the American Mind, which I call the über-text of the culture wars, struck a chord with Americans struggling to make sense of the ruptures that had been altering social arrangements since the sixties—especially the changes to the nation’s landscapes of race and gender, changes that were highly noticeable on college campuses. Just as these changes led some to question the foundations of the old order—led some to introduce new knowledge into the university in the form of Black, Chicano, Women’s Studies—others grasped for what they knew to be good, natural, true, and timeless. Bloom was a champion for this latter group of Americans by offering them a powerful vocabulary with which to ward off the barbarians at the gates.

Bloom believed that American culture had been in decline since the sixties, becoming increasingly relativistic. He used Weimar Germany as an analogy. “Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same,” he wrote. “The American university in the sixties experienced the same dismantling of the structure of rational inquiry as had the German university in the thirties. No longer believing in their higher vocation, both gave way to a highly ideologized student populace.” Bloom thought relativistic thinking helped “highly ideologized” students marshal left-wing politics onto campus. Paraphrasing new academic doctrine, he rhetorically asked: “Who says that what universities teach is the truth, rather than just the myths necessary to support the system of domination?” Bloom specifically regretted the prominent argument that standards merely offered cover for institutional forms of racism. Such thinking, he contended, validated claims that blacks were less successful on campus due to deeply rooted power structures. With no effort to hide his sarcastic tone Bloom wrote: “Black students are second-class not because they are academically poor but because they are forced to imitate white culture.”

Bloom’s hatred for Black Power was informed by his experience while teaching at Cornell University during the campus upheaval of 1969, when militant black students brandished guns to magnify their demands for affirmative action and Black Studies. As Christopher Hitchens later wrote: “Chaos, most especially the chaos identified with pissed-off African Americans, was the whole motif of The Closing of the American Mind.” In other words, Bloom was not only concerned about the philosophical anarchy that marked a relativistic culture. He was also anxious about the more tangible disorder that seemingly overwhelmed universities in the wake of the sixties. In this, Bloom was not unusual. On the contrary, such anxieties underwrote the culture wars, thus putting the history of education front and center in the history of the culture wars.

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