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Review of "Whose America?"

By Jonathan Zimmerman
Harvard University Press, 2002
Review by Max Hocutt, Ph.D. on Sep 19th 2003
Whose America?

This nicely written, carefully edited, and beautifully produced book by a professor of education at New York University consists of stories about bitter struggles between various groups for control of textbooks and courses in the public schools.

 Chapter One tells the somewhat diffuse tale of how, during the nineteen twenties, competing groups successfully attacked textbook accounts of the American revolution for being "too British" and for ignoring the contributions made by the Germans and the Irish.  According to Zimmerman, the result of this sort of criticism was to make the books somewhat less "nativist" and more "pluralist."

 Chapter Two tells how, during the first half of the twentieth century, Mildred Lewis Rutherford monitored textbooks for accounts of the US civil war that ran counter to the Confederate view of that conflict and how Carter G. Woodson vetted the same textbooks for racist depictions of blacks.  The result was textbooks tailored to particular locales and clienteles.  Southern white students read confederate minded and racially biased texts, while black students in separate schools used texts aimed at raising pride in black heroes.  

Chapter Three recounts the "right wing war" on "social studies" textbooks written by Harold Rugg, whose enthusiasm for Roosevelt's New Deal seemed to his critics to constitute an apology for socialism.  Demand for books more sympathetic to capitalism was met by the reply that textbooks should be chosen by educational professionals, not by the general public.

Chapter Four continues the story of "right wing activists" with "ties to fascist groups" who aimed not to reform but "to sabotage American schools."  Were these schools in the hands of left wing socialists, as charged?  Not that you can tell. Zimmerman never uses the expression left wing, always neutralizes the word socialism with scare quotes, and declines to describe as socialist a list of programs--progressive taxation, free public schools, etc.--that is straight out of the Communist Manifesto.  Apparently, the threat of Soviet communism was merely a fantasy of the paranoid right.  Alger Hiss is merely an "accused," not also a proven spy.

Chapter Five tells how segregationists opposed the federal government's push for racial integration by arguing that it violated constitutional guarantees of state sovereignty.  After the integrationists won that argument, they demanded, and got, texts in which black heroes stood alongside white heroes, as "multiculturalism" became the new norm.


I have so far described the first part of Zimmerman's two part book.  The second part, which is shorter, contains only three chapters. 

Chapter Six tells the history of efforts by competing denominations to introduce religious instruction in the schools.  At one time, this conflict had been resolved to widespread satisfaction by giving students part of the day in which to receive indoctrination in the religion of their choice.  However, the growing popularity of evangelical religion, which put personal salvation above social consciousness, caused reformers to demand abandonment of this popular practice.

Chapter Seven tells the related story of attempts to foster prayer in school. Despite producing bland ecumenical prayers that satisfied nobody's religious sensibilities, the movement was thwarted by courts anxious to keep every hint of religion out of public places.

Chapter Eight, the last chapter in the book, is an account of resistance, most of it by fundamentalist religious groups and all of it unsuccessful, to sex education in the schools.


Zimmerman ends his book with a brief epilogue.  Here he asks how conflicts of the sort just recounted can be resolved given that they reveal irreconcilable differences between groups.  His answer is that we must tell these groups that celebrating their heroes and confirming their beliefs is not the school's business, and we must train teachers in the academic skills they need to provide better instruction.

I find more merit in the suggestion of the mother who said, "Just teach my kids to read, write, and calculate. I'll take care of religion, politics, and morality." Her proposition goes to the heart of the problem, which is not merely that different groups have irreconcilable beliefs and values but more importantly that each group wants to impose its beliefs and values on the others.

There is, of course, no way to eliminate the contests for control if we continue to compel parents of diverse persuasions and conflicting interests to send their children to the same schools for exposure to the same curriculum. A still more effective cure for conflict might be to abandon the assumption that all schools must be all things to all people, encourage the development of many different kinds of schools with many different curricula, and give parents freedom to choose the schools that will serve their needs best.  


© 2003 Max Hocutt


Max Hocutt Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, The University of Alabama

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