Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Culture Wars and Public Education

WaPo  |  The end of summer is an exciting time for millions of children, parents, teachers and administrators who embark on a new academic year. And yet the turbulent debates about race, civil rights, immigration, science and American identity — which have played out violently from the streets of Charlottesville to the corridors of the West Wing and across the country — will continue to rile American schools.

Just last year, a Morton, Ill. school board member protested the purchase of a science textbook that favored an "Old Earth" origin story. Conservative parents in suburban Chicago opposed a day-long seminar intended to foster discussion about the persistence of racial division in American life. And a Republican lawmaker in Arkansas proposed a ban on teaching the late Howard Zinn's popular left-leaning interpretation of American history, "A People's History of the United States," in public classrooms.

These curriculum controversies are not new. At their core is a debate over power and hierarchy in American society. Those individuals and viewpoints that are valued in school curriculums have a decided advantage when it comes to making claims of moral authority. If American children, for example, grow up learning that evolutionary biology is the key to understanding human origins, creationist Americans will have a much more difficult time getting a hearing for their views and will thus lack moral authority in the important realm of science. Yet while curriculum battles shape and are shaped by the nation's larger cultural wars, they also threaten to undermine a pillar of American democracy that should concern both sides: public education.

Early challenges to public schools came from economic and religious concerns. The Protestant elite who set up the common school system in the 19th century believed schools provided training and acculturation for the poor and working class. The working class decried the invasiveness of compulsory education, and in manufacturing towns like Beverly, Mass., voted to discontinue the high school in 1860. Catholics also saw schools as an attempt to indoctrinate children with Protestant beliefs. They began to build their own network of parochial schools — building institutions to challenge the cultural authority of Protestantism.