You may have heard that there’s a culture war in education. Listen to leaders of the National Education Association and they’ll tell you that this culture war amounts to little more than a “manufactured outrage” designed to foment a minority of disgruntled voters into political action. It creates a “divisive and polarizing climate.” It’s a distraction from more pressing issues and practical solutions.
Allow me to offer a counter narrative: The culture war matters, it’s popular, and it’s inevitable.
In fact, it matters a lot—as much as, if not more than, the technocratic squabbles over testing metrics, data analysis, teacher accountability, charter policies, or pay scales. These policies adjust the dials and doohickies on the ship of state. The culture war is the rudder that determines its direction.
Behind the anger over “banning books” or school board protests are fundamental questions: What books should schools include and thereby endorse on their curricula? What’s the nature of masculinity and femininity? What’s the role of parents in determining school policy and curricula? How should we frame American history? To wave away these debates and the news stories in which they manifest isn’t high-minded idealism. It’s a refusal to engage in the issues that shape not just what kind of citizens students will be, but what kind of culture and country we will have.
The largely technocratic debates of the last four decades are actually something of a historical anomaly. For most of American history, education debates focused on questions of values, such as the place of Christianity in schools, rather than the minutiae of policy. The common school movement, the era that established our public system, justified itself as a means to assimilate Irish-Catholic immigrants for goodness’ sake. Only after the influential report “Nation at Risk” did the left and right set aside their cultural fights to form an education reform coalition.
While it lasted, the post–“Nation at Risk” coalition won important victories: Charter schools bloomed like azaleas, the National Assessment of Education Progress provided reformers a metric with which to compare school achievement, unions lost their vice-grip on our schools, and accountability measures applied pressure to failing schools.
Even so, many teachers grew disgruntled with the way in which classrooms had to contort themselves to fit a new testing regime, while many rural and suburban families felt irrelevant to the movement. What’s more, as Checker Finn and Rick Hess astutely summarize in National Affairs: “Achievement increased only modestly in the 2000s, then plateaued in the 2010s. Little or no progress, overall or on closing racial gaps, had been made since George W. Bush turned the Oval Office over to Obama.” The focus on bipartisanship and fine-tuned policy solutions proved disappointing.
That’s not to say that arguing over the minutiae of policy or pedagogical approaches is unimportant. The current push for phonics is perhaps the most significant movement in education at the moment. But we cannot pretend that the esoteric debates of stuffy think tank wonks or mainstream journalists are somehow more important than the value-laden, cultural concerns of parents or even many teachers.
Which brings me to my second point: Contrary to popular belief, the culture wars are popular. After the 2022 midterms, many decried conservative wins in local school boards. At the New Yorker, Jessica Winter lamented that activists capitalized on a “manufactured culture war” to win seats. Elsewhere, the NEA suggests that “a tiny but extremely vocal minority of voices is determined to turn our classrooms into battlegrounds for their vicious culture wars.” Parental activists are only “small clusters of hate” opposing broader school unity.
What are the data on this? A New York Times and Siena College Research Institute poll found, for example, that Americans think that elementary schoolers should not learn about gender identity or sexual orientation—arguably the most heated controversy in education at the moment. Similarly, a majority of Floridians, including a majority of Democrats, supported Governor Ron Desantis’s parental rights’ act. It turns out that testing isn’t really unifying. Cultural battles that champion our country and contest politics in the classroom are. Where the press suggests that these policies are controversial, they are in fact big-tent policies with broad appeal.
Indeed, Republican politicians have been savvy about finding the reasonable middle ground on many of these culture wars. Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin, whose stunning 2021 victory brought so much attention to “parental rights” as a winning issue, famously called for teaching American history, warts and all—a very popular position. He just didn’t want it to be nothing but warts, as some on the left seemed to have been calling for. Likewise for Governor Ron DeSantis’s take on the A.P. African American Studies draft curriculum, which originally included divisive, far-left material that was far out of the mainstream.
Voters care about the culture. They care about what worldview the books in classrooms push or if their children are receiving a positive or negative view of their country. So when politicians or journalists suggest that the culture war is red herring, what they’re really communicating is that they don’t care about what their voters care about—or even worse, that those who do care about these issues are somehow malicious in their intention.
Finally, the culture wars are inevitable. Our public schools are just that: public institutions. They bring together families of every race, creed, religion, and class and ask them to educate their children together. In Federalist #10, James Madison argued that factions are “sown into the nature of man.” With incompatible worldviews and interests, conflict in politics is inevitable. Why should we expect our public schools, institutions controlled by elections and politics, to be any different?
James Madison continues on to argue that the only way to prevent faction and conflict is to either bring together only those with perfectly aligned worldview and interests, an impossibility in a system of neighborhood schools, or to stifle any opinions and factions outside the majority, an injustice. In other words, if we’re not fighting the culture war—actively arguing over what to include in curricula, how to frame our history, the appropriate control for parents or teachers to have—then in practice, that simply means one political faction directs the schools and the other simply bends a knee.
If we’re looking to turn down the heat, then subsidiarity and federalism, not the refusal to engage in certain debates, is the path out of controversy. A local public school making local decisions among local teachers and parents may find more agreement and civility than federalized battles in which affluent Californians, rural Floridians, urban Chicagoans, and suburban Wisconsinites all need to find common ground. Keeping decisions in school boards where they belong and out of governors’ mansions or the halls of Congress would do much to turn down the heat.
Ultimately, I find the concept of the “culture war” to be something of a misnomer. Rarely do those who use it define it, but instead apply it as a label to controversies and issues that they deem unimportant. In the West, we have been arguing about what our children ought to learn since Socrates laid out his perfect society in Plato’s Republic. Cheapening the importance of this culture war, especially in education, isn’t high-minded. It’s ignorant.