There are various ways to render the past in order to understand what has happened and why. Some historians favor a scrutiny of political and military leadership, and so regale their readers with accounts of decisive elections won, wars fought victoriously or to no successful outcome, all told with constant emphasis on geography or chronology: the familiar dates and places that are the stuff of history lessons in countless schools. No wonder, then, so many of us who think about the United States recall our presidents and generals, the laws and policies, the struggles they proposed; and yet all too often we overlook the cultural and moral assumptions that informed their lives, not to mention those of the citizens they addressed or commanded. Even intellectual historians can be similarly abstract, detached from the ordinary thinking of peopleall too taken, instead, with formulations, theories, paradigms entertained by ideologues of one kind or another.
In contrast, James W. Fraser, who teaches history at Northeastern University in Boston, wants us to think of America through the spiritual yearnings and concerns, if not outright worries and fears, of its diverse people. We know that those who crossed the ocean to settle in North America did so, commonly, for religious reasons. But soon enough we are invited in courses of study to forget Pascal’s "reasons of the heart" in favor of close attention to this presidency, or that burst of westward expansion. As a result, the country’s secular life is narrated and explored, while the deeply felt church-going loyalties of its people are not given the importance that is their due. The way people think about what matters (and most especially, what matters in the rearing and the education of their children) is ignored.
Here, then, is a nation caught, as this book’s title tells us, "between church and state"between a history of insistent secularism (worked into the Constitution itself) and a history of spirited and complex religious strivingwith no small amount of competitive struggle among the various factions, sects that eye one another worriedly. Under such circumstances, the schools have inevitably been places of struggle and strife as well as assimilationhence the discontent some parents have felt as they turn over their sons and daughters to teachers who offer instruction in reading and writing and arithmetic, but also say things, or propose discussions, whose cumulative impact becomes apparent well beyond school buildings. "I can tell my boy is picking up ideas from his lessons and what those teachers say," a Georgia mother once told me, not because she was concerned about the acquaintance her son was making with Charles Darwin and his strikingly suggestive interpretations of human history, but because of what she termed "an attitude." When I explored this matter and asked what she meant by that word, I heard this terse summary of a deeply felt hurt on both her part and her husband’s: "The principal and a teacher or two, they put on airs, and they see what we don’t have (the education they’ve got), but they don’t give us credit for being able to figure things out, just like they dowe’re all creatures under God, I want to let them know sometimes when they act big and important!"
It is too easy for some of us, hearing such comments, to brush them asideas this book’s author well knows. In a searching discussion of "textbook controversies," of evolution as it has prompted fear and disdain, Fraser is at pains to account for both sides of the "culture wars" that threaten various communities. Referring to a West Virginia educational (and spiritual) confrontation, he observes that "the issue in this case was not evolution but anger over texts that included profanity and that seemed to reflect an elite and sophisticated cosmopolitan world view out of keeping with the rugged individualism and fundamentalist religion of many of the county’s parents." He describes "an ugly divide" between those parents and the county school authorities. Indeed, he reminds us that such misunderstandings (if not outright hostility) are by no means rare across America todayand he won’t let the reader settle for a singular dismissal of narrow ignorance, or hateful suspiciousness, as they have, for sure, been asserted in connection with tensions between certain parents and the schools their children attend:
There are few better ways to fuel the increasing evils of fear and censorship than an imperious insistence on the rights of experts to decide without attending to local sensitivities and the concernsreligious or otherwiseof parents and other citizens. Arrogance on the part of an intellectual elite is one of the surest ways of building anti-intellectual movements.
So it has gone, this book keeps reminding us: Time and again, public education is a scene of young advancement (so much learning gained) but also of alarm, anger, shame (and therefore, the appeal of alternative schools, often church-connected and responsive to the beliefs and sentiments of particular families).