- “A Trojan Horse for Social Engineering”: The Curriculum Wars in Recent American History
Ever since the nation’s founding, Americans have wrestled with Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s famous 1782 riddle: “What then is the American, this new man?” Rare is the historical moment when any one answer to that seemingly straightforward question has satisfied a broad consensus. In fact, intense struggles over efforts to define a normative American identity have long marked cultural politics in the United States. More to the point, Americans have always fought the so-called culture wars, a term of recent vintage that signifies the angry, often politically consequential clashes over moral conduct and, indeed, over the meaning of Americanism itself. And, for as long as Americans have fought the culture wars, they have debated the role of education, the institution most essential to ensuring the reproduction of national identity. The school curriculum has particularly been the object of bitter recriminations, since it conveys, in the words of sociologist James Davison Hunter, “powerful symbols about the meaning of American life—the character of its past, the challenges of the present, and its future agenda.” Walter Lippmann put it even more succinctly in American Inquisitors, his scathing indictment of 1920s curriculum vigilantes: “It is in the school that the child is drawn towards or drawn away from the religion and the patriotism of its parents.”1
That the United States has always been home to millions of evangelical Christians, who tend to mix their religious and national identities, has tinged the rhetoric of American cultural and educational politics with an eschatological hue. [End Page 114] This became increasingly true in the twentieth century as more and more Americans were scarred by the acids of modernity, which burned gaping, irreparable holes in the fabric of Christian America. In this way, the culture wars, more than a battle over national identity, have served as a struggle for the soul of America, a clash over what it meant to live in a world in which all foundations had been pulled out from under, a world in which, at its starkest, “God is dead.” Even devout Christians—devout Christians especially—had to act upon the implications of modernity. Often, such activism played out in the arena of curriculum politics. For instance, in pushing back against modernist forms of knowledge that fanned the flames of religious skepticism, such as biblical criticism and Darwinism, early twentieth-century conservative evangelicals—who by the 1920s began referring to themselves as “fundamentalists”—successfully enacted laws that made reading the King James Bible mandatory in schools and that outlawed the teaching of evolution. Fundamentalist educational activism in the 1920s grew out of the desire of traditionalist Protestants to assert or reassert religious control over public schools, which they thought were becoming increasingly secular.2
That the culture wars—and accompanying curriculum wars—are a fixture of modern American political culture is not to say that they have not evolved, becoming more or less intense, depending on contextual factors. Change is as much a feature of the long history of the American culture wars as is continuity. The enormous cultural changes made manifest during the 1960s, for instance, gave life to a prolonged period of unrelenting cultural strife. The civil rights and feminist movements, which shifted the contours of the nation’s racial and sexual landscapes, were met in kind by backlash movements. Similarly, the moral liberalization that gripped the land was greeted by what historian David Courtwright terms a “moral counterrevolution.” As with earlier eras of cultural polarization, the post-1960s culture wars were often fought on an educational battleground, and not only because the school curriculum continued to serve as a crucial means of cultural reproduction. This was also because the schools, as the government institution Americans most entered into on a regular basis, were thought to be in the vanguard of secularist forces so feared by millions of conservatives. 3
This article is about these post-1960s culture wars over school curriculum: over what books American children should read in school, what history they should be taught, and what Americans should learn about human origins. It is about a clash...