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Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman, 45

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Director of the history of education program &Professor of Education and History, Steinhardt School of Education and Professor of history in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University. 
Area of Research: Twentieth Century History of Education, Democratic Community and Education, Immigration History, The influence of schools on development 
Education: Ph.D., Department of History, Johns Hopkins University, 1993. 
Major Publications: Zimmerman is the author of Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century (Harvard University Press, 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). Jonathan Zimmerman JPGHe is currently working on Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory (forthcoming from Yale University Press, 2008). 
Zimmerman has comtributed academic articles to the Journal of American History, the Teachers College Record, and History of Education Quarterly, and has also contributed book chapters to academic anthologies. Some titles include: "Where the Customer is King: American Textbooks Since 1945," in A History of the Book in America, volume 5 (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming in 2007); "Sex, Drugs, and Right 'N' Wrong: Or, the Passion of Joycelyn Elders, M.D," in Donald Warren, ed. Moral and Civic Learning in America (Palgrave Press, 2006), 191-205; "Interchange: History in the Professional Schools," Journal of American History 92 (September 2005), 553-576; "Brown-ing the American Textbook: History, Psychology, and the Origins of Modern Multiculturalism," History of Education Quarterly 44 (Spring 2004), 45-69 (Special Edition on the 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education); "Ethnics Against Ethnicity: European Immigrants and Foreign-Language Instruction, 1890-1940," Journal of American History, 2002; "Each 'Race' Could Have its Heroes Sung': Ethnicity and the History Wars in the 1920s," Journal of American History, 2000; "Beyond Double Consciousness: Black Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa, 1961-1971," Journal of American History, 1995, among others. 
Awards: Zimmerman is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Distinguished Lecturer, Organization of American Historians, 2004-07; 
Fulbright Senior Specialists Roster, Council for International Exchange of Scholars, 2005-present; 
Honorable Mention, Best Article Award, History of Education Society, 2004, for "Ethnics Against Ethnicity: European Immigrants and Foreign Language Instruction, 1890-1940," Journal of American History 88 (March 2002), 1383-1404; 
Outstanding Book Award, History of Education Society, 2003, for Whose America?: presented to the author of the best book in the history of education; 
Teaching Excellence Award, Steinhardt School of Education, New York University, 2003: presented to the outstanding teacher in the school; 
New Scholar's Award, American Educational Research Association (Division F), 2001, for Distilling Democracy: presented to the author of the best first book in the history of education; 
National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, 1999-2000; 
Daniel R. Griffiths Research Award, School of Education, New York University, 1999: Presented to the faculty member who produces the best research; 
Henry Barnard Prize, History of Education Society, 1991: Presented to the best graduate student essay in the history of education; 
Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, U.S. Department of Education, 1988. 
Additional Info: 
Zimmerman has comtributed over 150 oped pieces in popular newspapers and magazines, including: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, New Republic, U.S. News and World Report, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Daily News, and New York Post
Formerly Assistant Professor of History, West Chester University, August 1992-May 1996; Social Studies Teacher, Southeast Middle School, Baltimore City Public Schools, 1987-1988; Social Studies Teacher, South Burlington School District, South Burlington, Vermont, 1986-1987, and English Teacher/ Teacher Trainer, U.S. Peace Corps, Nepal, 1983-1985.

Personal Anecdote

I'm not a religious person, in the usual sense of the term, but I've come to believe in epiphanies. I had my first one about 15 years ago, when I was doing my doctoral research. As a former Peace Corps volunteer and public school teacher, I entered graduate school with the vague idea of writing a dissertation about education. Drug and alcohol instruction seemed like a good topic, because I knew-from my own experience-that it was mostly a failure. So I resolved to uncover the roots of this evil phenomenon, as historians are wont to do, and to explain How We Went So Very Wrong. Along the way, of course, I would also demonstrate How I Was So Very Right. Historians like to do that, too.

As I soon discovered, public school alcohol education was the brainchild of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. So I buried myself in WCTU journals and archives, exploring how these dedicated but misguided ladies (as I saw them) spread the good word about Demon Rum. Then, a few months into my research, I unearthed a letter from F. C. Atwell. Like me, Atwell was a career educator; even more, he was also a bitter critic of the WCTU. "If my child had scarlet fever, it would be the height of folly for me to call in a physician and demand that he cure him by the use of cod liver oil," Atwell wrote, in an attack on "meddling" temperance women. "Those who have studied neither pedagogy nor psychology should be content to leave the details and the method of achieving the desired result to those who have."

I squinted into the microfilm reader, struggling to decipher Atwell's unwieldy handwriting. More than that, though, I struggled against myself. Denouncing the WCTU put me in league with F. C. Atwell, who simply did not believe that laypeople-and, especially, laywomen-should have any say in public school curricula. And that was not a place where I wanted to be. So I rethought the entire project and-eventually-my entire philosophy, about education and everything else.

That was my first epiphany. I've experienced others, too, in every book that I've written. The epiphany comes on suddenly, shocking you out of your smug self-assuredness. It humbles you with its force and its logic. And, most of all, it makes you surprised. In my second book, about debates over history and religion in the school curriculum, I was surprised to find that most advocates for "prayer in the public schools" before the 1960s were liberal or even radical Christians, not conservative or fundamentalist ones. In my third book, I was surprised to find that the "cultural sensitivity" of overseas American missionaries and teachers-including, at one time, myself-masked a profoundly arrogant set of assumptions about culture itself. And I was surprised, throughout my career, at how many of my questions and answers concerned matters of faith and God. Like I said, I'm not a religious person. But I've come to understand the immense role of luck and grace in my own life, especially in the history that I write. And that might be my biggest epiphany of all.


By Jonathan Zimmerman

  • For America's overseas schoolteachers, the rise of the culture concept spelled the demise of American certainty, and, for some, of American superiority. In the early twentieth century, when di- chotomous notions of "civilization" and "savagery" dominated their Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century JPGdiscourse, the teachers could speak confidently about transmitting "virtue" or "knowledge" to people who lacked them. By the 1930s, however, the notion of America as a distinct culture-with its own val- ues, symbols, and beliefs-began to penetrate public consciousness. It would reach a crescendo in the early postwar period, when studies of an allegedly exceptional American "national character" crowded best- seller lists. To square the idea of a unique American culture with the nation's new global powers and responsibilities, commentators like Henry Luce hypothesized that American values were actually cultural universals: in the American Century, Luce proclaimed, the United States would help other countries achieve the self-evident truths that had bathed its own birth. For American teachers in actual classrooms, though, this feat of ideological gymnastics often proved impossible. Im- bued with the concept of America-as-a-culture, the teachers saw first- hand that many peoples around the globe simply did not share their own values and beliefs. So they started to ask hard questions about whose values-and whose beliefs-should govern the world, and why. -- Jonathan Zimmerman in "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century"
  • About Jonathan Zimmerman

  • ""What enables Zimmerman, a Professor of Education and History at New York University, to control such a large canvas of time and space is his focus on the classroom and the experience of teaching - from philosophy to methods to discipline. What makes the prose so readable is his use of primary sources - teachers' letters and memoirs primarily, but also quotes from educational administrators, both American and foreign, as well as historians, social scientists, and occasionally celebrities like Teddy Roosevelt." -- David Espey, University of Pennsyvania about "Innocents Abroad American Teachers in the American Century"
  • "This charming history of the missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers, and other idealists who taught in the four corners of the world over the past 100 years is billed by the author and publisher as an examination of our shifting understanding of "culture"...For readers interested in education, though, it offers an even more delicious treat: countless scenes of progressive teachers thwarted in their efforts to export dubious ideas." -- Education Next about "Innocents Abroad American Teachers in the American Century"
  • Zimmerman examines the culture wars that have been fought in America's schools since the Civil War and divides what is commonly held to be one battle into two distinct conflicts, each with its own unique beginnings... By placing these conflicts within their historical context, the author leads readers to a deeper understanding of the issues and how they have influenced and continue to influence public school instruction. [A] landmark piece of scholarship. -- Mark Alan Williams, Library Journal reviewing "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools"
  • Zimmerman argues that the educational wars over religion in the schools and the content of history and social studies courses are separate battles with different stakes, and that the former have been more contentious than the latter. He offers histories of both since the 1920s to illustrate his point and concludes with suggestions about how the religious wars might be resolved. This is a thought-provoking and well-written book...[It] is essential reading for anyone concerned with these issues. -- M. Engel, Choice reviewing "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools"
  • Zimmerman does make a convincing argument. Examples of history textbooks published today substantiate his claim of a diversity coexisting with dullness. So, what exactly does Zimmerman's position mean for the classroom? This book calls for a reexamination of how U.S. history is taught...This call for presenting multiple perspectives in American history classrooms is a timely one. -- Athena Liss, Social Education reviewing "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools"
  • Jonathan Zimmerman has written a terrific book. Beautifully written and deeply informed, Whose America? addresses issues in American education, politics and identity that are enormously important. It is the best study yet done of political battles about curriculum, how political horse-trading on all sides has shaped the nature and substance of textbook versions of history, and it has great relevance to debates currently raging about what is taught in schools, in matters of facts and values. On these inflammatory subjects, Zimmerman's even-handed treatment of all sides of these deeply divisive issues is one of the book's great strengths, and offers a lesson in itself to future historians. -- Jeffrey Mirel, Professor of Educational Studies and History, University of Michigan reviewing "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools"
  • Jonathan Zimmerman's provocative book reminds us that the passionately argued "culture wars" in American public schools have a long history in America's public schools. Whose America? illuminates those battles, old and new, with impressive scholarship and story-telling, and deep understanding of the combatants on all sides. -- Diane Ravitch, Research Professor, New York University School of Education reviewing "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools"
  • Whose America? is original in its historical argument, thorough in its scholarship, lively in its style, and timely in its subject. It cuts through the polarized rhetoric of the culture wars and shows the virtue of controversy: "debating our differences may be the only thing that holds us together." -- David Tyack, Professor of Education and History, Stanford University reviewing "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools"
  • "Should public school pupils be indoctrinated against alcohol and drugs? Or should they be taught to think? As Zimmerman shows, these important questions are not new. By focusing on tensions between science and morality and between democracy and experts, his insightful book makes valuable contributions to the histories of education, science, public policy, and the Progressive Era." -- W.J.Rorabaugh, University of Washington reviewing "Distilling Democracy: Alcohol Education in America's Public Schools, 1880-1925"
  • "I took two classes with Professor Zimmerman. He's amazing! You will learn more about how to think than what to think."..."Professor Zimmerman is soo great! He is really helpful and interesting, and makes it very clear that he cares what you think. Definitely take his class if you can. You'll love him!" -- Anonymous Students