Understanding the Culture War

where education and politics clash

cartoon from Phil Hands

cartoon from Phil Hands

While the phrase “Culture War” has existed since the late 1800s, it was popularized by sociologist James David Hunter with his book Culture Wars; the Struggle to Define America. Written in 1991, the book delves into ideological differences within America, specifically concerning issues such as abortion, gay rights, and the place for religion in schools. It’s noteworthy to acknowledge that these are the same issues being debated nearly 30 years later as the term ‘culture war’ has become a sort-of political buzzword that’s tossed around. Those who use it are typically right-wingers referring to liberal ideas seeping their way into public spaces, namely education. 

But how valid is that idea? How much of a threat do these “leftist-indoctrination” ideas really pose to education? Has the American school system suddenly decided to churn out socialist, anti-American, anti-religion anarchists like news outlets such as Fox News and The Daily Wire claim? 

A survey done by the RAND cooperation in January of 2022 shows that 48% of principals and 40% of teachers report political issues and opinions as a ‘job-related stressor’. Additionally, a survey by Teachers pay Teachers claims that the largest source of stress for teachers is politicians; not parents or other faculty members. 

The question that seems to appear during these kinds of conversations is whether or not this hostility is a result of specific school practices or rather the general political context of the time. 

When asked about H-F’s curriculum regarding sensitive topics, English teacher Kanoa Mulling said: “We are not supposed to teach anything that isn’t school board approved in any class greater than 20 students. There’s some leeway with articles, short stories, and other small bodies of work”

“I’ve never felt a strong pressure that my personal opinions should be omitted from the classroom, I know some who might feel that way, but I think it’s more of a fear of being chewed out, canceled, etc., rather than crossing a policy line,” Mulling stated.

Mulling hits the nail on the head with that statement. The truth of the matter is that all of the fearmongering and tension isn’t because of some education conspiracy or tweaked school curriculums, but rather, it’s a reflection of a larger cultural change in America. Teachers are more stressed out by politics than ever before because we are in a very different time politically than ever before. The rise of the internet along with 24-hour partisan cable news has led younger people more invested in politics than ever before, including people of color (Harvard Youth Poll).

Yet, there are still many people on the right who believe that left-wing ideals are, in some way, the result of education. “No Left Turn in Education” is an organization that fights against indoctrination in public schools. It was founded by Dr. Elana Fishbein, who was inspired to start the movement after receiving a letter from her children’s elementary school, informing her of a new curriculum that would include lessons on equity and race.

However, if you look at the issues that ‘No Left Turn in Education’ actively fights against, it’s hard to see where the problems lie. For example, the Critical Race Theory (CRT) comes up often as an example of the kind-of lunatic ideas that are floating around. But CRT is a 40-year-old idea that simply states race is a social construct and racism has been built into certain policies and legal systems. Nothing about the teachings of Derrick Bell and Richard Delgado, the originators of CRT, vilifies the white race, it simply frames history under a different lens than we’re used to in order to think more about how racism has impacted us. 

In fact, according to a survey, 88% of H-F students would be okay with implementing CRT into the classroom. 

Another issue that ‘No Left Turn in Education’ actively fights against is “sexualizing children”. However, if you look into the links provided on the website, what they claim as “sexualizing children” includes education on sexuality and STDs along with information on sexual harassment behaviors. How are any of these topics sexualizing children? Some of the arguments that organizations such as ‘No Left Turn in Education’ are absolutely in bad faith. For example, they’ll talk about how 40% of transgender individuals have attempted suicide (pubmed.gov) but claim it’s due to the dangers of the procedure and mental illness rather than the possibility that the outlook on trans people caused by society is the cause.

This is how the culture war can misconstrue arguments and create false information. The fight to prevail over liberal vs conservative ideas hasn’t led to a coalition of ideas, but rather, extremism and misunderstandings. 

Republicans don’t want you to actually look into policies and agendas. They just want you to live in a bubble of fear, ignorant of other perspectives and labeling everything that doesn’t come out of Tucker Carlson‘s mouth as “woke”.

There is a culture war in America. But that war doesn’t stem from educational institutions and it’s not the fault of teachers. It’s a reflection of 21st century political madness.