Q&A With Jonathan Zimmerman on Opinion Writing for Newspapers

Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of history and education, is the author of numerous scholarly books, including Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory (Yale, 2009), Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century (Harvard, 2006), Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Harvard, 2002), and Distilling Democracy: Alcohol Education in America’s Public Schools, 1880-1925 (Kansas, 1999).

But he’s also a prolific writer of opinion pieces for newspapers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, Providence Journal Bulletin, and others.

Often publishing two or more columns a week, Zimmerman applies his cogent historical analysis to various issues that are in the news. Recently, he’s written on the Texas decision to re-cast its history textbooks with a conservative slant, whether public schools should be giving out laptops, why reading “banned” books is good for students, and why the GOP needs to rid its party of paranoids who cling to bizarre theories about Barack Obama.

Always enlightening and entertaining, Zimmerman’s columns condense into 800 words a valuable historical perspective on timely issues. We asked Zimmerman to tell us a little about his process of writing for mainstream media.

Q: Why do you like writing for newspapers?

A: The main reason is that it broadens my intellectual horizons. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, my columns generate thousands of responses from people who are *not* university professors. So I encounter a much wider array of opinion than I would if I restricted my conversations to fellow academicians. I also feel that I have a duty to this lay public. My society invested a huge amount in me, so I could gain knowledge . . . and I have a responsibility to share that knowledge, as best I can, with the widest possible audience.

Q: Your pieces are generally a reaction to something in the news, from pop culture to politics. How do you select your topics?

A: I try to choose a contemporary issue that lends itself to historical analysis. Most of the time, we’re so caught up our day-to-day lives–professional, political, and personal– that we blind ourselves to important precedents and patterns. By giving readers little pieces of the past, I try to shed some new light on the present.

Q: How long does it take you to write a piece?

A: It depends. Like babies, some are born very quickly and some take a longer time. I’d say four hours is my average.

Q: You often end your pieces with a prescription of some kind or a call to action. Do you think any of your intended readers follow your advice?

A: Probably not! My experience with email suggests that most people read a piece to confirm opinions, not to hold these opinions up to scrutiny. But who knows? Perhaps the people who choose to email me aren’t representative of my audience.

Q: What sorts of mail to you get in response to your pieces?

A: It’s usually “Wrong again, Professor Zimmerman!” or (less often) “Right on, Professor Zimmerman.” I really don’t think I change many minds. But I do know that my own mind has been changed–many times–by the points that people raise in response to my columns.

Q: What do your history colleagues think of your forays into journalism?

A: Most historians don’t write for the popular press, nor do they pay much attention to colleagues who do. And that’s OK.

Q: Writing for newspapers and for academic journals is very different. What parallels have your found between the two forms?

A: There are more parallels than most people imagine. I think writing for the papers has made me a much better academic, because it forces you to distill your big point into a small number of words. Professors can be REALLY verbose, if you haven’t noticed! And op-ed writing provides a nice check on that.

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