U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Are the Culture Wars History? Part II

The following guest post, by Adam Laats, is the second in our AHA roundtable on culture wars historiography. For an introduction to the roundtable and the first entry, by me (Andrew Hartman), click here.

The Hundred Years’ War

Adam Laats, SUNY Binghamton; [email protected]

laatsDoes it help us understand the twentieth century better if we talk about culture wars?  I think it does, in a few important ways.  In short, talking about culture wars gives us indispensable context and necessary connections between a series of related events.  It frees us from relying on inaccurate and self-interested definitions.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the capital-letter “Culture Wars” of the 1980s and 1990s that Andrew focuses on in his book.  Rather, I’m referring to our past century of repeated conflicts over basic issues such as the nature of science, sexuality, and religion.  Talking about them as culture wars helps us recognize that they are not all separate incidents, but rather part of a history that builds on itself to influence contemporary debates in each new generation.  When a textbook is accused of being a partisan weapon in the culture wars, for example, it immediately takes on a heavy historical load of meanings that may or may not be fair or accurate.  Also, if we want to understand key terms such as conservative or progressive, it only makes sense to do so as part of a longer culture-war history.  To be a “conservative,” for example, has meant more than just calling oneself part of a self-consciously conservative intellectual movement.  It has meant lining up on one side of our durable culture wars, taking on the accumulated weight of past conflicts.  In sum, thinking about our long history of battles over culture-war issues makes more sense—indeed, only makes sense at all—if we see it as it really is.  Each individual episode is not complete in and of itself, but rather serves as the latest outbreak of our continuing culture wars.

In this post I’d like to share a little bit of what I tried to do with this book, then elaborate on the ways this study has convinced me, for all these reasons, that it helps us understand these sorts of things better, historically, if we think about them in terms of culture wars.

So, first, why should we care about conservative educational activism?  Historians have noticed the interest of conservatives in educational issues, but we haven’t really noticed ourselves noticing.  For example, in Kim Phillips-Fein’s wonderful 2011 state-of-the-field essay, she mentioned the centrality to conservatives of public schools, higher education, and intellectual institutions. Yet even given the explosion of interest in the many varieties of conservatism, Phillips-Fein could not find examples of historians who explored the reasons why conservatives remained so interested in educational issues.

I wanted to see what might have been the conservative position about education.  To find out, I couldn’t pick a few organizations or individuals, because that selection would skew and determine what themes came to the fore.

What I did instead was pick the four biggest educational controversies of the twentieth century.  I looked to see who showed up to advocate the conservative position. Using this method, I identified what I call “educational conservatism.”

In short, the tradition of educational conservatism has ranged beyond any single self-conscious movement or organization.  From the 1920s through the 1970s—and, I think, well beyond—conservatives have agreed on a few basic principles.  First, conservative activists have rarely questioned their shared assumption that schools matter, a lot.  Among conservatives just as among twentieth-century progressives, activists have assumed that what goes on in schools will determine what goes on in society.  As a result, conservatives have insisted that schools must push a steady diet of religion and patriotism on their students.  The specific meanings of proper public religion and patriotism have changed significantly, but conservatives have always insisted that schools must never wobble in their firm adherence to the inculcation of traditional values, however those values are understood at the time.

What can the tradition of educational conservatism tell us about conservatism as a whole?

1.) First of all, conservatism only makes sense if we understand it as a whole.  Was conservatism really about economics?  Or race?  Religion?  Or sex?  The obvious answer is yes.  When we look at conservatism through the lens of a cluster of issues—educational issues in this case—we can’t avoid the obvious conclusion that it was about all these things at once.

2.) Second, when we look at conservatism thematically in this way, we can’t help but notice its durability.  The same ideas about schooling and society motivated conservative activists long before the New Deal.  It makes sense to discuss together conservative activists in the 1920s and those in the 1970s.  At least when it came to questions of schooling, such folks made similar arguments.

Then, part two: What can this study tell us about the history and historiography of the culture wars?

1.) Talking about controversial issues in terms of “culture wars” helps us understand the way they often unfold historically.  There often seem to be pre-existing trench lines—at least since the 1920s—along which new issues continue to align themselves.  We can say that position X or position Y doesn’t make sense in economic terms, or theological terms, or etc.  We can say that conservative or progressive pundits are “hysterical” or “paranoid” when they make their inaccurate claims.  But that kind of analysis doesn’t matter much, since in practice lots of people hold positions that don’t make economic or theological sense.  They We often—even usually—hold political beliefs that are not dependent on factual accuracy.   Once an issue becomes part of the longer history of the culture wars, people become polarized; whatever we might think the theological or economic logic may be, there develops a “conservative” and a “progressive” position on the issue.

In any war, loyalty trumps rationality.  We can spin our wheels endlessly criticizing the howling inaccuracies of various historical positions, those of both the Left and the Right.  And such critiques are important ways to understand that kind of culture-war jousting.  But unless we also examine the culture-war context of such positioning, we will never really make sense of the meanings of the punditry of the past.

We can see how this culture-war logic helps us understand the unfolding of specific episodes in the history of the Rugg textbooks, for example.  This was one of the chapters of my book, and it has been explored by historians such as Jon Zimmerman, Chuck Dorn, and our own Andrew Hartman.  In the late 1930s, a set of social-studies textbooks by Teachers College’s Harold Rugg became wildly controversial.  Activists in the American Legion accused the books of sneaking socialist subversion.  In short order, the outcry led to the removal of the books from schools nationwide.

It’s easy enough to criticize the tenuous rationality of this successful conservative protest.  For example, other textbooks did similar things, and they were never removed or even commented upon.  Also, the Rugg books themselves were accused of a host of unreasonable things.  The books themselves were fairly tame in their ideological claims.

If we think of this as an episode in a longer war, however, a continuing culture war, then such seemingly odd, definitely irrational elements make sense.  The Rugg books became a salient, so to speak, in the trench lines of the culture wars.  They became a defining symbol for both sides.  The battle took on all the accumulated weight and hostility of decades of developing cultural tension.  On one side were the communist-friendly “social reconstructionists” at Teachers College and NYU.  On the other were the true-blue patriots at Forbes Magazine and the American Legion.  Each side packed a lot of baggage into its interpretation of what the Rugg textbooks meant.  We won’t understand such episodes unless we actively seek to understand all that culture-war baggage.

2.) Even given all we know now about the history of American conservatism, I think there is still a sort of hangover from hugely influential earlier works.  I say this knowing that it will be easy enough for people to point to plenty of books and articles that do just the opposite.  In spite of all that, in the wider world of punditry—and even among many historians—we still suffer from an excess of historical emphasis on the conservative “movement.”  We suffer from implicit assumptions that the definition of true conservatism can be found somewhere in the letters of William F. Buckley Jr. and Norman Podhoretz.  In spite of all the excellent academic work uncovering the complexities of American conservatism, there is still a lingering and distorting feeling out there that “real” conservatism started only after World War II with this self-consciously “conservative” movement.  We tend to assume that the real timeline of conservatism—the most important timeline to which there may be less important exceptions—began with the founding of National Review and ended with Reagan’s triumphant election.  George Nash was correct and precise in his description of the timing of the types of conservatives he was studying.  But it has been too easy and too common for both academic historians and interested commentators to pluck out Nash’s claims that we only saw “scattered voices of protest” among conservatives before World War II.

If we ask about the meanings of America’s culture wars, instead of the meanings of American conservatism, we can help get a better definition of key terms such as conservatism.  It is deceptively easy to rely on self-definition when it comes to such slippery terms, and that leads us to unhelpful distortions.  After all, the writers who have been the best at offering meaningful, precise definitions of terms such as conservatism have themselves been part of the culture-war phenomenon we’re trying to study.  But for obvious reasons, it is not satisfying to turn to conservative intellectuals themselves for our definition of conservatism; it doesn’t make sense to turn to J. Gresham Machen or George Nash or Russell Kirk to find a definition.

What we need to do instead is look at the unfolding history of culture-war battles.  Who has shown up as the conservative side?  Who has shown up for the progressive side?  What have they wanted?  How have they tried to achieve it?  Only by beginning with an assumption that conservatives’ efforts at defining conservatism are themselves part of the longer history of America’s culture wars can we overcome our tendency to defer to activists’ self-definitions.

3.) Thinking about the educational fights I studied as battles in a continuing kind of conflict—calling that kind of continuing conflict a culture war—helps us pick out trends.  It helps us understand the ways American culture, society, and politics have changed if we see these battles as connected in a long-running sort of fight, instead of as disconnected skirmishes.

For example, in educational fights, conservatives have not usually won outright, but they have won the right to be consulted.  Maybe the best example of this tendency—as well as a good example of the usefulness of talking about culture wars—might be our long battle over the teaching of evolution.  We all know that evolution is still taught terribly in these United States.  It is tempting to say, given the fact that a large majority of high-school biology teachers still water down evolution or teach creationism outright, that we are evolving the wrong way.

But if we understand the fight over evolution the right way, as part of a long-running culture war, then we can get a more accurate picture.  In the 1920s, for instance, several states passed laws explicitly banning the teaching of evolution.  Even in places where it wasn’t banned, it was limited severely.  In the 1920s, evolution educators had to plead for inclusion, to plead for Americans to keep an open mind about evolution and creation.  Nowadays, in contrast, it is the creationists who beg for a spot at the curriculum table.  It is creationists these days who beg Americans to keep an open mind.

If we don’t consider the long history of this culture-war fight, we might make the easy mistake of assuming that today’s vibrant creationism is a growing trend, or maybe a surprising constant in America’s cultural landscape.  But if instead we see the fight as part of a long culture war, we can see that creationist victories have consistently been victories of a certain sort.  In each case, anti-evolution activists have won only the right to be consulted, the right to be part of the conversation about what goes on in America’s public schools.  That is not nothing.  It is a big victory, especially in the face of the overwhelming scientific consensus about the importance of evolution education.  In spite of so many tactical victories for creationism, however, in the long history of evolution/creation culture wars, evolution education has always won.

The battle lines themselves have shifted dramatically, in favor of more and better evolution education.  Each particular fight, however, can misleadingly suggest creationist victory.  Have creationists won?  Yes, sort of.  But only sort of.  As with other conservative victories in the longer culture wars, conservative creationists have won the right to be included in discussions of the ways to teach evolution.

With creationism, or history textbooks, or a range of other culture-war debates, specific battles and episodes only make sense when understood as part of a longer phenomenon, a phenomenon best understood as a continuing set of culture wars.  Talking about culture wars provides us with the necessary context to make sense of key terms such as conservatism.   Talking about culture wars helps us understand and value the full complexity of the twentieth century.

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  1. I’m really enjoying this series on the Culture Wars. Without blogs like this I don’t know what I would do to try and make sense of what is going in a seemingly complex and chaotic world.

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