By Jonathan Zimmerman Harvard University Press, 2002 Review by Max Hocutt, Ph.D. on Sep 19th 2003
This nicely written, carefully
edited, and beautifully produced book by a professor of education at New York
University consists of stories about bitter struggles between various groups
for control of textbooks and courses in the public schools.
Chapter One tells the somewhat diffuse tale of how, during the
nineteen twenties, competing groups successfully attacked textbook accounts of
the American revolution for being "too British" and for ignoring the
contributions made by the Germans and the Irish. According to Zimmerman, the result of this sort of criticism was
to make the books somewhat less "nativist" and more
Chapter Two tells how, during the first half of the twentieth
century, Mildred Lewis Rutherford monitored textbooks for accounts of the US
civil war that ran counter to the Confederate view of that conflict and how
Carter G. Woodson vetted the same textbooks for racist depictions of
blacks. The result was textbooks
tailored to particular locales and clienteles.
Southern white students read confederate minded and racially biased texts,
while black students in separate schools used texts aimed at raising pride in
Chapter Three recounts the
"right wing war" on "social studies" textbooks written by
Harold Rugg, whose enthusiasm for Roosevelt's New Deal seemed to his critics to
constitute an apology for socialism.
Demand for books more sympathetic to capitalism was met by the reply
that textbooks should be chosen by educational professionals, not by the
Chapter Four continues the story of
"right wing activists" with "ties to fascist groups" who
aimed not to reform but "to sabotage American schools." Were these schools in the hands of left wing
socialists, as charged? Not that you
can tell. Zimmerman never uses the expression left wing, always neutralizes the word socialism with scare quotes, and declines to describe as socialist
a list of programs--progressive taxation, free public schools, etc.--that is
straight out of the Communist Manifesto. Apparently, the threat of Soviet communism
was merely a fantasy of the paranoid right.
Alger Hiss is merely an "accused," not also a proven spy.
Chapter Five tells how
segregationists opposed the federal government's push for racial integration by
arguing that it violated constitutional guarantees of state sovereignty. After the integrationists won that argument,
they demanded, and got, texts in which black heroes stood alongside white
heroes, as "multiculturalism" became the new norm.
I have so far described the first
part of Zimmerman's two part book. The
second part, which is shorter, contains only three chapters.
Chapter Six tells the history of
efforts by competing denominations to introduce religious instruction in the
schools. At one time, this conflict had
been resolved to widespread satisfaction by giving students part of the day in
which to receive indoctrination in the religion of their choice. However, the growing popularity of
evangelical religion, which put personal salvation above social consciousness,
caused reformers to demand abandonment of this popular practice.
Chapter Seven tells the related
story of attempts to foster prayer in school. Despite producing bland
ecumenical prayers that satisfied nobody's religious sensibilities, the
movement was thwarted by courts anxious to keep every hint of religion out of
Chapter Eight, the last chapter in
the book, is an account of resistance, most of it by fundamentalist religious
groups and all of it unsuccessful, to sex education in the schools.
Zimmerman ends his book with a
brief epilogue. Here he asks how
conflicts of the sort just recounted can be resolved given that they reveal
irreconcilable differences between groups.
His answer is that we must tell these groups that celebrating their
heroes and confirming their beliefs is not the school's business, and we must train
teachers in the academic skills they need to provide better instruction.
I find more merit in the suggestion
of the mother who said, "Just teach my kids to read, write, and calculate.
I'll take care of religion, politics, and morality." Her proposition goes
to the heart of the problem, which is not merely that different groups have
irreconcilable beliefs and values but more importantly that each group wants to
impose its beliefs and values on the others.
There is, of course, no way to
eliminate the contests for control if we continue to compel parents of diverse
persuasions and conflicting interests to send their children to the same
schools for exposure to the same curriculum. A still more effective cure for
conflict might be to abandon the assumption that all schools must be all things
to all people, encourage the development of many different kinds of schools
with many different curricula, and give parents freedom to choose the schools
that will serve their needs best.