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Groucho, Not Karl: Insights from education historian Prof Jonathan Zimmerman

10 June 2024

By Dr Joseph Steinberg, Forrest Fellow, and Prof James Arvanitakis (pictured below).

When education historian Jonathan Zimmerman speaks, he does so with the practiced ease of someone who prefers to think in dialogues. Hypocrisy – in a sense, the failure to have a serious conversation with oneself – is his favourite target, and he likes to reward his favourites with good-natured ribbing.

There’s no room for following the party line when he’s leaning over the lectern, swimming just a little in his soft cotton shirt and an endearingly garish tie. It’s loosely knotted. His shoes look comfortable. Even the laces come in two stripes.

He starts off with a gag. According to Zimmerman, we academics now routinely practice Marxism of a kind: Groucho Marxism. We might not agree that the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle, but we can find a skewering of our lightly held convictions in Groucho’s famous dictum: ‘Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… Well, I have others!’

On this occasion, Zimmerman’s topic is a contentious one: our inconsistency when it comes to the freedom of expression.

If, like him, we’re the kind of liberal-minded individuals who might object to the banning of Beloved or Maus, why didn’t we speak up when they were censoring Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Why have conservative critics of hate speech been so quick to change their tune when confronted by campus encampments? When we set up safe spaces and include trigger warnings in our course materials, are we including identities by excluding ideas?

Zimmerman is devoted to evidence-based research. Even – especially! – when that evidence grates against his political leanings. It is this that compels his aversion to certain forms of diversity training.

‘I think diversity is our climate denial,’ he avers, now taking aim at the likes of those online staff training modules that do not demonstrably produce attitudinal change. He has a particular way of punctuating sarcasm with his fingertips; his wryest convictions take two hands to air.

Bias Incident Response Teams – BIRTS, like one half of the famous Sesame Street duo, for short – come in for a drubbing. For Zimmerman, they are a symptom of overreaching administrators.

‘What I don’t get is why we would want a suit to adjudicate! Students should direct their own education!’ He drives this point home by stepping backward into a banner, which falls toward him as if on cue. He catches it and reads its slogan, without missing a beat. ‘Watch out folks, there’s Informed Policy and Meaningful Solutions incoming!’

Zimmerman’s books include The Amateur Hour (2020), which draws on private letters, memoranda and student evaluations from 59 different archives to assemble a history of collegiate teaching, and Too Hot to Handle (2015), a rambunctious account of how sex education has been taught since the fin de siècle in schools all over the world. Most germane to his talk on this occasion, however, is the revised second edition of Whose America? (2022), in which he follows debates over contentious questions of religion, race, history and sex, as they have played out in American public school classrooms.

Drawing on the work of James Davison Hunter, a sociologist best known as the author of Culture Wars (1991), Zimmerman is well aware of the difficulty of fostering conversations between parties that do not share a common moral language. His book seeks less to persuade readers of a certain through-line than to document the conflicts that have flared over the content of school curricula.

Such conflicts constitute nothing less than a debate over the question of national character and identity. Zimmerman’s ambition, at every turn, is ‘to put that same debate to the students in our schools and let them make sense of it’. To do so in a partisan manner is to ‘once again betray the freedom that we claim to revere’.

Not that he claims to have all the answers. Far from it. His preferred mode is self-deprecation. ‘I just complain,’ he sums up, acknowledging his own preference for diagnosis over prescription. And why not? He’s laid the groundwork; others will find the means.

Later, I ask him about his tie. He’s sipping his beverage of choice: diet coke. (‘Because I’m an American!’) Even up close, I can’t quite make out what the pattern is. Birds? Dogs? Bears? He isn’t sure. ‘Every year, my mother-in-law buys me a new tie for Hanukkah. I have no idea what it is!’ Whatever is on it, it’s unmistakably the tie of a born teacher. The pattern doesn’t matter; he’s more interested in what we want to make of it.


Prof Jon Zimmerman is the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor in Education at University of Pennsylvania. His journey to Australia was jointly supported by the Forrest Research Foundation, UWA Senate and UWA’s Public Policy Institute. More information about Jon including a list of his publications (and a photo of one of his ties), can be found here: