Summer Reading: An Interview with Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education and history, is the director of Steinhardt’s History of Education Program.  His most recent book is Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education (Princeton, 2015).

What are you reading?

I’m reading a book by Leon Burr Richardson called A Study of the Liberal Arts College, written in 1924. It’s for my new book project on the history of college teaching in the United States. Richardson was a professor of chemistry at Dartmouth during the era that many American academicians begain to prize research over teaching. But he was deeply ambivalent and critical of that shift, which threatened (Richardson believed) to destroy the moral purpose and character of undergraduate education.

Your last book was Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education. What’s the path from researching the history global sex education to investigating college teaching?  Were you thinking about morality?

*All* education is moral, for reasons that Aristotle spelled out thousands of years ago; whether implicitly or explicitly, any educational choice or action reflects some kind of vision of a “good life.” In the sex ed book, I examined the ways that moral assumptions suffused sex education..which is precisely what has made it such a difficult and controversial subject, especially in our so-called age of “globalization.”

What troubles me about undergraduate teaching — and what lured me to the subject — was the way that older languages of morality have fallen away. It used to be a given that we taught college students in order to improve their “character,” that is, to make them into more thoughtful, reasonable, and decent human beings. Now, what is the purpose?  Most of our contemporary answers have to do with preparing students for the workplace, which reflects a very different kind of moral project — with, I suspect, very different implications for the classroom. I want to investigate how college teaching changed, as its focus shifted from the fate of students’ souls–especially in the world to come — and their job prospects in this one.

What did you take out of the library today?

I’m in the very early stages of the project, so I’m reading memoirs and other contemporary published accounts before I turn to more hard-to-get archival sources. Teaching turns out to be an extremely difficult thing to document, especially in retrospect. How do you know what happened inside of a classroom? The published material — accessed easily via Bobst Library’s excellent catalogue — will only take me so far, which is why I’ll be relying on letters, diaries, and student evaluations (which date back to the 1920s, I’ve discovered!).

I was also taking out a few books in service of my other ongoing project, as an oped columnist and radio commentator. Every week or so, I write a piece that examines a contemporary issue in historical perspective; I do the same in my twice-a-month radio spot on WHYY, Philadelphia’s National Public Radio affiliate. So this morning I took out books on the history of transgenderism, the vice-presidency, and American fatherhood…in preparation for possible pieces on Caitlyn Jenner, Joe Biden, and Father’s Day.