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Through Joshua Gap: Curricular Control and the Constructed Community

by David Post - 1992

Analysis of data on a conflict between the Joshua Gap (California) school district and local parents over the district's decision to utilize a multiculturally oriented textbook series suggests that contrasting images of the local and larger U.S. community, and contrasting views about the role of schooling, contributed to the conflict. (Source: ERIC)

Lodged in the foothills of California’s San Bernadino Mountains, seventy miles east of downtown Los Angeles, “Joshua Gap” was merely a hamlet prior to the 1960s. Only during that decade, and despite the dominance of rich apple and orange orchards, did the metropolis of southern California start making broad inroads.1 Commencing in the sixties, and continuing to the present time, several waves of immigration began to lend Joshua Gap a much more suburban character, with the 1988 decision by the local water district and area voters to build a sewage system regarded as a turning point. In the following year residents also voted to incorporate themselves as a city. Notwithstanding these recent developments, Joshua Gap today differs noticeably from other Los Angeles suburbs. Its first mayor is owner of the town’s livestock feed store, and visitors are often struck by the large concentration of churches in the settlement, as well as the many homes with biblical quotations and flags posted outside the doors. In a state where a majority of the population soon will comprise “minority” ethnic groups, residents in Joshua Gap are largely “white Anglo-Saxon protestants” (a feature that, as we will see, does not go unappreciated). The town’s fruit trees, fresh air, and the occasional chill of its thousand-meter elevation remind residents of a rural and even an agrarian past. However, as developers move on the few remaining orchards, tract housing is appearing, along with heavier traffic and the first smog.

In 1990 Joshua Gap experienced one of the most vitriolic political conflicts in the recent memory of California educators. Superficially, this conflict involved a decision by the local school board to adopt the Impressions reading series published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The series—previously approved for use by the California Department of Education—is a “whole language” (i.e., literature-based) approach to reading, and one that is deliberately multicultural in its content. As many as a thousand parents assembled at board meetings throughout the year to demand the immediate withdrawal of these books, which were labeled “anti-family,” “against traditional values,” “unpatriotic,”” “atheistic,” and “satanic.” In the wake of the conflict, neighbors refused to speak with one another, even when in some cases they were members of the same church. Vandalism and threats of violence marked a campaign to remove Impressions from the Joshua Gap public schools. Local leaders of the California Teachers’ Association threatened legal action if books were removed, seeing opposition to them not only as attempted censorship but also as an attack on teacher professionalism and autonomy, since Joshua Gap teachers themselves had piloted and freely elected to adopt the series. Concurrently, hundreds of families who opposed Impressions withdrew their children from the district, placing them in local Christian academies. Facing the Impressions controversy, the school district appointed a committee of parents, teachers, and administrators to investigate opponents’ charges about the books and to bring a recommendation to the school board. On January 15, 1990—following the recommendation from that committee—the school board voted 4 to 1 to keep Impressions, but, by way of compromise, also to offer alternative classrooms with other reading materials for the children of disgruntled parents, In response, a broadly based opposition movement then collected over 5,000 signatures (20 percent of the district’s registered voters) on a petition to hold a special recall election of two school board members and, thus, to remove the books completely from Joshua Gap’s schools. On November 6, 1990, the issue went to the voters. By a 58 to 42 percent margin, the board members retained their seats.

This article focuses not on the overt political tactics of the school district and opposition parents but, rather, on one underlying dimension of the confrontation. For, central to this conflict, there is a deeper dispute stemming from competing images of the community in Joshua Gap and, by extension, the larger American community. Schooling and images of the community are closely linked in all societies, past and present. A child’s separation from the family and subsequent placement in relation to a larger communal grouping is a universal characteristic of the ritual process.2 In societies like ours, with a high degree of public ambivalence over who governs the education process, we expect a corresponding ambivalence about which community a child is to be socialized or acculturated into. This ambivalence is expressed in an age-old dilemma posed by theorists in all occidental traditions of education: to teach children to be good community members or to be free citizens? To carry on particular cultural values or consciously to choose between alternative community values? Amy Gutmann has put the matter starkly: “It is impossible to educate children to maximize both their freedom and their civic virtue.”3 The unresolved tensions between these two possibilities surface in most recent case law related to governance of the school curriculum. The judicial process, along with political theorists such as Gutmann, is aimed at accommodating rather than eliminating such tension, which may be integral to democratic debate and governance.4 The purpose of the present research, however, is to inquire more deeply into the origins of this tension rather than to suggest ways of accommodating it.5 What is the origin as Gutmann sees it? She notes that democratic education cannot base itself on a presumed moral autonomy on the part of children or parents. Unlike suppositions of consumer sovereignty in a free market, democratic education cannot suppose the same free choice between alternative visions of the good life when parents decide how to raise their children. Children’s conceptions of the good life are inextricably bound up with, even produced by, their parents’ communal attachments, as all reformers of American education have lamented.6 Since education has as one part of its mission the creation of a new community in the younger generation, the present community’s conception of the good life cannot be the overriding guide to curricular content, otherwise mere reproduction occurs. Communities necessarily form as well as frame individual values, but in a democratic system individuals must be collectively empowered to choose which of their community’s features they wish to reconstruct.

Inherent in the democratic ideal advocated by Gutmann and others there is a powerful critique of existing (nondemocratic) educational systems that, when they do not empower citizens for collective responsibility in social reproduction, turn schools into mere embodiments of prevailing values. These schools can do little more than transmit traditional norms, being only the extensions of existing communities. The typical school today, in this critique, is necessarily the reflection of preexisting community norms. Observers who are far more sympathetic than is Gutmann to “traditional” education take schools similarly as expressions of abiding community values. Alan Peshkin, for example, has studied school/society relationships in three midwestern towns. Peshkin’s ethnography clearly shows us schools that, as Peshkin would say, “maintain” the integrity of their communities. Thus, at Bethany Baptist Academy, to cite one of Peshkin’s cases, parents who share fundamentalist religious values sponsor a school in which their perspectives will be maintained and nurtured for the next generation.7

One question raised by our research was whether families’ relationships to schools could usefully be understood as one of community maintenance in Joshua Gap. Implicit in Gutmann’s critique of presently nondemocratic schools, and very clear in all of Peshkin’s ethnographic work, there is a straightforward hypothesis about that district’s confrontation over curriculum. The obvious interpretation of the conflict, indeed our working hypothesis when we began our study, was that an old agrarian community, imbued with traditional values and an all-too-common xenophobia, saw its schools as maintaining those values and reacted to demographic change defensively, in the ways that entrenched groups often react. We began our research by suspecting that the new curriculum, multicultural and international in its content, had threatened an old guard in the community, which then sought to prevent the influx of new residents from changing the existing values.

We ended our research, however, with a very different understanding of Joshua Gap, and of the relationship between communities and their schools. To anticipate, we found that opposition to the multicultural Impressions texts did not come primarily from long-time residents. Just the opposite: The leaders of the board recall movement were comparatively recent arrivals. Moreover, most of the opponents we talked to came from suburban Los Angeles, not from traditional small towns across America. Informants who expressed a longing to live in a place with “traditional family values” often felt themselves to have been deprived of traditions as children. Some were openly bitter about their experiences growing up, and they imagined a better life for their own children. We began to suspect that the Joshua Gap curriculum was not being contested because schools there served as maintenance organizations for a community with preexisting (i.e., traditional) norms. Schools were, indeed, organizations that were socially constructed by residents old and new, but schools were not the end of that process. Instead, we eventually understood that in Joshua Gap the concept of the community, like that of the nation, was itself imagined and constructed by members. The necessary by-product of this construction of Joshua Gap was a definition of the “foreign.” Viewed from this perspective, the recent attempt by the California Department of Education to construct new and broader concepts of the community, through multicultural texts like Impressions, conflicted with an ongoing imagination of traditional communities by families that—uprooted—attempt to define, ex nihilo, a new moral basis for their shared institutions. This conflict, we now believe, was a key element in the recall campaign.


The textbooks generating the recall movement were designed at least in part to meet social-content requirements of California’s Education Code. The broadest and most important requirements under the code are those of #60040, and concern the “Portrayal of Cultural and Racial Diversity.” This requirement states in part that

when adopting instructional materials for use in the schools, governing boards shall include only instructional materials which, in their determination, accurately portray the cultural and racial diversity of our society, including:

a) The contributions of both men and women in all types of roles, including professional, vocational, and executive roles.

b) The role and contributions of American Indians, American Negroes, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, European Americans, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups to the total development of California and the United States.

California imposes these requirements as responsibilities for the Curriculum Framework and Textbook Development Unit of the state’s Department of Education. That unit, based on the Education Code, then formulates its own guidelines and approves specific textbooks for purchase by school boards using state funds, or for optional purchase by districts from their unrestricted funds. The overarching concern of the unit is that, “in addition to providing positive experiences and encouraging aspirations, instructional materials should provide an image of a pluralistic, multicultural society in which any member of any cultural group is looked on as a unique individual.” The Development Unit has also interpreted the code in fairly specific terms for publishers. For example, in dealing with gender roles, publishers are cautioned that “both sexes should be portrayed in nurturing roles with their families” and “the gamut of emotions—e.g., fear, anger, tenderness—should occur randomly among characters, regardless of gender.” On occupations, “if professional or executive occupations, parenting, trades, or other gainful employment is portrayed, men and women should be represented equally.” The purpose of the requirements regarding religion is “to enable all students to become aware of and accepting of religious diversity while at the same time being allowed to remain secure in any religious beliefs they may already have.” But, aside from the concern to inculcate the value of tolerating diversity, one sees the term values mentioned only in the section entitled “Thrift, Fire Prevention, and Humane Treatment of Animals and People.” In this section, publishers are advised that California aims “to instill in all students certain basic values, particularly thrift and humane treatment, with fire prevention especially highlighted as a separate aspect of each of these values.”8

The Impressions series itself is a product of Canadian editors Jack Booth, David Booth, Jo Phenix, and Larry Swartz. Several parents seemed particularly upset about the folk stories and narratives contained in books for grades 4 and 5. Considerable material from the Native American experience is presented, including work by Paul Goble recounting native mythologies. In one story from a fourth-grade book, the protagonist saves his people by becoming a buffalo.9

On the fourth day the bulls made a sudden rush and pushed the tepee over. They rolled and rolled the young man in a wallow until he was covered all over with dirt. They squeezed the breath from his body and breathed new breath into him. They licked him and rubbed against him until his man-smell was gone. He tried to stand but he could not. He felt the robe become a part of him. When the bulls heard him grunting they worked even harder, tumbling him over and over. And at last, he stood on his own four legs—a young buffalo bull. That was a wonderful day! The relationship was made between the People and the Buffalo Nation; it will last until the end of time. It will be remembered that a brave young man became a buffalo because he loved his wife and little child. In return the Buffalo People have given their flesh so that little children, and babies still unborn, will always have meat to eat. It is the Creator’s wish.

Mitakuye oyasin - We are all related.

Many parents complained about this selection, which seemed to treat creation beliefs merely as cultural artifacts. One father pointedly wrote the school district that “we are NOT all related.” A fifth-grade book in the series contains more American Indian material, along with mythology from the Masai people of the Serengeti and the ancient Hawaiians. Japanese folk tales are included and, most disturbing to some parents, the true story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who survived the bombing of Hiroshima only to develop leukemia ten years later. Before her death, Sadako folded paper cranes, believing futilely that they would preserve her life. Some parents considered this story too negative, and said they would prefer more upbeat material for their children. Narratives of struggle and conflict are contained in the book: The story of Rosa Parks is accompanied by a photograph of Parks as she is being fingerprinted by a benevolent-looking policeman. The 1963 speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have a dream,” is included. Not only is material drawn from many different cultures, but in several places the editors introduce stories that present a direct challenge to children to see beyond their own surroundings.


In our conversations with school officials and with parents who objected to the use of Impressions, one striking contrast was in the degree of rootedness our informants felt to their own communities and families when they were growing up.10 The superintendent of Joshua Gap was raised in a small Indiana town, the son of a Methodist minister.

I was always exposed to all kinds of literature. There was nothing that was kept away from me at all. I was taught to process my own material, but I was pretty free as far as what I could read. I was a very avid reader. Books and literature . . . interacting with adults on philosophical issues, is all part of my background.

A common experience in the backgrounds of many school officials was having grown up in rural or small-town America and—ironically—having been raised in just the traditional moral climate favored by parents who opposed Impressions. Betty, the assistant superintendent for instruction, was seen by opposition parents to have been largely responsible for introducing the Impressions series into Joshua Gap. From an early age she worked on her family’s farm in Washington State, and now she remembers both her parents as extreme traditionalists.

I drove a truck with thousands of dollars of wheat in the back, and at age 12 I had a driver’s license. I had a lot of responsibility, because that was expected. And at age 18 we were expected to get married. There was no point in sending a girl to college. It was a total waste of money. . . . The bottom line of all this is that I think I broke away from some of the ideals that my family had.

Virginia is principal of one of the four elementary schools of Joshua Gap, and an advocate of the Impressions series. She grew up in a conservative family in Independence, Missouri, married at an early age, and returned to college only after her children were in school. During the early 1960s she taught in three different southern rural communities that were in their first stages of school desegregation. In retrospect she views her experiences there as formative ones for her professional orientation. She now assigns a broad role to public education, stating that

people certainly need to be productive citizens, but I think the purpose of public schooling is to make citizens in a democracy. I think it’s also to convey the culture to the students. And I think there’s a whole body of information that’s common to us all that we learn in school. We don’t get it outside of school. It has to do with historical concepts, the getting along with one another, the kinds of things you do in a group setting. This body of information would include literature as well as scientific advancements. It would include all that there is that makes us American, or citizens even of the world.

Stan is one of the small minority of Joshua Gap residents who actually were born there. Now an attorney, he first ran for school board as a college freshman, and except for his years away from the area while in law school has served continually ever since. When he is reminded that parents opposing him criticize the schools for being deficient in “community values,” Stan responds pointedly:

I think they want their values to be the community’s values. At least those people who I’m familiar with who support the recall are fairly recent newcomers to the community. I go back to a time when, walking up and down the boulevard with my dad [the town doctor] everybody knew who he was, and we’d go into a restaurant and they’d send the bill to his office. If I didn’t know them, they knew who I was [pause]. And there are a lot of people in town now who I just don’t know. I can go to a school district function now, an open house or something, and there’s just a lot of people . . . years ago I’d go to those things and I knew just about everybody around. I think the community has changed, and—perhaps—I have not reflected some of the new values that have come in town. And this is their chance to tell me to get the hell off the board.

Stan’s co-boardmember, Jenny, was also served notice of voter recall. On the school board since 1975, Jenn currently is employed as a travel agent. Although she attended a Protestant church-affiliated college in a small town in her native Illinois, Jenny converted to Catholicism after her 1951 marriage to a man of Czech descent. Like Betty, Jenny describes her own upbringing as extremely conservative; her marriage to a Catholic was a major blow to her parents. On her arrival in Joshua Gap in 1968, Jenny “found the people to be much more liberal in their thinking. I didn’t find the prejudice that I felt was very prominent in Illinois.” Religious faith continues to play an important part in her life. “I wish that every person would have some strong spiritual life as a part of their lives. . . . I do think that helps keep us on even keel, and helps us to keep going as human beings.” When Jenny talks about the role that schools play in moral education, she assigns families primarily responsibility:

I think the major responsibility is the home. When a child is born, from the very moment they come into the world values are taught in the home. Schools assist in that. . . . There are values taught in school. I think many parents would like the school to say, this is right and this is wrong. . . . Courtesy, patriotism, they are all taught in school. But the problem we’re having is that parents want the schools to take on the major responsibility. And I don’t think that is our role. Values should be taught at home, and schools supplement that.

Parents who objected to Impressions and sought to recall Stan and Jenny from the school board felt a moral vacuum in the school curriculum. Typical are the comments of John, who told me that he is “terrified of the liberal platform that’s infiltrating every factor of life almost to the point where there is no finite set of ideals or finite set of values anywhere because to moralize, to talk about values anymore is almost a threat to the fiber of the system.” What worries John, it emerges, is not so much the absence of values in the schools as the absence of “traditional family values.” Ironically, John’s view comes from a person who is quite conscious of and open about his own rootlessness in his community as he was growing up. John is the twenty-nine-year-old Jewish son of concentration camp survivors. John left his suburban Chicago home at an early age because of conflicts with his parents, arrived in Los Angeles alone, and worked in a jewelry store. There he met Marta, a Mexican-American woman; they were married in the same Catholic church now attended by Jenny. When asked about his current religious beliefs, John states that “mostly what we are is faithful, that’s all. We do believe in the Deity.” Asked how he would reconcile his decision to raise his son a Catholic with the importance he places on tradition and his own eight years of Hebrew school, John replies that “there isn’t a difference between the two religions. Of all the Christian religions I’ve been exposed to, Catholicism is really the most in-line” with Judaism. “I mean they still very much believe in the teachings of the Old Testament.” Traditions are important to John, but it is not necessary that they be those of his parents: his ranch-style house is decorated in colonial American motifs; John wears cowboy boots and a black leather vest during our interview; before I leave, he shows me an impressive collection of revolvers and Winchester rifles—many with frontier designs—mounted on a large display rack in the back room. John summarizes his concern about the orientation of the Joshua Gap schools by stating:

I received a document a while ago from the PTA which says that the public school is the cornerstone of a free and democratic society. To me this smacks of this liberalization the ultimate goal of which is to remove children from the family unit, to have a Unitarian society. . . . Traditional family values are under attack. That’s what I’m afraid of.

Debbie, a young mother who opposes Impressions, moved to Joshua Gap in the months just before the conflict. When asked why she has immediately become so concerned with this issue she responds:

One thing is that I wanted to be sure my children didn’t grow up the same way I did. That they didn’t grow up on the street, as I did. I grew up the hard way, pretty much knowing what life was all about at a very early age. Which I don’t think my daughter does, I think she’s much more sheltered than I probably was at that age. And I think that’s fine because I had a really hard time in my twenties. I’ve been through the drug scene and the whole thing. . . . My mom and I are really close, and Guss [her husband] is really close to his brothers, but we haven’t really maintained a large family. What him and I looked at when we went into having kids is: let’s try and get some of that for our family, even though we don’t have that to carry on and give to them.


Related to the conscious construction of a community by new arrivals to Joshua Gap is their imagination and placement of its boundaries. Stan, the lifelong resident and board member cited earlier, has an inclusive definition:

This country has been here as a country for a little over two hundred years, but literature goes way beyond that. . . . The world’s literature is made of a lot more than just the United States. There’s a bigger society out there than just Joshua Gap, just California, just the United States. The world’s getting smaller, and people need to recognize that. And this [Impressions] is one way that people recognize that, by gaining an appreciation of Canadian, European, Japanese stories.

By contrast with Stan’s internationalism, articulated by a person who grew up in Joshua Gap, there is the bitterly nationalistic, perhaps even racist leanings of Earl, who was one of two men selected by opposition parents to represent them in the recall election against incumbents Stan and Jenny. A banker, Earl had moved his family from suburban Los Angeles to Joshua Gap during the preceding year in hopes of finding a quieter and more traditional community. Recently, Earl withdrew his son from the school headed by Virginia and placed him in a Christian Academy. Earl describes his own upbringing:

When I was five [in 1957] I moved to Pomona. Pomona was a nice community. It was a bedroom community. The city had a lot of pride. We got to know everybody. We could ride the bus. My mom could drop us kids off at the bus stop and we went anywhere. When we moved a couple miles away, I worked at a little convenience store, and I got to know everybody. . . . But Pomona became a targeted town. The NAACP targeted Pomona as a Black town. They sent people out from Mississippi and Alabama to Pomona and it became a predominantly Black town. . . . It became a targeted town for the Black movement or the integration movement or whatever you want to call it.

Later in my conversation with Earl, he spoke about the problems with the Joshua Gap curriculum, stating, “I think the goal in education today is to have this world outlook, to focus in on everybody else. You can look at kids today, and there’s less patriotism than ever before. I’m not saying do away with Europe and Asia and Africa and what not. I think you need some of that. But if you look at the Impressions books it’s very heavy toward the international. Very light on the national.”

Contrast Earl’s concerns about international content in curriculum with the orientation of Virginia, who is principal at the school formerly attended by Earl’s son: “I’ve never understood the distinction between being a citizen of the United States and a citizen of the world. It seems to be caught up in a lot of nationalism,” Virginia characterizes the Impressions critics as believing that “we should guard against those outside influences that are represented by other countries and regions of the world. . . . There were a lot of people who filled out the [complaint] form, and a significant number indicated something like ‘one-worldism.’ ”

Board member Jenny also does not understand the objections by Earl to the international dimension of Impressions. “Much of it is multicultural,” she acknowledges, “authors of other nations, different stories some we have never read before. I find them fascinating.” Early in the investigation of charges about the books, Jenny recounts, she spent an entire weekend reading each grade-level book.

I was in another world. It was beautiful; it was a beautiful world. Yes: there is some sadness, some stories about death. But I felt that the content was excellent. And what an opportunity to enrich our lives. . . . That’s where I come from. And I will stand by that until you throw me out of here. It’s time for opening our minds. One of their leaders has said he thinks we should have nothing but basic skills in the classroom, no discussion, and no opportunity for imagination. [crying] Horrors! Horrors! What’ll happen to our children if they’re not allowed to discuss, not allowed to think? What will become of those children?

Bill is a tax preparer by profession who, in one of the small-town intimacies of the recall battle, rents office space from Jenny. Along with Earl, Bill was chosen by opposition parents to run for school board against Jenny and Stan. His background and his reasons for moving to Joshua Gap are similar to those of Earl. Bill explains,

The main reason we came out here was to find a nice quiet environment because we didn’t care for living in the city. Both my wife and I were raised in Glendale. . . . It was real quiet, and it was a highly segregated community. . . . If you were a black person, you had better be out of town by 6:30. And the only black people who were on the streets by six were maids going home. They didn’t have any of the huge, giant bank buildings that they have now. There wasn’t any of the malls or galeria or any of that stuff. It was just a real quiet community. When I go back to Glendale now I just don’t recognize it any more! Because it is just so vastly different from the way it was in terms of buildings, and there’s a lot more commerce now. Also, uh, there’s a lot more foreign people now. In fact, when we went back to my wife’s 20 year high school reunion, there was a teacher at Glendale High who was in her graduating class, and she was noting some of the things that were so drastically different. There was an Arabian club now, and a Japanese club, and the Anglo-Saxon population dropped dramatically down to about 20 or 25 percent or something like that. It was just amazing how different things were. [quickly] Not Bad “different,” just different. I suppose it would be Bad different for me because it’s just a lot more crowded now than it was then. . . . Now I see the same growth happening up here that was happening down there.

Feelings about the multicultural curriculum seemed to find a spontaneous outlet when parents talked about the war in the Persian Gulf. Earl is emphatic on this point:

You’ve got to stop a man like Saddam Hussein. Let’s Impressionize the Gulf War. The teacher would have said: well I gave the kids both sides. There’s no question that Impressions would have taken an anti-war stand. I’ll tell you; I’ll be honest with you: when we went over there and bombed the daylights out of them that first day, I almost cried. Because it was: Alright for America!!! That’s gonna build the image of America, and repair a lot that we lost in Vietnam. You’re not gonna get that kind of loyalty and that kind of patriotism in Impressions. It’s my understanding that in some of the curriculum that’s coming down from Sacramento in the next few years you’re gonna find a total lack of patriotism. It’s gonna be Afro-American, Japanese American; they’re going to do away with the national flavor.

Linked with the imagining of the “national flavor” is the imagination of the community of Joshua Gap. Pete is the best representative of a man who has come to Joshua Gap precisely to build an alternative agrarian life to the one he witnessed in suburban Los Angeles. He introduces himself as an apple grower. Currently he has ten acres, and he has built his own house on that land. To make ends meet, he sells insurance as a sideline. He would like to “establish a theme so that as development and growth occurs we could enhance that theme,” like in Colonial Williamsburg. The problem, of course, is that Joshua Gap has no agreed-upon past. Pete argues that “we could implement a thematic growth policy” for Joshua Gap, and “through a historic designation or something of that nature, establish a theme such as was done in Julian [a “pioneer” village near San Diego]. The same thing could be done in Joshua Gap. We could establish a historical theme” so as to “become the scenic route to Palm Springs.” As an example of what he has in mind, Pete mentions the freshly renovated “Carls Jr.” hamburger restaurant in town. “When they built their new compound they did it in Americana style.” Pete continues,

I want to see that Joshua Gap not go the way of every other California suburb. I’m telling you, Dave, I can’t stand to be on the 91 Freeway at 8 or 9 o’clock at night and moving 5 or 10 miles an hour. That is no humane way to live. I watched Sunnymead, and Moreno Valley when it was a cornfield go the point now at 1 o’clock in the afternoon I can’t get on the boulevard without waiting 10 minutes. I don’t want to see Joshua Gap go that way.

Desires to establish a community theme and manage the physical development of Joshua Gap are the concrete expressions of a deeper imagining and construction by opponents of Impressions. As Debbie explains her own goals in settling there, “We thought we could move up here and maybe slow down a little bit. This was a rural area and they had a good value system up here. We felt that the schools really supported the community and that they worked hand in hand together. And we thought: this is gonna be a good place for our children; this is the picture that we want. We go: oh, that’s us, you know?”

Traditions and rootedness are most important, we began to suspect, for those Joshua Gap families feeling most unsettled. John, working energetically in the recall campaign, edits together with Pete an anti-Impressions newsletter, the Sentry. When he describes his collaborator and new friend, John advises me that, “as you talk with Pete you’ll get a good feeling of a deep-rooted family history out here. Pete has been out here forever.” In fact, during my conversations with Pete, it is clear he has a similar high regard for John. Although Pete describes himself as a conservative Christian (he is a lapsed member of the Latter Day Saints), Pete respects what he considers to be John’s deep Judaic traditions. “He’s a Talmudic scholar,” explains Pete in earnest. “Who’s going to tell him that a 23-year-old teacher is more qualified” than he is to make curricular choices? John and Pete can imagine each other in similar terms. Yet despite his years of compulsory Hebrew school, in fairness John probably would not describe himself as a Talmudic scholar; and, far from having been in Joshua Gap “forever,” Pete moved in 1978 from the suburbs.


From our interviews with parents who opposed Impressions and who therefore sought to recall Stan and Jenny from the school board, we began to suspect that “old-timers” were not primarily the persons whom the district’s new reading series made feel most uncomfortable. Our original working hypothesis, as we began our study, drew on a conception of schools as community maintenance organizations. We were prepared to find that the social content guidelines established by California for school curriculum had collided with a deep-seated moral economy in Joshua Gap, pushing past their limits the long-time residents, who were already concerned about the growing influx of arrivals from Los Angeles. Our survey of voters in the November 6 election sought to test our original surmise.

We randomly selected five precincts in this survey, and we then distributed 420 questionnaires to persons who had just voted and who were leaving these precinct polling areas. Voters were also given addressed, postage-paid envelopes. Eventually, 156 completed survey forms were returned to us. Of these 156 respondents, 63 (or 41 percent) indicated that they voted to recall Stan and Jenny; 93 (or 59 percent) voted not to recall them. These figures differ by less than 2 percentage points from the actual results of the November 6 election, in which 42 percent of the vote was to recall the board members. Thus, we can proceed under the assumption that persons voting for recall were neither more nor less likely to return their questionnaires than were persons voting against the recall. In other words, we can assume that the sample of voters who returned their questionnaires to us is representative of the larger population of voters in the November 6 recall election.

As we examined the simple relationship between survey questions and the percentage of respondents who voted to recall Stan and Jenny, we could find no support for two popularly held beliefs about Impressions opponents. First, in most media accounts parents opposing Impressions have been regarded (and too often dismissed) as motivated purely by fundamentalist religious belief. The “Religious Right” is seen as chiefly responsible for the organization of Joshua Gap’s recall movement, in particular.11 Table 1 shows that most voters (80 out of 144 respondents) believed that “prayers should be part of the school day again.” Yet even in this group favoring prayer in school, only a minority voted for recall: just 44 percent. The difference in the percentages voting for recall between persons favoring prayer in school and the minority of respondents who said “prayers should not be encouraged in public schools” was only 13 percent (44% - 31%).


Another prevalent belief held by Joshua Gap teachers and administrators was that persons opposing Impressions were largely an uneducated group. The opposition, it was thought, reflected an extreme provincialism and an ignorance of other cultures. Table 2 presents the percentages of respondents who voted for board recall for five different levels of educational attainment. No important differences are seen between these levels, and we thus can find no support for the suspicion that voters’ educational levels may have influenced their decisions.

Much less surprising to school district personnel than these preceding low associations with recall support, we do find a strong association between the tendency of respondents to vote for recall and their views about the general purpose of schooling. In our sample, most persons agreed that “schools need to open children’s minds to many different cultures,” as can be seen in Table 3. Of the eighty-nine voters who did agree, only 11 percent sought to recall Stan and Jenny from the board. On the other hand, among the forty-nine respondents who believed “schools should teach children mainly the basic skills,” 86 percent voted for board recall.



Strong relationships were also found between the vote for recall and the respondents’ reasons for moving to Joshua Gap (see Table 4). Among voters who had deliberately come to the area looking for a “traditional community with strong values,” 68 percent sought to recall Stan and Jenny from the board. Only a minority of those who gave other reasons for moving voted for recall. Not surprisingly, given what we had heard from our informants, there also was a close relation between the voter’s prior residence and the desire to recall board members: Persons who had moved to the community from suburban Los Angeles were much more likely to vote for recall than were persons moving from other locations (see Table 5).


Most provocative among our findings was that respondents who believed that Joshua Gap was “still a quiet haven” were not likely to vote for board recall. But, as seen in Table 6, those who thought the town to be “growing and dynamic” were far more likely to oppose Impressions and favor board recall. The fears expressed by Bill and by Pete make this relation quite understandable. Bill warns that he now sees “the same growth happening up here that was happening” in the suburb of Glendale, his original home. Pete, with his apple orchard and his hand-built farmhouse, is dedicated to making sure that Joshua Gap “not go the way of every other California suburb.” When we cross-tabulate voters’ descriptions of Joshua Gap with their place of prior residence, a pronounced interaction is seen between the two variables, as can be seen in Table 7.

For persons originating anywhere but from suburban Los Angeles, the likelihood of voting to recall the school board was unrelated to their perception of Joshua Gap. In this group, only 38 percent sought to recall school board members, and the decision to vote “Recall” was not related to whether they believed the town was “growing and dynamic” or was “still a quiet haven” (there is an insignificant difference between 37 and 39 percent). Among voters who did move from suburban Los Angeles, on the other hand, the decision to recall board members had everything to do with their perceptions of the way Joshua Gap was developing. Past suburbanites who continued to view the town as a peaceful haven tended to support the present school board; only 14 percent voted for recall. Perhaps these voters were not overly concerned about the effect of Impressions on the community because they saw its values to be fairly secure. However, voters who had moved precisely to get away from the congestion (and ethnic diversity?) of suburban Los Angeles voted overwhelmingly to replace the school board if they thought their new community was in danger of becoming just another suburb. Among prior residents of Los Angeles suburbs, 70 percent voted for recall if they perceived Joshua Gap to be “growing and dynamic.”


All of these relationships can be tested in a causal model, as we have done in calculating logistic regressions on the odds of voting to recall school board members. The factors discussed above affect the odds of voting to recall at levels that are statistically significant (see Appendix A). The exceptions to this are the respondents’ educational attainments and their opinion about school prayer; these variables have no significant effect on the odds of a recall vote. Persons who moved from the Los Angeles suburbs in search of a traditional community were likely—especially when they saw growth in Joshua Gap—to recall two longtime board members, including one of the town’s political leaders who was actually born in the community.

Joanna, the wife of Earl, had like her husband come to Joshua Gap during recent months searching for a quieter and more settled community. In the intensity of the recall campaign she cautioned that “we can’t change the world. To think one person can do that is pretty idealistic. But we can keep our little corner clean. And our little corner is Joshua Gap.”



The modern historical period, in freeing individuals from the comfortable rigidity of traditional society, is marked by an ongoing invention of our ideas of community and nation. Rousseau, who first used the term modern in its contemporary sense, also gave us our first images of urbanization as a social whirlwind (le tourbillon social) from the Paris of Emile. In another context, one of Rousseau’s characters finds, on moving from countryside to the urban noncommunity, that he confronts a world wherein “the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, truth, virtue, have only a local and limited existence.” The protagonist feels “the drunkenness that this agitated, tumultuous life plunges you into. With such a multitude of objects passing before my eyes, I’m getting dizzy . . . I forget what I am and who I belong to.”12 Marshall Berman, commenting on Rousseau’s modernist vision, writes that “this atmosphere—of agitation and turbulence, psychic dizziness and drunkenness, expansion of experiential possibilities and destruction of moral boundaries and personal bonds, self-enlargement and self-derangement, phantoms in the street and in the soul—is the atmosphere in which modern sensibility is born.”13

Out of this modern sensibility come our still operative conceptions of nation, community, and—paradoxically—tradition. As Ernest Gellner has observed, simpler societies, with their highly structured ascriptive roles, leave little room for the collective choice and individual fancy that are necessary for traditions to become seen as such. Trivially, it is of course the case that pre-modern societies “have” a particular culture, but the symbols of culture (if indeed they are perceived as symbols at all by their bearers) play comparatively minor parts in the regulation of social intercourse. By contrast, Gellner writes,

There is a kind of inverse relationship between the importance of structure and culture. In a highly structured society, culture is not indispensable. Where relationships are fairly well-known (because the community is small, and because the types of relationship are small in number), shared culture is not a precondition of effective communication. In the stable, repetitive relationship of lord and peasant, it matters very little whether they both speak (in a literal sense) the same language.14

This inverse relationship gives rise to another: “the inverse relationship between the ideology and the reality of nationalism. The self-image of nationalism involves the stress of folk, folklore, popular culture, etc. In fact, nationalism becomes important precisely when these things become artificial. Genuine peasants or tribesmen, however proficient at folk-dancing, do not generally make good nationalists.”15 Only when the elements of culture are deliberately imagined as a whole, as a tradition, is nationalism possible. Gellner therefore concludes that nationalism creates nations, not the reverse.

Benedict Anderson elaborates on this idea by defining nations as “an imagined political community: imagined both as inherently limited and sovereign.”16 The modern conception of a nation is limited in the sense that no nation imagines itself to be coterminous with mankind. Boundaries are necessary for its definition. Thus, one meaning of Joshua Gap can be found through the broader, ongoing imagination of its definition. In the construction of group solidarity ex nihilo, in the invention of traditions and in the imagination of community, there is a concomitant image of what is alien or foreign. These two faces of nationalism, clearly, are what constitute both its seduction and its horror. In a lecture delivered in Belfast several years ago, Eric Hobsbawm asked his audience to imagine themselves in the positions of extraterrestrial visitors to the late planet earth after its final world war. Sifting through wreckage from the last holocaust, errant Martian archaeologists would remain baffled about causes of the calamity until they could come to some understanding of the term nation.17 Joshua Gap, likewise, can be little understood without attending to the construction of an idea—no less opaque or compelling—of “community.”

The dynamism so apparent in the defining of Joshua Gap is pervasive, perhaps even characteristic of the American experience. At least since the immigration of Crèvecoeur, Americans have been busy at work building not only the structures but the foundations of their organizations. During roughly the same time period when Rousseau was capturing the modern turbulence of Europe, Crèvecoeur in Pennsylvania asked,

What is an American, this new man? . . . He is an American who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. . . . The American is a new man who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. . . . This is an American.18

Thus, in the new American republics, the individual disorientations brought on by the modern age and the collapse of traditional roles met a collectivist response, one imbued with all the progressive optimism of the Jeffersonian period. Citizens’ social as well as political identities, it was radically proposed by Crèvecoeur and others (Rush, Coram, and Webster, as well as Jefferson), were to be developed in relation to organizations which they themselves had created.19

We have given this proposal a decidedly mixed response. The longing by Joshua Gap parents for a less universalistic community—one that is more closely defined, more traditional, and even more agrarian—is not a reaction merely to the predicament of Los Angeles, or even to the twentieth century. In 1820 Washington Irving already was depicting an idyllic Sleepy Hollow, where the “population, manners, and customs remain fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant change in other parts of this restless country, sweeps them by unobserved.”20 Leo Marx has seen this pastoral ideal as one constructed chiefly in opposition to the ideal of technological progress, but perhaps American social uprootedness and fragmentation play their roles as well.21 However this may be, the American tradition of venerating a communal agrarian past is itself more venerable than some of the traditions thus being venerated. In the twentieth century this veneration was already in full swing by the 1920s, with the southern Fugitive Poets as perhaps its most provocative as well as evocative leaders. The aesthetic of their appeal remains strong to many. Donald Davidson evokes one general Fugitive theme:

Randall, my son, I cannot hear the cries

That lure beyond familiar fields, or see

The glitter of the world that draws your eyes.

Cold is the mistress that beckons you from me.

I wish her sleek hunting might never come to be—

For in our woods where deer and fox still run

An old horn blows at daybreak, Randall, my son.22

The lyricism and imagery in Davidson’s lines strike common chords in the aspirations of many fugitives from urban sprawl. In the case of Davidson, who in later years became a leader in the struggle to prevent desegregation of the Nashville schools, the association seems particularly close, and it reminds us of a darker side to agrarianism and the traditional community in the United States. As Gutmann has observed, those who would criticize liberal individualist political theory for its lack of any foundation in shared community values are like innocents who want us to live in Salem but not to believe in witches.23 The traditional community, as in the case of colonial New England, was perfectly capable of imbuing individual identity with meaning and, at the same time, repressing totally all real or imagined deviations from the values that must be “shared.”

In seeking to avoid this repression by tradition, Americans continue with the building of their organizations’ foundations as well as administrative structures. Oftentimes it is the very babble of diversity that makes them that much more anxious to get the job done.24 For us as educators this poses a considerable headache, one not often acknowledged, as we theorize about the democratic governance of schooling. To the extent that communities and schools are imagined and constructed moral institutions, rather than simple aggregations or reflections of preexisting (i.e., traditional) views of the good life, they confound attempts to apply liberal individualist criteria for evaluating their degree of democracy.

Today’s schools in Joshua Gap are not organizations “maintaining” the integrity of preexisting norms. Instead, they embody an ongoing struggle over the definition and construction of a traditional community. Whatever the result of this struggle, Joshua Gap’s schools will help to structure and define the potentialities of their students, as well as a vision of tradition.25 Thus, at least in that new city, a responsive democratic theory has to accommodate, not so much competing individual values, but competing designs for constructing a community of shared values.

This research was completed while I was on the education faculty at the University of California-Riverside, and I am grateful to my colleagues and students there for valuable assistance, especially that of Steve Clinton, Doug Mitchell, Ken Murdock, and Stephanie Palmer. Useful comments were also provided by Benedict Anderson, Katherine Bowie, and Gary Crow. Most of all I am indebted to my informants in Joshua Gap for their patience and insightfulness.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 4, 1992, p. 673-696
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 259, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:35:29 PM

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