Cultural Wars (Part 1)


While reading the most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, I came across an article addressing the tension colleges are facing from the right. I thought I would address the problems of the right as they again start another round of fights in the on going struggle to direct intellectual freedom. I posted this piece well over a year ago; it is a nice introductory piece into a series of blogs I will post about religion, politics, and ideology on academics and culture.

During the late eighties and nineties, America was in a struggle to define its intellectual and spiritual identity. The nation had clearly moved in a more conservative direction during the Reagan-Bush years. I recall the eighties being a period of heightened racial tension, as neighborhoods continued to become even more segregated due to the lack of economic opportunities for both poor whites and ethnic/ racial minorities. This was very clear to me at a young age when my family moved from Limestone, Maine to Montgomery, Alabama – one of the more segregated cities in the country. However, race was not the only “cultural force” at work. Americans still did not understand the origins of AIDS, as many ignorant of this terrible disease prejudiced by the realities of modern day relationships assumed it was a gay only disease. Moreover, the eighties was the decade that first introduced gangster rap, a form of realist genre that illustrated the harsh realities of black and Latino urban life, which was amply portrayed in the movie Colors, staring Sean Penn and musically produced by Ice-T.

Furthermore, urban life was not the only thing impacted by Americans’ heightened anxiety over the Cold War. Although teenage sex and pregnancy were nothing new, the eighties witnessed the advertised manifestation of suburban teen pregnancy and underage drinking. Those events led some to fix the blame of poor parenting on the educational curriculum found in both pre-collegiate and collegiate institutions. The stage was set for some “actors” to usher their concerns by trying to regulate what was being taught in schools. Fortunately for colleges and universities, they were somewhat removed from government micromanagement of their research and teaching; unfortunately, secondary schools were not so fortunate. While many public schools were offering courses such as sex education and parenting, others were debating the merit of what “content” should be taught and which books should be read. I am always amazed when people ask me if I teach the “right” kind of history. Here is my answer: I teach it the way it should be taught — the truthful way.

Going back to the quasi-radical shift of the sixties, many universities started offering courses that addressed many social issues. The academy saw the emergence of Gay, Lesbian, and Queer theory transform scholarship as it worked its way into the curriculum. Gender Studies as well as the emergence of Black Studies departments emerged. With the advent of school desegregation, the growth of co-educational institutions, and Affirmative Action, America’s traditional school curriculum was being transformed by voices that were once silent. To combat this transition, a number of sectarian and nonsectarian schools emerged to educate students on topics that did not address societal contradictions.

Many Christian schools and traditional public schools did not see a need to challenge the intellectual prowess of students by allowing them to read important but controvrersial works. Because I attended a very conservative K-12 private school on scholarship, I was not introduced to some of the more radical pieces of literature by the likes of a West, Kierkegaard, Wright, etc. However, I was exposed to many wonderful classics. Thanks to a few of my high school teachers, I have become one who truly enjoys reading challenging works. With that in mind, very little of my education was influenced by the left side of the culture wars. I enjoy introducing my students to controversial issues. Some of them appreciate the introduction of various types of scholarship; I am by no means an eccentric person; however, I do like to pull students out of their comfort zone. This can be a challenge when some prefer a conformist education via teaching a narrow point of view. I once had a parent complain about my class because my syllabus read this way:

Course Description
AP American History is a one-year college level survey course that explores the political, social, intellectual, religious, and economic developments that have shaped this nation from its origin to the present. The first semester of the course will examine the early arrival and exploitation of Native Americans by European imperialists to the reestablishment of Southern culture during the period of reconstruction. The second semester of the course starts with the political and social tension of reconstruction to the start of the Clinton presidency. A lot of time will be placed on American social and intellectual history: gender, race, and class. Also, an emphasis will be placed on the teaching and learning of essay writing and document analysis.

According to the parent, I was not teaching “basic American history.” This goes to illustrate that different people and groups have a different take on what should be taught. This particular person felt that the origin of the U.S. should be taught from only a religious point of view. I agree with her that the religious card is very important — but there are other factors too. The culture war is real and has been revisited by the right, the left, politicians, parents, students, and educators. This time the losers might be colleges.

I do not have tenure nor can I earn it. This means there are intellectual rules and limitations I must adhere to, regardless of my interest and knowledge. I have been blessed in that I generally am allowed to do as I please. This is good. Why appoint a person of my caliber or others in a similiar position to be average. In some ways, this is the difference between elite and non elite institutions.


7 thoughts on “Cultural Wars (Part 1)

  1. Interesting post, and as you know I can totally relate to the syllabus conversation. Historical memory is a powerful thing, and in the context of the culture wars, things did and can get ugly. I’m often drawn to a great Swahili proverb I found a few years ago: “Knowledge is like a garden. If it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested.”

  2. Is it possible to know the right way of something historical if you weren’t there? EVERYONE has an agenda when they’re recording something and so everything is slanted some way or another.

  3. I have long suspected this issue to be one of perspective. I see the cultural war as a matter of accountability. Why should teachers express the opinions in any classroom setting? That is not their job. Liberals fear accotability. They fear a value set that holds them to American standards and purpose.

  4. Good post. Carson. The syllabus sounds good, too bad I can’t take the class!

    Saddie, if what you are asking for is accountability, then I’d argue what Carson’s syllabus was presenting exactly that: an accountable version of history.

    I’m assuming you are suggesting that his is within the “Liberal” camp of the culture war. (forgive me if I am mistaken)

    I think the fallacy of many on the Right is in assuming that when a Teacher talks about the negative consequences of what happened in history, that the Teacher is then “injecting his own opinion” into the class room. History is not simply about stating that in 1796 a bunch of dudes wrote some stuff down on paper. It’s about discussing events AND the consequences of those events on the lives of ALL people involved. That’s how we learn what to repeat, and what not to repeat.

    My own history classes through school were ridiculous. They only presented the positive outcomes of the acts that took place, and ignored the negatives. We didn’t hear about Columbus’ own oppression of Native peoples. Manifest destiny was presented as a wonderful ideological construct. And, the industrial revolution focused only on the financial gains to the country as a whole, and missed completely the struggles of the workers who made it possible. (and this was PUBLIC school).

    The positive outcomes are just as real. That’s life. It’s a messed up jumble of outcomes, some great, some horrid. And they must both be looked at clearly.

    I love the ideal of America. I love the constitution. But, we can’t pretend that our forefathers didn’t step on the backs of others to get here. That would be dishonest. And, to be accountable, one must be honest.

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