Who We Are
Early in “The History Wars,” senior editor Trey Popp’s cover story on Jonathan Zimmerman, the education historian and Penn GSE professor points to two signature failures of American education “writ large”—too many of us have never learned to discriminate between information and disinformation and too few of us are able to look beyond our own partisan bubbles to truly engage with and debate those of different views.
For examples of the former, witness anti-vaxxers, climate change denialists, and followers of QAnon, he says; for the latter, consider the mutual incredulity on the part of Trump and Biden supporters that tens of millions of people could possibly have voted for the other guy.
Zimmerman is the author of eight books on different aspects of American education (or, better to say, education and America). He is also a regular—and sometimes infuriating, to liberal sensibilities—opinion columnist. His newest book is a history of college teaching, The Amateur Hour (a ninth, Free Speech: And Why You Should Give a Damn, is forthcoming this spring), but he and Trey spent most of their time talking about an earlier book, Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools, which recounts a variety of textbook battles throughout the 20th century and into the present.
In Zimmerman’s view, the ways that events in American history have been subject to repeated reinterpretation, and which groups have gotten to be included in the nation’s narrative and on what terms, have shaped—and helped polarize—attitudes about who and what America is. The effects can be seen in battles over Civil War monuments and statues of Christopher Columbus, while the inclusion of previously marginalized groups in the “pantheon” of heroes has brought with it a softening of conflicts and smoothing over of imperfections, to the detriment of historical understanding.
The deadly attack on the US Capitol on January 6 may be the ultimate demonstration of Zimmerman’s comments about disinformation and a blinkered world view—with incomprehension of others’ preference, abetted by a campaign of lies about election fraud, resulting in a violent attempt to “Stop the Steal.”
The insurrection temporarily interrupted the certification of the Electoral College vote by Congress and also diverted media attention from the runoff election drama in Georgia that had transfixed the nation the night before—as noted in “Calling It,” Alyson Krueger C’07’s article on NBC News director of elections and Penn political science professor John Lapinski. (“It was kind of surreal,” Lapinski says, of watching the network cut away to the Capitol.)
Lapinski cut his teeth as an election analyst in the presidential election of 2000, and has been running the NBC News Decision Desk since 2013, where he has also involved Penn faculty, staff, and students. One 2020 intern compared election night to “that feeling in your chest when you are on a roller coaster.” As it turned out, the ride lasted until Saturday, November 7, when Lapinski called Pennsylvania for Biden.
In 2020, changes to voting procedures sparked by the pandemic, combined with President Trump’s refusal to concede, complicated the analysis of election returns and raised the stakes for reaching the “99.5 percent” confidence level Lapinski says is needed to declare a winner. But while those particular circumstances may change, he and other observers speculate that closely divided, multiday vote count elections could become the pattern in the future.
The power of education in the face of oppression comes through clearly in Andrew Feiler W’84’s new book of photographs documenting the Jim Crow–era Rosenwald schools, a selection of which we offer in “Black Education Before Brown,” with text by JoAnn Greco. Funded by Sears Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald, these schools educated hundreds of thousands of African American students—some of whom Feiler photographed on site, and others of whom include icons like John Lewis and Maya Angelou.
Finally, the vagaries of history and questions of identity also figure in Julia M. Klein’s profile of physician and writer Jason Karlawish GM’99, “The Humanist Is In.” Karlawish is the codirector of the Penn Memory Center and author of The Problem of Alzheimer’s: How Science, Culture, and Politics Turned a Rare Disease into a Crisis and What We Can Do About It.
Karlawish suggests that work on Alzheimer’s might have advanced further and faster if the disease’s identification in Germany early in the 20th century had not been succeeded by that country’s later history. In the piece, he also calls for mending the historical split in the Alzheimer’s field “pitting care versus cure” and shares stories of his “teachers”—individuals and their caretakers coping with the stigma, loss of autonomy, and other devastating impacts of the condition.
—John Prendergast C’80