Distinguished Lecturers
Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania. A former Peace Corps volunteer and high school teacher, he recently published a 20th-anniversary edition of his 2002 book, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools. Zimmerman is also the author (with cartoonist Signe Wilkison) of Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn (2021) The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in American (2020), The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools (2017), Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (2016), Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education (2015), Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory (2009 ), Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century (2006), and Distilling Democracy: Alcohol Education in America's Public Schools, 1880-1925 (1999). He won New York University's Distinguished Teaching Award in 2008. He is also a frequent op-ed contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic, and other newspapers and magazines.

NEW IN 2022: Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (2nd ed., University of Chicago Press)

NEW IN 2021:
Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn (City of Light Publishing)

OAH Lectures by Jonathan Zimmerman

Critical Race Theory. The 1619 Project. Mask mandates. As contemporary headlines remind us, American public education is wracked by “culture wars.” But these conflicts have shifted sharply over the past two decades, from religion to nation, marking larger changes in the ways that Americans imagine themselves. From the Scopes Trial over evolution in the 1920s through battles over school prayer and Bible reading in the late 20th century, our bitterest school battles surrounded questions of faith that lacked room for compromise. Either human beings evolved from other mammals, or they did not; either Christ was the Messiah, or he wasn’t. By contrast, conflicts over history instruction were resolved by adding formerly ignored or stigmatized groups to a triumphal national story. Racial minorities and women had suffered injustices, textbooks acknowledged, but they eventually shared in America’s larger bounty of progress and freedom.

By the late 1990s, these patterns began to reverse. Conflicts over religion cooled, as orthodox believers patronized Christian academies or simply taught their children at home. But battles over American history in public schools flared as never before. The elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump—two diametrically different presidents--triggered angry shouting matches over the idea of America itself. Was the nation born in liberty, or in slavery? Was it fulfilling its promise of human equality, or did racism remain an enduring blot upon it? These were questions about the larger national story, not simply about who was included within it. But the biggest question was whether we retained enough faith in public education—and in ourselves—to let students make sense of America on their own.

College professors are experts in their subjects of study, but they're mostly amateurs in the classroom: unlike research, our teaching lacks consistent standards and practices. At the same time, it has also been a near-constant target of reform. For over 100 years, American colleges and universities have struggled to make college teaching more "personal" via discussion sections and other small-group activities. Technological innovation has aimed to "personalize" teaching as well, by making it more convenient for the student, but it has also rendered teaching more impersonal by widening the distance between student and teacher. The accent on the "personal" has itself been a major obstacle to professionalizing college teaching: the more we associate teaching with individual qualities and characteristics, the less amenable it becomes to real change.

How have different nation-states taught about sex in their public schools? This talk suggests that the United States--often considered a laggard in sex ed--was actually the world leader in the first half of the 20th century, when the US pioneered sex education as a way to fight venereal disease.The American approach came under fire in the post-WWII era from European countries, which tended to stress individual rights and pleasure over social goals and outcomes. In the so-called Third World, finally, sex education--of any kind--was often rejected as a corrupt fruit of the overly sexualized West. How can Western liberals square their twin commitments to sex education and to cultural sensitivity?

In 2003, during a fifth-grade current-events lesson about the United States' newly begun war in Iraq, a student asked Indiana teacher Deborah Mayer if she had ever attended an anti-war protest. Mayer told the class that she had driven by such a protest a few days earlier, and had honked her horn in support. Her school board declined to renew Mayer's contract, noting that she had deviated from the board's approved curriculum. And four years later, a federal appeals court upheld the board's decision on similar grounds.
Across the country, Mayer's defenders decried the apparent assault on her "academic freedom." But K-12 teachers in America have never enjoyed such freedom in a manner that university academicians would recognize. During wartime especially, school boards and courts have discouraged or blocked teachers from engaging their students in an open, critical dialogue about controversial ethical and political issues. Zimmerman's talk will explore these restrictions, the fate of the teachers who broached them, and the implications of this history for contemporary democracy.


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