Some of the most intense political battles in America this year are taking place at school board meetings. Across the country, these meetings have become forums for intense debates, often among huge crowds, over whether to impose school mask mandates with the Delta variant of COVID-19 surging and how to teach the history of racism in the U.S. Those issues are already shaping local elections, where Republicans are channeling anger over mandatory masking and “critical race theory.” Last week, the Associated Press reported that a “loose network of conservative groups with ties to major Republican donors and party-aligned think tanks is quietly lending firepower” in these conflicts, which have occasionally resulted even in brawling and arrests. All this comes amid nationwide arguments over the idea that “woke” left-wing extremism is capturing American education, including at colleges and universities, and the issue of transgender-girl student athletes participating in girls’ sports. How are all these phenomena connected?

Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the 2002 book Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, says schools are “the central public institution” where Americans “deliberate and decide what we want to communicate to our young people about who we are.” So he’s not surprised schools are such a locus of today’s culture wars. To Zimmerman, Donald Trump’s presidency intensified the fight over national identity in the U.S., not least over how it should be taught to students, which is part of why “the history wars”—the battles over how to understand America’s past—are “flaring as never before.” New narratives about the country, like The New York Times’ 1619 Project, aren’t just attempting to include marginalized voices in a traditional telling of America’s story, Zimmerman says; they’re attempting to question the story itself: “A lot of this new curricula reflects a fundamental challenge to the idea of America as a land of freedom and liberty.” At the same time, certain aspects of the education culture wars seem less contentious to him now than they have in the country’s recent history—particularly issues related to religious belief, such as teaching evolution or admitting school prayer.

Graham Vyse: Are schools now the central battleground in the U.S. culture wars?

Jonathan Zimmerman: They’re absolutely central. Sharp conflict over schooling is nothing new in America, but we’re at a new moment in the structure and content of that conflict. Back in 2002, I thought the religion wars had no solution and the history wars had the wrong one. The religion wars—over school prayer, evolution, and sex education inflected by religion—were insoluble, because they involved mutually incompatible claims. Either sex outside straight marriage is a sin or it isn’t. Either Christ died for our sins or he didn’t. Either we share DNA with other creatures or we don’t.

We did manage to solve the history wars, meanwhile, but I thought we solved them in the wrong way—just by adding new groups to the old story of America’s past. For a lot of our history, our textbooks were only about white men. Starting in the 1920s, and then really picking up during the civil rights era, we added more groups into the same story. Adding those groups was terrific, but we weren’t asking what adding they did to the broader story. Today, the history wars are flaring as never before, because there’s a real debate over the story itself. That’s what The 1619 Project is about—not just a demand for inclusion.

Sam Balye

The religion wars have cooled radically. They haven’t gone away, but when was the last time you heard about a really brutal battle over school prayer or evolution in a community? It’s very rare. The people opposed to sex ed are now basically trying to get parents to opt out, meaning their kids don’t go when sex ed is offered. In a sense, that’s an admission of defeat, right?

Vyse: What are the stakes of these culture wars in the schools?

Zimmerman: The underlying stakes are nothing less than the definition of the nation itself. If you look at old textbooks, they have titles like Land of the Free. The 1619 Project questions the very premise: Are we a land of the free? At their root, these conflicts are about defining the United States as a nation, and public schools are the central public institution where we deliberate and decide what we want to communicate to our young people about who we are. In part, because the country is so fractured and polarized, it makes perfect sense that we’d be having this enormous battle in our schools. If you haven’t noticed, Americans don’t agree about America, and their disagreements may be as sharp as they’ve ever been.

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