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?

Good Seats Still Available!

The 2015-2016 lineup at Binghamton University is looking like another winner. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School has just agreed to come up in the spring for a talk about his work with science communication.

We had a very exciting year last year, too. Michael Berkman visited from Penn State. Professor Berkman gave a great talk to our Evolution Studies program about his work with evolution education. Then in May, Jonathan Zimmerman from New York University delivered our annual Couper Lecture. Professor Zimmerman blew our minds with some of the most provocative ideas from his new book, Too Hot to Handle.

Are you a Kentucky Farmer?

Are you a Kentucky Farmer?

Folks who spend a lot of time with science, creationism, and public perceptions will be familiar with Professor Kahan’s work. His Cultural Cognition Project has explored exciting new directions in the tricky field of science communication. As Professor Kahan will tell you, we’re all Pakistani doctors; we’re all Kentucky farmers.

Details of Professor Kahan’s talk to follow. It will likely be a Monday evening in the early months of 2016. As always, the seminars hosted by Binghamton’s stellar Evolution Studies Program are free and open to the public.

Can’t wait.

The Talk: Sex Ed at Us & Them

For a society so drenched in sexual imagery and innuendo, we have a surprisingly difficult time talking about sex.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, our American sex paradox leads to one of the most difficult and stubborn issues of our educational culture wars.  This week, Trey Kay explores the question of sex ed at Us & Them.  Is it too much to ask of schools to fix a wider culture that can barely talk about sex?

Can We Talk...?

Can We Talk…?

Kay describes a talk at his alma mater by conservative sex education activist Pam Stenzel.  Watch out, Stenzel yelled at the assembled teens.  If you get an STD, you could be ruined for life.

Kay also chats with a mother who wants kids to learn about sex in a rational, non-judgmental way.  Kids will be having sex, she thought.  It was criminal to leave students floundering without basic information about it.

Other conservatives such as Texas’s Don McLeroy weigh in, too.  If we really want to heal our sex-ed problem, McLeroy argues, we need to do more than teach a class or two about it.  We need to reform our whole society top to bottom.

Historian Jonathan Zimmerman might not agree with McLeroy on much, but he agrees that schools do not take the lead in sex education.  Zimmerman talks with Kay about his new book, Too Hot to Handle.  In that work, Zimmerman examines the history of sex ed and concludes that it has been most conspicuous by its absence in schools.  As Zimmerman explained in a recent talk here on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, in the United States the problem of sexually transmitted diseases was treated first and foremost as a problem for the schools to fix.  In Paris, they changed the laws.  In the US, they changed the curriculum.

The assumption in America has always been that schools can fix any problem.  But, as person after person told Kay about their own real-life sex ed, almost nobody learned anything of importance about sex from classes at school.  Perhaps the real culture-war battle over sex ed needs to learn from these interviews and move out of school onto the streets and TV rooms where the real education seems to take place.

As usual, Trey Kay does a great job of including people with very different perspectives.  Want to know what smart people on both sides of our culture-war divide think about sex ed?  Check out the whole podcast.

Required Listening: Us & Them

Can we talk across the culture-war divide?  That’s the question journalist Trey Kay is asking in his new podcast series, Us & Them.  Is it worth talking to someone with whom we have fundamental disagreements?

In his first episode, Trey Kay describes his culture-war-defying friendship with conservative activist Alice Moore.  Kay first got to know Alice Moore when he was working on an earlier documentary about the 1974-75 textbook controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, this Kanawha County story also plays a prominent role in my recent book about educational conservatism.  Alice Moore played a leading role as a conservative leader in that tumultuous school boycott.

Ms. Moore makes her case in a crowded 1974 school-board hearing...

Ms. Moore makes her case in a crowded 1974 school-board hearing…

In his first podcast, Kay describes his continuing friendship with her.  The two of them inhabit different culture-war realms; Kay is a self-identified “blue-state liberal,” while Moore is a “red-state conservative.”  More than that, Ms. Moore believes in a conservative evangelical Protestantism that liberals often find intellectually outrageous.

Can the two of them be friends?

At the very least, it would take careful diplomacy on both sides. As Kay asked himself, “I have core beliefs.  What if I truly felt that they were under attack?”

Check out the whole episode when you’ve got a few spare minutes.  Kay and Moore manage to do the things friends do: Get a meal together, talk about politics and religion.  Yet neither of them budges an inch on his or her core beliefs.

Are such conversations worth having?  As Kay includes in this episode, his editor wasn’t sure.  She told Kay, “I don’t know how you can stand to have this conversation.”  It seemed to Kay’s editor that he was listening to Moore, but Moore wasn’t listening back.

Frenemies?

Frenemies?

Yet Kay remained convinced there was some value to such outreach programs.  He asked historian Jonathan Zimmerman’s opinion.  Zimmerman insisted that Americans need to speak with each other; we need a common language to discuss “American problems . . . shared by all of us.”  The most dangerous culture-war idea going around, Zimmerman said, is that those who disagree with us are either morally warped or ignorant.

Trey Kay hopes his new series will help figure out “what might happen if we take the time to listen to each other.”  Can it work?

Ah Ha! Proof of Liberal Profs!

HT: VB

Everyone knows college professors are a liberal bunch, right? A new study from Harvard University, a school just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, seems to confirm this beloved stereotype. But is it really proof?

First, some background. As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, the notion that the professoriate skews liberal is a deeply held culture-war notion. Conservatives decry it, even pushing through a mandatory conservative chair at Colorado University. Even perspicacious liberal thinkers worry about it. Historian Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University, for example, has suggested that true intellectual diversity requires some sort of affirmative action for conservatives.

It is not a made-up phenomenon. As Neil Gross argued in his new(ish) book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, there really does seem to be a tilt toward liberalism in higher-ed faculties. Not because liberals are smarter (sorry, liberals), and not because conservatives suffer from discrimination (sorry, conservatives), but because historical patterns have pushed more liberals into the profession.

An article in the Harvard Crimson describes the political donations of the faculty. Turns out, those faculty members who give money to political parties tend to give almost only to the Democrats. In the Arts & Sciences faculty, the majority tipped a whopping 95.7% in the direction of the Democratic Party, compared to a measly 3.7% who gave to the Republican Party. Things were a little more balanced in the Business School, with 36.7% of donations going to the GOP. In some departments, such as the Graduate School of Education, a Brezhnevian 100% of donations went to the Democrats.

Should we worry?

If we hope for a system of higher education that pushes students to think critically about a range of issues, should these numbers cause us to consider home-colleging our students? Both for us liberals and our conservative colleagues, is it time to think about creating a better sense of real intellectual diversity on college faculties?

I think not, for a couple of reasons. First, as both the Crimson article and Professor Gross’s book insist, a tilt toward the Democratic Party does not equate with a rigid groupthink. From the history of the culture wars, we can see proof that conservatives do very well in schools dominated by liberal faculties.

Leading young-earth creationist Kurt Wise, for example, studied under the vehemently anti-creationist Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard. Both scholars reported a cordial and productive relationship. Dr. Wise is not alone. For generations, leading conservative scholars, intellectuals, and pundits have done just fine in schools with liberal-leaning faculty. From William F. Buckley Jr. at Yale to Dinesh D’Souza at Dartmouth, nerdy conservatives thrive in elite colleges.

Perhaps the explanation can be seen in the work of sociologist Amy Binder. Binder and a colleague studied conservative students at two elite colleges. Binder argued that conservative students are certainly shaped by their environments. But at both a large western public flagship college and an elite eastern one, conservative students honed and shaped their conservatism, rather than being groomed away into liberal ideologies.

More important, perhaps, is the fact that almost nobody actually attends the elite colleges that culture-war punditry focuses on. Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Colorado, Brown, NYU…perhaps the faculties on these schools tip heavily in a liberal direction. But very few students go to these schools. Of the young people who go to college, many more of them go to less-fancy places.

My hunch—and I’d love for someone to get some numbers to back this up or refute it—is that the faculty at less-elite colleges tends to be more politically and culturally conservative. From the field of teacher education, I have heard anecdotes that suggest it’s true.

The Crimson article gives us some proof, but not about higher education. Rather, all we see is that Harvard faculty tip liberal. Harvard may have plenty of influence, but it doesn’t actually do much. Though the alumni might bother people with their smug self-satisfaction, there really aren’t too many of them around.

Sex Sells, but Who’s Buying?

The kids are alright. And if they’re not, all of our culture-war fuss ‘n’ stuff over sex in schools is not making too much of a difference. Thanks to the inestimable Jonathan Zimmerman, Binghamton University last night enjoyed a mind-blowing discussion of sex education worldwide. Among the many takeaway lessons, Professor Zimmerman argued that culture-war fulminations about sex ed generally have only a very tenuous relationship to what children actually learn about sex.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, sex education has long been a lightning rod for controversy in the USA. Liberal activists insist that this is literally a life-and-death matter, with the rise of HIV and unplanned pregnancies. For their part, conservatives have blasted liberal efforts as something akin to child pornography. Or even as a scheme by sex predators to loosen up the victims.

In his talk last night on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, Prof. Zimmerman shared some of his work from his new book, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education. Over the course of the twentieth century, sex education has spread around the world, led in many ways by pioneers in the United States. What people have wanted out of sex ed, and the shape sex ed has taken, have continually been subject to withering debate.

Who's for it?

Who’s for it?

Sex ed—and fights over sex ed—have a long history, back to about 1914. But things changed radically with the introduction of HIV. Since that time, everyone involved has agreed that sex ed is a drastic necessity. But there have been bitter disagreements about what sex ed should look like.

Two distinct types of missionary outreach have competed for global influence. On one hand, we have what might be called the “health and autonomy” position. Advocates of this type of sex ed—which, for the record, is generally something your humble editor supports—want children to have maximum information about sex. This might be touchy, but children need to learn how sex works. Perhaps more important, children need to learn to assert control over their own sexuality. Coerced and risky sex are the twin scourges against which effective sex education should be designed to fight.

On the other side, conservatives have preached a moral approach, something we might call the “just say no” school. Around the world, activists have insisted that the best offense in the case of sex is a good defense. If traditional courtship patterns can be preserved, if sex can be something done only within the bounds of a heterosexual marriage, then the blights of disease and exploitation can be eliminated.

From New York to Auckland, Dhaka to Copenhagen, these sorts of culture wars over sex education have raged for a generation. During that time, leaders and organizations have come and gone. Buzzwords and strategies have mutated and metastasized.

One thing that has not changed, according to the good professor, was that the sex education curricula in public schools has not had much direct correlation to the ways young people learn about sex.

First of all, activists tend to debate official curricula, not actual learning. In other words, as with other educational culture-war issues such as evolution and school prayer, adults tend to fight over the official standards for what should be taught in public-school classrooms. In practice, there is a vast and unmeasured distance between official learning standards and real classroom learning.

Also, even if we take official sex-ed curricula as our guide to what kids are learning, in the USA we don’t find much. At most, Professor Zimmerman explained, students in US public schools get about six hours per year of sex education.

It might be no surprise, then, that students don’t learn much about sex in school. Since the 1920s, Professor Zimmerman told us, students have put school near the bottom of their lists of places they learn about sex. Consistently, students respond that they glean about five percent of their knowledge about sex from their classes in school. Five percent! That means that almost all of their sex education takes place outside the classroom walls.

Yet time and again, both sides in our tumultuous sex-ed culture wars have issued dire warnings about the importance of public-school sex-education programs. Do such programs matter? Certainly. But too often, culture-war activists make cataclysmic claims about the positive or negative effects of school programs. And too often, these claims are about building political careers and establishing public profiles, rather than helping kids learn.

Hot & Bothered in Binghamton, New York

Clear your calendars! Next Friday Jonathan Zimmerman will be coming to scenic Binghamton to give a talk about his new book.

Zimmerman is a prolific historian and public intellectual. You may have read his blockbuster books such as Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools. Now you can get your hands on his latest, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education. You may also have seen him in the pages of the New York Times or on The Daily Show.

Who's for it?

Who’s for it?

Next Friday, May 1st, at 4:15 in the Admissions Center, Binghamton University will host Professor Zimmerman for our 23rd annual Couper Lecture. In the past, this lecture series has brought to our campus such luminaries as Bill Reese, Michael Apple, Maris Vinovskis, and many more.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, sex ed is one of the touchiest topics in America’s continuing culture wars. What should schools tell students about sex? How much is too much?

In his new book, Professor Zimmerman explodes the boundaries of these debates. The culture war over sex ed, Zimmerman argues, is not merely between conservatives and liberals in the USA. Rather, worries about the right relationship between sex and children spread from the US to cover the globe during the twentieth century.

So slip on your smarty-pants and come on over to our scenic campus. All are welcome, but registration is requested.

Historians Rule the School

Why do educational historians have so much influence, relative to other kinds of educational scholars? This year’s Edu-Scholar influence rankings are in, and historians seem to be represented far beyond their numbers.

Like any ranking system, this one is imperfect. (It must be, since it didn’t include your humble editor.) Overall, the Edu-Scholar scale tries to couple academic influence with policy influence. As Rick Hess explains in the pages of EdWeek,

The rubric reflects both a scholar’s body of academic work—encompassing the breadth and influence of their scholarship—and their footprint on the public discourse last year. . . . I’m not sure that I’ve got the measures right or even how much these results can or should tell us. That said, I think the same can be said about U.S. News college rankings, NFL quarterback ratings, or international scorecards of human rights. For all their imperfections, I think such efforts convey real information—and help spark useful discussion.

Fair enough. Given those caveats, by this scale, at least, historians seem to punch far above their weight. Why?

Just in the top ten, for example, are historians Diane Ravitch (#1) and Larry Cuban (#8). At number four we find Gary Orfield, a sociologist whose work on desegregation is heavily historical.

We don’t have to go very far down the list (#26) to find Jon Zimmerman, ILYBYGTH’s house favorite. Penn’s Marybeth Gasman shows up at 18. Also included are David Labaree, Charles Payne (another sociologist who writes a lot about civil-rights history), and Sherman Dorn. Sam Wineburg is also on the list, and though he’s not officially an historian he writes about history and historical thinking.

That might not seem like a lot of historians, out of a total of 200 scholars. But when it comes to public policy, the surprise is that there are any academic historians at all. And doubly surprising to find more than one in the top ten! In general, academic historians get nervous when it comes to making pronouncements about current-day policy.

Many of the scholars here are full-time policy wonks. It would seem their work would do more to influence thinking about education than would the work of so many historians.

So why do all these wonderful historians exert so much influence on public discourse?

Binghamton: The Place to Be

If you care about our educational culture wars—and you know you do—there’ll be no better place to be in 2015 that Binghamton University in sunny Binghamton, New York. We’ll have two of the world’s best scholars coming to campus to talk about their work. They will share their research into some of the most confounding culture-war questions: Who decides how and what to teach about evolution? How has sex education spread worldwide?

In late March, Professor Michael Berkman will be coming. Along with his colleague Eric Plutzer, Prof. Berkman published a bombshell book a couple years ago about the teaching of evolution in public high schools. Berkman and Plutzer are political scientists at Penn State. They got funding from the National Science Foundation to survey high-school science teachers about their teaching. Their results attracted a good deal of attention.

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

In the January, 2011 issue of Science (sorry, subscription required), for example, Berkman & Plutzer described the results of their survey. They found that about 13% of teachers taught creationism in public schools as science. Another roughly 28% taught recognizable evolution. The rest, roughly 60%, are the most interesting. This large majority of teachers reported that they taught a mish-mash of watered down evolution, religious- or religion-friendly ideas about creation, or a menu of evolution and creationism.

But the book was bigger than just this survey. As political scientists, Berkman & Plutzer argued that the important question was the way these decisions were made. Who decides what gets taught? State standards don’t do it. In states with good evolutionary science standards, teachers still teach non-evolution. Textbooks don’t do it. Glittering new science books with all the evolution bells and whistles can’t teach by themselves.

For Berkman & Plutzer, the answer was simple: Teachers. Teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats,” making daily decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. In most cases, teachers fit in with their local communities. If their communities want evolution to be taught, teachers teach it. But if communities want it watered down or kicked out, teachers do that, too.

Professor Berkman will be visiting our scenic campus as part of the Evolution Studies Program. We’re not sure yet what the focus of his talk will be, but he tells us he’s got some new data he’ll be sharing. Can’t wait to see what it is.

Our second campus visit will be from Professor Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University. Over a decade ago, Prof. Zimmerman defined the historical vision of America’s educational culture wars with his book, Whose America? In that volume, Zimmerman argued that two main tensions had divided Americans’ vision of proper education. Since the 1920s, conservatives and progressives had squared off on fights over patriotism and religion. Does loving our country mean teaching students to question it? Or to support it unhesitatingly? And should schools incorporate prayer and Bible-reading? Who gets included in history textbooks, and how?

Professor Zimmerman’s new book looks at sex education as a global phenomenon. Though the United States was an early exporter of sex ed, by the end of the twentieth century the US government joined some uncomfortable allies to battle sex education. As Zimmerman has argued, sex ed has created a new and sometimes surprising worldwide network of conservative alliances. For example, at a 2002 United Nations special session on children, US delegates joined Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and Syria in condemning a sex-ed proposal.

Who's for it?

Who’s for it?

When it comes to culture-war topics, national boundaries aren’t as important as we tend to think. It’s difficult for historians to look beyond them, though, due to language barriers and the high cost of research travel. In his new book, Prof. Zimmerman hopes to overcome those prosaic difficulties and tell the story of sex ed in its full global context.

And when he journeys north to our campus in early May, Zimmerman promises to share some of his insights from this book.

So whether you care about evolution, creationism, sex ed, history, school politics, school prayer, or any other culture-war issue, there will be nowhere more exciting than Binghamton University in 2015.

Be here or be square.