The Great Patriotic War on Education
Culture warriors launch an offensive to retake ground they never lost
About Systematic Organization
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Organization, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds, and Massachusetts politics had been as harsh as the climate. The chief charm of New England was harshness of contrasts and extremes of sensibility—a cold that froze the blood, and a heat that boiled it—so that the pleasure of hating—one's self if no better victim offered—was not its rarest amusement; but the charm was a true and natural child of the soil, not a cultivated weed of the ancients.
This week, we’re talking about the politics of the latest front in the culture war: the teaching of American history, and what’s likely to last from this skirmish.
The Great Patriotic War on Education
The culture wars are back, and they’re going to outlive the current political moment.
For anyone who keeps abreast of politics in places like Japan, South Korea, or Turkey, the spectacle of a nationalist movement attacking textbooks and curricula for being insufficiently patriotic is a familiar one. The current strife gives experts in, say, Japanese history curricula a chance for their own “what would you say if you saw this in another country” moment.
The irony, of course, is that unlike those countries the United States doesn’t have a national educational curriculum, since we’ve decided in our infinite wisdom to allow states and localities to decide what our children in public schools will learn. This is an oddity, given that educational curricula in most countries have been founded specifically to help nationalize disparate communities—to turn peasants into Frenchmen, or serfs into the new Soviet man, for instance.
But American ideological hegemony has long been a sort of bottom-up affair in which local celebrations of nationalism have given the concept of a nation meaning. With Georgetown’s Kathleen McNamara, I wrote about this process in the pre-Civil War era for The Journal of Common Market Studies. What’s remarkable, then, is that even before the dreaded Texas school textbook adoption committee used its market power to enforce a degree of uniformity in historiography that we basically had a form of national consensus about what should be taught: a blandly consensual, Whiggish, sunnily white-apologist curriculum in which all good things (like democracy, capitalism, and the interests of big business) went together and all bad things (like labor unions, radical activists, and political divisions) could be ignored.
Shelves of radical literature at a local institution of education.
I wonder if this longstanding, bottom-up agreement, enforced by Babbitts on school boards and middle-class suburban mothers active in their local PTAs alike, has a lot to do with why Americans find college to be so radical, even if they are not themselves radicalized by college.
In the scope of global academia, American academics are about as staid and bourgeois as you can. The fact that my discipline, political science, constantly seeks ways to make itself more of service to the state would be perplexing to not a few other cultures’ social scientists, for example. And American historians, too, have long been a fairly conservative lot by this global metric—the dominance of Harvard and other Ivy League schools, the nearest thing we’ve got to Royal Academies around here, ensures that the language of instruction has always been in a plummy accent.
So we academics are, most of us, relatively conservative with a small-c in our lives and our politics, happy to vote for Biden even as we yearn for someone no more radical than Warren. Even our really radical members or those who come from other backgrounds than the suburban picket-fence two-car cohort (a group which, statistics show, is wildly overrepresented in academia) get sanded down a little bit by the disciplining pressures of publishing, teaching, and performing this role—processes which efficiently dismiss most anyone who’s actually radical.
Yet compared to high school history textbooks—and only compared to them—we are flat radicals.
We talk about issues like slavery, or racial discrimination, and the deficits of class mobility in the United States. We raise questions like whether bombing Hiroshima was worth it and point out that there’s no way that bombing Nagasaki was a good idea. We remind people that the United States can be hypocritical about human rights. We constantly challenge authority—from within the rules of the game, to be sure, but we do it—and we on the tenure-track enjoy some of the greatest speech protections known in American labor markets.
And so we mild-mannered members of the middle classes come to stick out to college freshmen, raised on the pabulum of propagandistic textbooks, like a jalapeno in a frog-eye salad.
Most folks, I suspect, end up forgetting most of what we say about this stuff, or dismiss it as the affectations or performances of people odd enough to spend all their time arguing with each other for very little money. Some folks bristle that we aren’t more forceful. And other people grow up to be backbench Republican members of Congress who burn with the constant rage that their survey history course professors were insufficiently polite to the Great Man theory of history and yearn to put us back in our places. (The logic, by the way, extends even to particular clashes like the 1619 Project, which was not the product of academia but reflected the intellectual currents of the academy.)
Clashes like this culture war over textbooks and history curricula reflect the bizarre paradox of conservative ressentiment. Conservatives dominate U.S. government, with 2.5 of 3 branches of government firmly in their grip and several dozen states beside. There is no liberal, and definitely no left-wing, equivalent; so red are the reddest states that the closest equivalent would be that Vermont, Massachusetts, and a dozen like-minded blue states were governed by Bernie Sanders clones, instead of by Phil Scott (R-Vt.) and Charlie Baker (R-Mass.). Even in true-blue New York, you get Andrew Cuomo, who’s defined himself as much by opposition to the left as by hostility to Republicans.
So what are conservatives banging on about? Conservative nationalism at this fever pitch is like a play on H.L. Mencken’s definition of a Puritan: the fear that someone, somewhere, is criticizing the American catechism. And it’s even more bizarre to see the National Archives rotunda appropriated for a “conference” of “historians” in this context—not just the context of rightist ascendancy, or of a pandemic and new Great Recession, but of all-but-total control of the curriculum itself.
The greatest irony of this week’s call for a new offensive in the Textbook Theater of the Culture Wars is that conservatives are launching it to reclaim territory they already hold. It’s only rarely that I have students come into my classes knowing anything in particular about U.S. relations with Native communities, or about the role of slavery in nineteenth-century American foreign policy, or about the Mexican War, U.S. imperialism, or civil rights and the Cold War. U.S. history courses—in the main—remain what they were when I took them as a high school student [blank] years ago: dull recitations of the ever-improving progress of a country that was born perfect. (In fact, the narrative of this implicit national curriculum is so boring precisely because there’s no more drama or tension left in it—all of the conflict has been airbrushed away, or stomped into oblivion, by textbook writers seeking what plays in Peoria.)
Yet for all that I do not think that this is actually an irrational or meaningless response. I think that it is a gathering of intellectual forces and justifications for a battle that the more perceptive leaders of the right in this era see coming—not the man in the White House but the custodians and caretakers of rightist institutions and movements who will be around much longer.
I think they clearly perceive that it is time for an ingathering of their forces and a shoring up of their battlements. It’s better to understand this as a part of the broader movement that the DeVos reign of the Education Department has represented: a strengthening of the charter school, church school, and homeschool movements and an attack on anything “public”— a sort of “Benedict Option” in which the elect (not just the wealthy) retreat into a private sphere combined with a scorched-earth attack on the elites and the taxpayer-supported educational system.
A national curriculum like that which was called for this week will go nowhere—in the public schools. It may be adopted piecemeal by states or school boards, sure, but its real value will lie elsewhere. It will collect, certify, and propagate a model for the anti-public school movement, and will provide the institutional basis for the reproduction of a separate schooling project that will fight a long war against the capture of the schools and colleges by the elites.
The thing about culture wars, after all, is that they will not be over by (the war on) Christmas. They are generational wars—the sorts of struggles that get named Thirty or Hundred Years’ Wars.
What I’m Reading
This week, I’ve been reading Timothy Andrews Sayle’s Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order.
Sayle’s book is not quite a complete history of NATO—it’s more of a political history of how the U.S. and the allies (especially Germany, France, and the United Kingdom) have dealt with the questions of the fundamental transatlantic commitment.
I guess as an academic I’m supposed to say that I wanted to see more of X or Y, like more coverage of how small states fit in to the alliance or how the Greek and Turkish tensions affected the alliance, or even how the expansion of the alliance to include Spain reflected in its democratic governance. So let this be fair warning: if you want a tick-tock of the world’s most important collective security alliance over the past seven decades, this isn’t for you.
The reason I don’t miss those discussions is because this is a book that knows what it’s about. It’s about the fundamental political questions at the heart of NATO. Because, at least in Sayle’s telling, NATO itself is boring and kind of annoying. It’s boring in that all of the important technical aspects of military coordination are, well, boring and technical, better left offstage to defense ministers and general staffs. It’s annoying in that it seems that every crisis in NATO fits neatly into one of two categories: the Europeans worry that the Americans are pulling out of Europe or the Europeans worry that the Americans are doing too much to stand up to the Soviets.
Both of these aspects reflect the tensions Sayle identifies as fundamental. The core question NATO is an answer to is “Will the U.S. abandon Europe as it did in the first half of the twentieth century?” The fact that NATO has outlived the Soviet Union suggests that we should probably see the pact as much as an improved League of Nations, in terms of generating a transatlantic commitment, as a relic of the Cold War. Achieving that transatlantic tie was easy for the postwar generation, who all knew each other and feared war and the Soviets, but substantially more difficult for those in the 1960s and beyond, as the Soviet threat receded, European publics grew more discontented with the notion of nuclear annihilation, and the U.S. grew more conscious of the importance of the rest of the world.
Sayle is most clever in pointing out that if the point of NATO was to preserve democracies against Communism there should have never been much of a contest about how to manage NATO. And yet the history of the alliance since about 1955 onward has been one of constant tension and handwringing about its future. The alliance, in other words, is doing some work—and that work, Sayle argues, is to bind these democracies to cooperate with each other against the wishes of their democratic publics. In other words, NATO is, in one sense, an “anti”democratic coalition.
Sayle’s book chronicles the tensions and strains that shaped the evolution of the alliance. At times, my read is that the preservation of NATO itself has become a goal more than seeking any sort of consistent or long-term plan for the alliance. More to the point, Russia or the Soviet Union have been the alliance’s best ally, in the sense that every time the alliance seems to be falling apart over internal strains Moscow will decide to invade this or that satellite country and remind the allies that there’s a bear in the woods.
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