Faculty Profiles

Jonathan Zimmerman

Professor, Educational History

"I try to challenge what my students have been taught to think, no matter what it is. It's not something that happens enough, and it makes us all, I think, a little less intelligent and less interesting."

The fact that education is political is something you should glory in if you’re an education professor,” says Jonathan Zimmerman, Associate Professor of Educational History, and Director of the History of Education Program. “That’s the good stuff. You shouldn’t cut off political discussion by establishing facile truths, because then you actually eviscerate politics from what should be a political discussion.”

Zimmerman tasks his students to look beyond any received ideas, political and otherwise, that they may bring to the classroom and to their own teaching. “I try to challenge what my students have been taught to think, no matter what it is. It’s not something that happens enough, and it makes us all, I think, a little less intelligent and less interesting.”

Beyond the classroom, Zimmerman’s frequent op-ed pieces in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic, and other popular magazines and newspapers challenge the rest of us to be more thoughtful about politics, culture, and education.

Zimmerman’s interest in the political aspects of education forms the backbone of his scholarship. His first book, Distilling Democracy: Alcohol Education in America’s Public Schools, 1880-1925 (University of Kansas, 1999), examines the way that cultural and political conflicts are mediated in schools through the lens of one particularly contentious issue: teaching children about alcohol during the temperance movement and prohibition.

Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Harvard University Press, 2002), Zimmerman’s second book, looks more broadly at the influence advocacy groups as varied as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Christian Coalition have wielded in determining what should be taught in schools, and how material should be presented to children.

“To what degree should the people that patronize a school be able to govern the messages a school puts out?” he asks. “I think it’s an interesting question.”

Zimmerman’s current project grows out his experience as a teacher in Nepal for the Peace Corps in the early 1980s. He plans to study Americans teaching in Asia, Africa, and Latin America during the 20th century. “Some of the issues are turning out to be similar to those I’ve explored before,” he explains, “but they play out in very different ways. Missionaries and missionary educators get caught up in church-state issues very much like the ones I describe in my second book.”


Written by Stacey Rees.

Jonathan Zimmerman's complete faculty bio.