Battles over 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory (CRT), and new and old approaches to gender get the headlines but are the tip of the iceberg of school culture wars. They are also nothing new, though now worse than in living memory. In part due to social media, culture wars now intensify uncharitable cancel cultures, left and right, which ruin careers, damage education, and ultimately weaken our democracy. Our school governance, which evolved in the early 20th century when schools were patterned after factories run by experts, is ill-equipped to handle the political conflicts when people of goodwill have legitimate disagreements over goals, and experts (like me) from higher education sometimes get it wrong.
I know this all too well. I’m a longtime education researcher who, for five years, served on the local school board overseeing the schools my kids attended. I still serve on an unpaid board governing a nonprofit charter school in another state.
My experiences show no American education sector is spared political controversy, nor should it be. Schools matter, and our nation is ideologically diverse, so people disagree about what to teach. Rather than pretend there is one right approach dictated by experts in schools of education (like me), we should embrace the model of the American Founders with engaged pluralism. As Pauline Meier wrote in American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, pluralism defines our constitutional system: “Let interests clash and argument prosper. The vitality of the Declaration of Independence rests upon the readiness of the people and their leadership to discuss its implications and to make the crooked ways straight.” If we lose this pluralistic spirit of free and open debate—and sometimes compromise—then our schools, and our democracy could come to resemble systems in Russia and Venezuela, countries that sensible people flee rather than join.
This would require that school leaders and the boards that govern them reject the early 20th century business-oriented Progressives, who sought to impose “one best way” developed by experts. We will better find facts and earn public legitimacy by hearing many voices and allowing local variation. Fractious school board meetings and an occasional election loss are small prices to pay for democratic governance.
To do better, schools must teach that no single orthodoxy, whether traditional or progressive, fully captures reality. As a corollary, we must teach children to seek facts and correct errors but also to forgive those who err, as we all do at one time or another. The future of American public education, and America, depends on it.
What Are School Culture Wars
Culture war battles in public schools are nothing new, as my friend Jonathan Zimmerman shows in his brilliant and often funny history, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools. Zimmerman recounts a range of controversies from 1920s disputes between Italian Americans and Norwegian Americans over whether Christopher Columbus or Leif Erickson discovered America, to more recent battles over how to cover Black History and sex education. Yet in recent years, partly due to social media and decreased trust in all U.S. institutions, from colleges to churches, culture wars have become both more frequent and nastier. Like many school board members, I’ve seen some.
Culture wars differ from normal political battles in at least four ways. First, they involve identity, with social groups battling other social groups over who we are. These questions are not easily settled by normal decision rules like splitting the difference over budgets because the stakes are less material than ideological and social. Compromisers face charges of disloyalty to their group identity when they are just practicing normal democracy.
Relatedly, these are zero-sum conflicts: to the degree one side wins, another loses. Agreements are fragile since some people want to keep on fighting. Even well-educated participants overlook facts that fail to resonate emotionally.
Third, particularly in the age of social media, conservative think tanks, and liberal foundations, conflicts often become national in scope. With variations, the same battles play out before local school boards in Missouri, Massachusetts, and Colorado.
Finally, key combatants often have no children in schools, and are thus less motivated to find acceptable compromises so that over the long run, we can all work together. Nonetheless, as taxpayers (and grant givers), they must be taken seriously.
Over the past five years, I have been involved in four school culture war skirmishes, only two of which made the papers.
Cowboys and Indians. Initially, our superintendent faced a few complaints about a school’s 50-year-old “Indian” mascot whose traditional rival was the crosstown “Cowboy.” Superintendents get complaints all the time, and this superintendent chose not to share these communications with this board member. Sensibly, his successor did inform board members and appointed a committee to examine school mascots. This had unanimous board backing, though initially, board members disagreed about whether to end human mascots entirely or enable school-level approaches. Quietly, a major foundation following a national script got involved, offering to pay for athletic uniform changes and other transition costs. Foundation staff did so for ideological and economic reasons, the latter since ending human mascots could help brand our city as . Just over 1% of our students are Native American. To my knowledge, no one solicited their views, which seemed to vary widely. A prominent alumnus who is a nearby tribal chief ignored the controversy.
Behind the scenes, I had staff calculate how our Native American students did academically, finding that they were generally reading and doing math better than their peers. I portrayed this achievement success as far more important to student futures than mascots—not a popular view. I also suggested a compromise. A mascot is supposed to unite a school, not divide it. The Indian divided its junior high while the popular Cowboy united its junior high, so I proposed changing the Indian while considering keeping the Cowboy, if students wanted to. The specter of the Cowboy “erasing” the Indian did not go well, losing in a 4-3 vote, virtually our only non-unanimous public vote in my five years on the school board. We school board members who lost the vote put the matter behind us as settled policy, because in democracy, and life, you can’t always get what you want. Others did not. This was one of several issues motivating more conservative candidates to run for the board, one of whom defeated me in 2020. (We never criticized each other during the campaign and have worked together since.)
ELA Wars over a Part-Time Indian and Anti-Racism. Ironically, not long after this Native American-related controversy, I faced another, this time on a charter board. Joining the national movement to assign more readings from minorities, an administrator assigned high school English Language Arts (ELA) students Sherman Alexie’s award-winning young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, inspired by Alexie’s experiences leaving his reservation each day to be the only Native American in a school 20 miles away. Part-Time Indian wrestled with themes of family conflict, death, identity, loyalty, and diversity in realistic, yet optimistic ways. Many whites and Native Americans initially opposed the main character’s decision to integrate his new school, but eventually backed him. Alexie’s content seemed real but raw, with sex, violence, substance abuse, racist jokes, and stereotypes of both Native Americans and whites. Alexie himself had recently admitted to sexual harassment, leading the American Library Association and others to revoke various awards.
I took the time to read the book. I found Part-Time Indian suitable for the secondary students we had reading it, so long as we warned parents and offered alternatives. Our students certainly saw racier content online, and any art, even the national anthem, offends someone. Public schools must educate citizens, and as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt show in The Coddling of the American Mind, exposure to a broad range of sometimes challenging material prepares students for life after graduation.
Others disagreed. A few parents on the right and left, including one board member, saw the book as too offensive, particularly the racist jokes told by some characters. School leaders and board members doubted that the novel’s contributions justified the controversy, so we told the administrator to cease assigning it. Boards get to make policy, including deciding which books are appropriate at what ages, tough decisions which should reflect community norms.
Around the same time, my district schools did what many schools do: work with a consultant to revamp our own ELA curriculum to make it “anti-racist.” That sounds nice, but in practice meant a largescale replacement of “Eurocentric” authors and marginalizing grammar. Considerable research like Jeanne Chall’s classic The Academic Achievement Challenge indicates that avoiding grammar does not affect elite students, who learn it at home, but damages prospects for people like me whose parents did not attend college, limiting our ability to communicate across class lines. Further, severing ties with English language literary traditions makes students less able to understand common human experiences across time, in short, less educated. I was delighted when our ELA teachers, nearly all of whom lean left, persuaded the administration to drop anti-racist reforms before they reached the board. Had they reached the school board, I would have voted no.
These two curricular controversies never made media or social media but are the sorts of school culture war battles that happen all the time.
The Troubles with 1619 and Critical Race Theory. My involvement with the New York Times’ controversial 1619 Project came as a professor, not a board member, starting when a local charter school fired a history teacher for using public school computers (a legal no-no) to rudely attack state legislators proposing to ban 1619 curricula in public schools. 1619 argues that the only thing unique about America is its history of slavery and racism.
In response, I argued in the dominant state newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, that the teacher should get a second chance (after being docked a paycheck) since he had apologized. We all make mistakes. Democracy requires the ability to forgive others so that they can speak (fairly) freely without fear. I helped the teacher in the job market. We should fight bad ideas with better ideas, not immediate termination.
At the same time, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette commentary and elsewhere, I argued that using the 1619 curricula was itself a bad idea, not because it might offend sensitive students or conservative parents, but because it is riddled with factual errors. Only four of 1619’s 31 contributors are historians, none of whom specialize in the U.S. Founding. It shows.
Historian Leslie Harris lamented in a Politico commentary that she had fact-checked the New York Times’s 1619 Project and “the Times ignored me.” The media outlet seemingly prioritized market share and ideology over accuracy. 1619’s errors are legion. The tragedy of slavery does not define America because it is not uniquely American. Sadly, slavery was practiced on every inhabited continent, in many countries well into the 20th century and in a few even today. The first enslaved Africans (and first documented slave revolt) came to what are now U.S. shores not in 1619, but in 1526. Historians who study the period agree that the founders did not fight the Revolutionary War to protect slavery. Most saw slavery as contradicting revolutionary ideals. Many (mistakenly) expected slavery to wither away once they banned the importation of enslaved peoples. Though a slave owner, the (sometimes hypocritical) Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence, proposed the gradual emancipation of slaves in his native Virginia. In 1784, Jefferson came within one vote of securing a congressional ban of slavery in the West, including lands that later became Alabama and Mississippi. This would have sent U.S. slavery into a death spiral. Jefferson lamented that his narrow defeat doomed “millions unborn.”
In a state legislative a year later, I helped an interest group that successfully opposed proposals to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) in Arkansas public schools. As 1619’s intellectual cousin, CRT has serious factual flaws, so it should not guide curricula. CRT dismisses the First Amendment as racist, and some CRT backers try to purge critics (like me). Despite this, I oppose most CRT bans as overbroad, restricting the best ideas as well as the worst, making teachers afraid to teach any ideas at all.
Rather than oppose CRT, public schools should support factually accurate history curricula—I’m helping develop one now, which will be free online. We should also use the First Amendment to beat bad ideas with better ideas. If we want U.S. democracy to continue, we must model such pluralistic debate for students.
School Culture War Lessons for School Boards
This culture war veteran sees six lessons for board members.
First, schools need to focus less on training workers and more on educating citizens capable of working with, working against, and sometimes (gracefully) losing to their fellow Americas. An inability to engage respectfully with opponents is a serious problem on the left in certain colleges and foundations, and on the right at certain media outlets and in society. We must teach pluralism, the idea associated with James Madison and other founders, that no one faction or ideology monopolizes truth; hence we should never censor opponents. On this theme, to repeat, educators might read The Coddling of the American Mind, which challenges schools to produce citizens who can tolerate and even love those who think differently.
Second, question experts. Experts (including me) are people. Our interests and ideologies sometimes lead us to overlook facts. There is more than one best way to teach content accurately, but accuracy should be key. As Bill Clinton used to say, spend a lot of time with people you disagree with. You’ll learn more that way.
Third, as former University of Richmond President Ronald Crutcher writes I Didn’t Know You Were Black: Navigating race on the road to leadership, when controversies arise, try to slow down the action so people have time to listen to each other. Agreements are possible.
Fourth, prioritize local voices. Experts can help, but teachers and parents in a school building know each other, so they have incentives to seek enduring agreements rather than endless political struggles. Inside schools, your opponent on one issue may become your ally on another. Consultants, foundations, and professors have national audiences, which leads them to impose their agendas in your schools. Some may want to fight just for the sake of fighting. We have too much of that.
Fifth, be forgiving. Everyone makes mistakes, even educators. Democracy can’t work if saying the wrong thing can get you fired or banned for life.
Finally, we need to teach U.S. history not compared to perfection but rather compared to other countries. Events like the January 6th insurrection, which threatened to undo our 230-year tradition of peaceful transitions of power, show that many Americans have no idea how unique America is. Our traditions of democratic processes, including lobbying rather than rioting, should unite all Americans whether their roots here date back 100 days or 100 generations. Schools must teach these commonalities. Our future as a nation depends on it.
Robert email@example.com) is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and leads the Project to Reimagine School Boards. He served on the Fayetteville School Board, 2015-20.