Culture Wars Update: Who’s Winning?

Is the sky falling for progressives like me? In The Atlantic, journalist Molly Ball argues that liberals are losing the culture wars. The same topic just came up in our recent panel of educational historians. Is Ball right?

Four horsemen?

Four horsemen?

She looked at the results of the recent mid-term elections. In Ohio, voters rejected recreational marijuana. In Houston, they voted against gender-neutral bathrooms. In San Francisco, they booted an immigration-friendly sheriff. In Virginia, gun control struggled. In Kentucky, Kim Davis’s brand of in-your-face culture-war bluster helped win the governor’s office.

Ball’s conclusion?

taken together these results ought to inspire caution among liberals who believe their cultural views are widely shared and a recipe for electoral victory.

Fair enough. But not surprisingly, our all-star panel of historians came to different conclusions. To historians, these electoral losses don’t seem so cataclysmic. After all, consider the historical context: people are voting about making pot legal. Can you really deny Andrew Hartman’s argument that the echoes of the 1960s are dominated by the accents of hippies?

And yes, Houston lost its push for bathrooms that recognize the fluidity of gender. But look again: Who lost? The city in Texas with the openly gay mayor, that’s who.

We can make the same case for the other elections as well. Yes, conservatives here and there will have some successes in blocking the progressive changes that continue to roll through our society. Such blocking maneuvers, however, are a rearguard action.

Voting against gender-neutral bathrooms does not change the fact that we are now considering gender-neutral bathrooms. Thirty years ago—heck, even five years ago—that would not have been up for debate.

I think we need a more nuanced answer to the question of winning and losing when it comes to our culture wars. In my recent book, I looked at the educational activism of conservatives during the twentieth century. A lot of the time, they won. But just as with these recent cases, conservatives tended to succeed only in blocking or delaying certain limited sections of progressive change. Progressives still set the cultural agenda.

Here’s my two cents: first of all, I agree with our dean of educational historians, Jon Zimmerman. Jon argued this week that it is mostly meaningless to talk about winning or losing in this context. As does this Atlantic article, talk about winning or losing is usually a tactic to rally the faithful of each side, not a clear-headed analysis of shifting cultural trends.

Having said that, I think we can discern a century-long trend with these sorts of fights. In every case, conservatives might win or lose the specific battle. They do not win the war. What they do win, time after time, is the right to be listened to, the right to be considered part of the conversation about these issues.

For progressives like me and most of my friends, progressive change seems like an obviously good idea. Of course people should be able to smoke pot if they want. Of course transgender people should be able to use appropriate bathrooms. Of course guns should be controlled, immigrants welcomed, and same-sex marriage rights should be honored.

When we see election results like this one, though, we are reminded that not everyone agrees with us. When we see how strongly people disagree, we should not tear our hair and gnash our teeth. We should not lament the narrow-mindedness of our fellow citizens.

Rather, we should recognize the vast differences between Americans when it comes to these issues. As we do here at ILYBYGTH, we should do our best to understand and even sympathize with those voters who disagree with us.

After all, the only real victory in our bitter culture wars will come when we can respect those with whom we disagree.

Are the Culture Wars History?

I don’t get out much. So when I was invited to participate in a panel at the annual meeting of the History of Education Society, I jumped at the chance. Especially when it gave me the chance to rub shoulders with some nerd all-stars.

Meet me in Saint Looey...

Meet me in Saint Looey…

Our panel will include four authors of books familiar to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. First, Jon Zimmerman will tell us something about global sex ed from his new book, Too Hot to Handle.zimmerman too hot to handle

Then, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela will keep the sex-ed ball rolling while adding in some bilingual ed as she talks about her book, Classroom Wars.petrzela classroom wars

Next, Andrew Hartman will share some insights about education and culture wars from his blockbuster War for the Soul of America.Hartman

Last, I’ll talk a little bit about what it has meant to be “conservative” when it comes to education, from my new book.

What will we talk about? Hard to say until we get there, but the theme that ties these books together is that of educational culture wars. What have Americans (and people worldwide) seen fit to teach their kids about touchy subjects such as sex and God? Who has been allowed to make decisions about school?

One disagreement we might have could be about the winners and losers. If there are such things as educational culture wars, we all have different conclusions about who has won. Jon Zimmerman argues that kids overall—especially in the United States—get very little sex ed, due to consistent activism against it. I think, too, that conservatives have been able to exert veto power over many big educational programs. Both Andrew and Natalia, though, say that by and large progressive ideas have come out the winner in these battles.

What do you think:

  • Are there such things as educational culture wars?
  • If so, are they all in the past?
  • And, maybe most interesting to most people…who won?

The Kids Aren’t Alright…with Transgender

My Fellow Progressives: What if time isn’t on our side? We tend to think that each new generation will get cooler, more tolerant, more progressive. But what about those stubborn conservative kids who consistently disprove our assumptions? A new student protest in Missouri shows once again that young people are not somehow automatically progressive.

Who is the future here?

Who is the future here?

Academic historians learnt this lesson the hard way. Beginning in the 1930s, liberal academics assumed that the fundamentalists of the 1920s had melted away in the glare of modernity. In their liberal imaginations, historians such as Norman Furniss explained that fundamentalism had died away, a vestige of an older, stupider time.

For many liberal historians, the fact that they no longer saw fundamentalists on their campuses or in the headlines of their newspapers proved their case. It backed up their assumptions that the modern world would squeeze out people who embraced a decidedly old-fashioned way of reading the Bible.

Of course, fundamentalists hadn’t died away after the 1920s. Beginning in the later 1950s, evangelists such as Billy Graham brought the fundamentalist tradition back to America’s headlines and center stage. It took a new generation of historians, many of them raised in fundamentalist families, to explain what had happened. Writers such as Ernest Sandeen, George Marsden, and Joel Carpenter demonstrated the continuing strength and vitality of American fundamentalism.

Protestant fundamentalism, these historians showed, was a thoroughly modern phenomenon. In the face of progressive assumptions that people would naturally become more secular and more morally sophisticated, lots of Americans actually became more religious and more firmly moored in Biblical morality.

Progressives today share a similar short-sighted demographic hangover. Many of us, even those of us too young to have lived through the social movements of the 1960s, remember the vibe of youth power. As Andrew Hartman has argued so eloquently in his new book, the ideas of the 1960s fueled much of the later culture war vitriol. In the face of much evidence to the contrary, it was often assumed by 1960s culture warriors (and their successors) that youth was somehow naturally progressive.

Not your father's GOP...

Not your father’s GOP…

To be fair, my fellow progressives aren’t entirely wrong. We tend to assume that young people will be less anti-gay, less racist, less conservative, and we can point to good poll data to back it up. As Pew reported last year,

in addition to the [Millennial] generation’s Democratic tendency, Millennials who identify with the GOP are also less conservative than Republicans in other generations: Among the roughly one-third of Millennials who affiliate with or lean Republican, just 31% have a mix of political values that are right-of-center, while about half (51%) take a mix of liberal and conservative positions and 18% have consistently or mostly liberal views. Among all Republicans and Republican leaners, 53% have conservative views; in the two oldest generations, Silents and Boomers, about two-thirds are consistently or mostly conservative.

But there’s a big problem embedded in these kids of poll data. Though many young people tend toward more liberal views, there are still enormous percentages of people who buck the trend. The recent protest in Missouri can illustrate the ways young people can and will embrace socially conservative ideas.

In that case, a transgender high-school senior, Lila Perry, had been allowed to use the girls’ bathroom. Students walked out in protest. The students and their parents, supported by outside groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, tend to consider Lila to be still male, in spite of her identification as female. As one activist parent put it, his daughters encountered an “intact male” in the locker room.

In spite of what we might expect, we don’t see in this case progressive young people fighting against the bureaucracy. Instead, the bureaucracy in this case moved quickly to establish a policy protecting the rights of transgender students. In reply, conservative students insisted on the rights of “real” girls to be protected from such students.

If history is any guide, as more young people become progressive, the conservative holdouts will become more firmly attached to their conservative principles. Conservative young people will become more likely to take action. Protests like the one at Hillsboro High School will become more common.

Trigger . . . a Celebration

Do universities these days coddle their students? Do progressive dreams of inclusive campuses result in hothouse indignation? That’s the charge from pundits as students complain of hostile classrooms. Far from a problem, though, this trigger-warning brouhaha should be cause to celebrate, for two reasons.

Warning: Woman turns into a tree...

Warning: Woman turns into a tree…

In recent days, commentators have leaped upon a story from Columbia University. A group of students published a complaint about insensitive classrooms and professors. One student had been forced to endure a discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, replete with stories of rape and assault. The problem was not just Ovid. The students wrote,

like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

Even worse, when students complained about these texts, or suggested other authors such as Toni Morrison, they were pooh-poohed or dismissed.

Predictably, writers from a variety of religious and ideological backgrounds have pointed out some of the over-the-top elements of such student protests. Atheist author Jerry Coyne denounced the students’ “Literature Fascism.” Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan cussed the over-sensitivity of the “trigger-happy generation.”

Noonan pulled no punches. She blasted this “significant and growing form of idiocy” as something that must be addressed. “I notice lately,” Noonan goes on,

that some members of your generation are being called, derisively, Snowflakes. Are you really a frail, special and delicate little thing that might melt when the heat is on?

Do you wish to be known as the first generation that comes with its own fainting couch? Did first- and second-wave feminists march to the barricades so their daughters and granddaughters could act like Victorians with the vapors?

Everyone in America gets triggered every day. Many of us experience the news as a daily microaggression. Who can we sue, silence or censor to feel better?

Ouch. Before we talk about why these crusty columnists give us cause for celebration, let us make a few complaints. First, contra Noonan, this is not a generational thing. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are keenly aware, Columbia and other elite schools are nearly beside the point when it comes to understanding the broad picture of higher education in this country. They attract a tremendously disproportionate share of commentator attention, but almost no one attends such schools.

And even in the calculated environment of Columbia, the student protesters represent only a tiny sliver of the student body. As Noonan smartly pointed out, the reaction from other Columbia students was not sympathetic. One student wrote, “These girls’ parents need a refund.”

Second, anyone of a certain age can attest to the fact that these same discussions have been happening—with different buzzwords—for the last fifty years. I remember my days as a student radical, back in the 1980s. Sure enough, at one of our indignant protest meetings with a dean, one student complained that the dean’s cigarette smoke was causing her some anguish. His response? Deal with it, Snowflake.   Nowadays, of course, I can’t imagine any college official smoking during a meeting, but the general tenor of student complaint was the same.

In spite of all that, this dustup over trigger warnings should give us cause for celebration. Why? First of all, it has brought together indignant “kids-these-days” jeremiads from all sides of our campus culture wars. Atheists and conservative Catholics, liberals and conservatives, Jerry Coynes and Peggy Noonans . . . a variety of pundits can agree that this sort of student activism is both silly and counterproductive. Any time we can have people from different culture-war perspectives agree on something, we can build on that.

Second, as historian Andrew Hartman has pointed out recently, simply having students who seem to care about Ovid and Toni Morrison is a refreshing sort of culture-war problem. Too often, those kinds of disputes over the proper types of college reading have been replaced by more frightening existential questions of whether or not colleges will fund literature departments.

So rejoice, all those who yearn for robust college campus life! When students are interested in the morals of their reading lists, we might suspect that they are actually doing the reading. When students come together to protest against campus policies, we might hope that they will remain active citizens as they age and fatten. And finally, whenever an issue can bring together curmudgeonly elders from a variety of culture-war positions, there is hope that we all can continue to have robust, controversial conversations.

Required Reading: Rich Parents Are Better

You remember the old joke:

Q: What’s the best way to have a million dollars by the time you’re thirty?

A: Inherit ten million dollars when you’re twenty.

A new book by sociologist Robert Putnam underlines the traditional wisdom: The best way to succeed in life is to pick the right parents. According to reviews in The Economist and New York Times, Putnam amasses solid evidence to demonstrate that the class gap between rich and poor parents is huge and increasing.

Graphic inequality

Graphic inequality

The relationship between parenting and poverty has been a culture-war flashpoint for fifty years. As historian Andrew Hartman relates in his new book, back in the 1960s sociologist and sometime-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan raised hackles with his study of the causes of African-American poverty.

The problem with too many “Negro Families,” Moynihan argued, was that a destructive anti-family culture had set in. Kids were no longer being raised in stable two-parent households. Fathers were absent or abusive. Mothers were overworked and under stress. The result, Moynihan concluded, was that poor families—especially African American poor families—could not raise successful children.

Critics charged that Moynihan attacked poor people, not poverty. He was accused of a new crime: “blaming the victim.”

The numbers in Putnam’s new book offer some sobering suggestions that Moynihan’s warnings were correct, but not just for African American families. The real divide, Putnam says, is not between black and white parents, but between well-to-do college-educated parents and not-well-to-do parents with less education.

Some of these statistics are truly mind-blowing. Consider, for example, that a poor eighth-grade student who does very well in school still has a worse chance of completing college than a rich eighth-grade student who does very badly in school. The numbers of children living with two well-educated parents has stayed relatively stable. The number of children in single-parent households has shot up among parents with no more than a high-school education.

Traditionalists and conservatives, no doubt, will point to Putnam’s work as more evidence in favor of traditional families. The best way to fight poverty, they might say, will be to encourage stable two-parent households.

Progressives and liberals, meanwhile, will point to these numbers as proof of America’s un-level playing field. Children of parents with fewer educational advantages need extra assistance from government in order to stand any sort of chance.

The long-standing dream of American education has been that education can lead to success. Since the days of Horace Mann, education has been offered as the key to the American dream. Putnam’s study offers more evidence that education is part of the structure of inequality, not the sledgehammer to demolish that structure.

On the Reviewing Block

How do you decide what to read?  For nerds, academic journals provide page after page of book reviews.  I love to read and write these sorts of academic reviews.  But are they really worth the time?

Right now, for instance, I’m reviewing four books for a variety of journals.

For History of Education Quarterly, I’m writing a review of Andrew Hartman’s War for the Soul of America (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Hartman

For the journal Church History and Religious Culture, I’m reviewing Christopher Rios’s After the Monkey Trial (Fordham University Press, 2014).rios

For Teachers College Record, I’m working on a review of Roger Geiger’s new book The History of American Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2014).geiger

Last but not least, I just agreed to write a review of Bradley J. Gundlach’s Process and Providence: The Evolution Question at Princeton, 1845-1929 (Eerdman’s, 2013), for History: Reviews of New Books.gundlach

For those outside of the academic realm, here’s how the process works: Publishers send out review copies to a variety of journals and magazines.  Book review editors hunt down an appropriate reviewer, usually through word of mouth and academic reputation.  If the first person they ask can’t or won’t write a review, the editor asks for suggestions of other possible reviewers.

I love to write reviews for academic journals.  In each case, putting together a coherent review forces me to do more than simply absorb a book’s argument.  It forces me to take a sharper look at the sources, the implications, and the book’s strengths and weaknesses.  In all of the reviews I’m currently writing, I had planned to read each book already.  Writing the review simply forbids me to read any of them lazily.

But beyond the benefits for the writer, do these reviews matter?  After all, very few people read academic journals.  These days, the long peer-review process means that reviews in academic journals sometimes come out long after the books are published.  We might be tempted to conclude that these kinds of academic book reviews are merely an exercise in higher-education navel gazing.

I think there’s more to it than that.  After all, these reviews are not intended solely for individual readers or book buyers.  This is not just a “rotten-tomatoes” kind of review, in which readers might check out what has been said before choosing one book over another.  This is not simply “like”-ing something on Facebook or scrawling out an angry smear job on Amazon.  Those things may boost or crush sales and reach, but they don’t provide readers with careful descriptions of a book’s structure.

Book reviews in academic journals are different.  The audience for these book reviews is mostly university types, the professors who are choosing books to use with their classes and their students.  No one has time to read every book that comes out, but these short reviews allow academics to remain broadly aware of new trends in their fields.  A “good” review in this context does not mean glowing praise, but rather careful description of the book’s argument and significance.  A professor can choose which books to use in his or her classes.  Professors can also recommend certain titles to graduate students for further study.

Some things that are old fashioned deserve to wither away.  Cassette tapes, large lecture hall classes, and phones with cords come to mind.  This tradition of slow and careful review, on the other hand, may have its roots in a very different technological time.  Nevertheless, it remains a vital part of academic life.

Required Reading: A Boom Year for the Culture Wars

You’ve got no more excuse. As historian Andrew Hartman pointed out recently, we used to be able to shrug our shoulders and say that we really didn’t have many historical examinations of America’s culture wars. That’s not the case anymore. Hartman gives us a list of new books coming out in 2015—including one by your humble editor—that look at key aspects of America’s long fight over morality and education.

Daddy, What did YOU do during the Culture Wars?

Daddy, What did YOU do during the Culture Wars?

Hartman’s list includes his own upcoming War for the Soul of America, as well as my Other School Reformers, Stephen Prothero’s Why Liberals Win, Natalia Mehlman-Petrzela’s Classroom Wars, and Jonathan Zimmerman’s Too Hot to Handle.

As you’ll see when you check out Hartman’s full post, these books promise to establish a new tradition among historians and the reading public.

Best of all, these books will give us plenty to read and argue about for the rest of the year.

Teaching the Culture Wars

Isn’t it nice to be included?

Andrew Hartman of Illinois State University, author of Education and the Cold War, has announced his reading list for a graduate seminar in America’s culture wars.

fundy and education scopes era coverI am tickled pink to see my 1920s book on the list (now available in paperback!).

It is an honor to be included with books that shaped my intellectual development, including Jonathan Zimmerman’s Whose America, James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars, and many other wonderful titles.

Makes me want to join the seminar…

Marsden & Gould on Creationist Science

What is science?

Andrew Hartman offers a review of some of the keenest analyses of fundamentalist/creationist science at US Intellectual History.

Hartman looks at a few essays from the mid-1980s about the nature of science in the intellectual world of conservative evangelical Protestants.  Hartman reviews an essay by leading religious historian George Marsden  in which Marsden sums up the fundamentalist difference.  The key to understanding creationist science, Marsden argued, is to understand the Baconian/Common Sense roots of fundamentalists’ self understanding.

Marsden’s analysis certainly fit the intellectual world of the 1920s.  In that era, leading fundamentalists articulated a different vision of science, one that did not match the world of leading mainstream scientists.

Since the 1960s, however, the scientific visions of creationism have transformed themselves.  Though 1920s creationists might insist with some justification that the jury was still out on natural selection, later generations of creationists have had to come to terms with the fact that mainstream science had embraced evolution.  More recent arguments that evolution is “just a theory” often do not match the intellectual sophistication that 1920s fundamentalists demonstrated about the nature of science.  Instead, later generations of creationist intellectuals have moved away from the Baconian/Common Sense vision.  Most often, creationists have derided evolutionary science as mistaken, fallible, closedminded, and even duplicitous.  But they have not as often criticized the framework of mainstream science as having slipped away from a proper Baconian framework, at least not nearly as often as did 1920s fundamentalists.