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Social Studies Opinion

The ‘Wedge Issues’ of 2004

By Gene I. Maeroff — January 07, 2004 5 min read
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The battles of the Culture War will pit Democrats against Republicans as they fight over the shape of America's future.

The nation’s public schools could very well be dragged into the political bickering when the great “wedge issues” that divide the blue states from the red states on the electoral map heat up, as they inevitably will, during 2004. Such an eventuality would have implications for educational policies and practices as candidates at the national, state, and local levels stake out positions on questions involving patriotism, religion, and sexual mores.

The battles of the Culture War, which revolve so extensively around this triumvirate of issues, will pit Democrats against Republicans as they fight over the shape of America’s future. Invocations of God, country, and family by some candidates may reverberate through the corridors of the nation’s schools and colleges.

The Pledge of Allegiance is already in play as the result of a federal appeals court finding the “under God” phrase unconstitutional, a 2002 ruling that prompted more than 100 members of the U.S. House of Representatives to assemble on the steps of the Capitol to flaunt their defiance by reciting the pledge. This verdict was a “two-for,” shoving issues of both patriotism and religion to the fore.

Mere mention of the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled decades ago—ironically, in the midst of World War II—that schools could not compel pupils to salute the flag may serve only to exacerbate the dispute. Forgotten in dusty archives is the warning of Justice Robert H. Jackson in his majority opinion in the case, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, that government cannot prescribe “what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or any other matters of opinion.”

Given the polarization in today’s America, it might take only a few news reports pointing out that immigrant students in some schools around the country refuse to stand and recite the pledge—with or without mention of God—to register on the radar of candidates searching for attention. The United States could experience its own version of the furors that are stirring outrage in Europe. In France, for instance, female Muslim students triggered a cause célèbre by wearing headscarves in schools, and, in Italy, dissidents demanded that schools remove crucifixes from walls to which they have been affixed for generations.

The United States could experience its own version of the furors that are stirring outrage in Europe.

Disputes over religion already lurk just below the surface in an era of American education when conservatives are elated and liberals are chagrined that the Supreme Court decided in 2002 that government may choose to give students vouchers to attend parochial schools. Similarly, the growing use of public school premises for meetings of student religious groups provides a bit more tinder for partisan fires. Arguments over the separation of church and state could erupt among the candidates at almost any moment this year. Just last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case revolving around whether a state can deny aid to a student majoring in pastoral ministry. Some observers maintain that a judgment approving such aid could open the door to requiring that all voucher programs include parochial schools.

It is only a matter of time before those who denounce the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision restricting prayer in school push more vigorously for a reversal. To pray or not to pray, that is the question. The pursuit of a reversal on the school prayer ruling already has an analogy in the incremental effort to erode the Roe v. Wade verdict of 1973, which affirmed the legality of abortion. For a more fiery dispute, throw into the volatile mix the fact that three-quarters of a century after the Scopes trial, evolutionists and creationists still duel (look at Kansas or Ohio) over how to teach biology. You might say that God is in the details.

The meaning of patriotism, especially at a time when young Americans close in age to students in the nation’s high schools and colleges continue to put their lives at risk, could readily devolve into a controversy over how to teach about this value. But can teachers safely lead discussions of the Patriot Act in civics classrooms even as Democrats criticize this piece of legislation and Republicans defend it? And how are social studies teachers to deal with students’ questions about the U.S. invasion of Iraq? In the 1970s, many teachers simply avoided the Vietnam hot potato by not handling it.

A flap arose in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when the National Education Association was roundly condemned for promulgating curriculum units that, according to critics, leaned too far toward promoting the teaching of tolerance. This episode indicates that there may not be much room for nuance in teaching about the war on terror that now dominates the agenda of the federal government.

The history of education is replete with examples of misfortune befalling those who deviate from the patriotic norm. During World War I, for instance, Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, moved to dismiss professors who did not wholeheartedly embrace the American cause in Europe. And I won’t even go into the chilling effect of McCarthyism on educational institutions and individual teachers and professors during the Cold War years of the 1950s.

What might occur if candidates start applying litmus tests to how schools deal with patriotism, religion, and sexual mores?

Controversies stemming from the third wedge issue, sexual mores, may be less likely to manifest themselves in schools. But given two court decisions in 2003 declaring, first, the unconstitutionality of a ban on gay sexual behavior in the privacy of one’s bedroom and, then, the right of homosexuals to marry, it is not difficult to imagine candidates trying to score points at the expense of the schools. After all, there was the case last month of a 7-year-old boy in Louisiana who was referred to a school clinic for telling a classmate that he had two mothers and that gay means “when a girl likes a girl.”

It would not take much prying by candidates to unearth details that could prove explosive about how school districts treat homosexuality in their family-life curricula. It was in the 1990s that a curriculum unit presenting examples of families with gay and lesbian parents helped cost the job of a New York City schools chancellor who doubly offended opponents with his plan to distribute condoms in school health clinics.

Thus, the assessments that accompany the No Child Left Behind Act could turn out to produce a mild political quarrel compared with what might occur if candidates start applying litmus tests to how schools deal with patriotism, religion, and sexual mores.

Gene I. Maeroff is a senior fellow at the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, at Teachers College, Columbia University. His most recent book is A Classroom of One: How Online Learning Is Changing Our Schools and Colleges, which will be published in a softcover edition in April.

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